Offending the Pharisees


Luke 15: 1-10 

St Andrew Indooroopilly September 2019 

Offered by Mervyn Thomas 

Today’s Gospel reading is short, and at one level very simple. God  loves us all. Every human being is precious to him. No one is beyond  redemption, and God will search us out against all the odds. God  will never give up on us. He will find and restore us. And that is  good news. For someone who gets it wrong as often as I do, that is  great news! So that’s the first, and more important sermon over.  

Now let’s consider what else we might find in the passage. There  are, I think, some nuances here that are well worth considering.  The passage is very dense – full of meanings that require us to  understand something of the social context. 

The literary situation for the parables is a familiar one in Luke. The  tax collectors and sinners draw near, and the Pharisees criticize  Jesus for accepting them: “This man receives sinners and eats with  them.”  

Let’s remind ourselves about the tax collectors for a moment. In  this province the Roman empire operated using tax farming. The  word used for tax collectors is telonai – which means tax lease  holders. A group of people, the, in Latin, the Publicani leased the  right to collect taxes. This is the origin for the phrase sinners and  publicans from the King James Version; it has nothing to do with  pubs and hotels. The publicani pay heavily for the privilege of being  tax collectors for a region, and that is how the empire gets its tax  revenue. The publicani then have the right to collect taxes from  within the region, and to keep them. That is how they get their  return on capital. 

Obviously, the publicani want to get the best return they can on the  money they invest. And the way they do that is by systematically  undervaluing the goods they receive, by extortion, and by operating a sort of state-licensed protection racket. They are much more like  the Mafia or the Triads than they are like the Australian Tax Office. 

It is an early example of government out-sourcing creating a  private monopoly – rather like Macquarrie bank and Sydney airport. 

That would be bad enough if you were a Roman citizen. But the  Publicani are operating in occupied territory. They are Jews  collaborating with a ruthless foreign power, they have turned their  back on their own people and they are using the occupation to get  rich. 

These are not pleasant people; these are not decent people; these  are not people with integrity. They are blood sucking state sponsored gangsters. And they are hated. They are hated with good  reason.  

The Pharisees complain “This man receives sinners and eats with  them.” The phrase `and eats with them’ is of fundamental  importance here. This is not the controlled, professional spiritual  guidance of a teacher to someone seeking help. In pastoral training  today we hear a lot about maintaining boundaries, about not letting  the personal intrude into the pastoral relationship. If Jesus was  doing that, if He was talking with the tax collectors in the  synagogue, maintaining his status as teacher, and theirs as  penitents, the Pharisees would not have had a problem. From their  perspective it is the job of the righteous to instruct the unrighteous,  and they should know – they do it all the time. 

But that isn’t what Jesus does. He accepts the tax collectors as they  are, dishonest, immoral and corrupt. He meets them as full human  beings; he enjoys their hospitality. He doesn’t respect the  boundaries of the situation. His relationship with them is not that of  the professionalized spiritual advisor. It is deeply personal. Quite  frankly Jesus would fail Chaplaincy 101. But, as we see elsewhere in  the Gospel, it is this profoundly human encounter with Jesus that  brings the tax collectors to repentance – not the detached  moralizing of the Pharisees.

Now let’s turn our attention to the parables Jesus tells in response  to the Pharisees. Luke recounts two: one of the shepherd finding  the sheep, and one of the woman finding the coin. That is so typical  of Luke; there are paired stories: one involving a man and one  involving a woman. Luke structures his material in this way time  and again. Matthew gives us the story of the shepherd and the  sheep; but he doesn’t mention the woman and the coin. Matthew  is much less likely than Luke to recount anything that shows women  in anything like equality to men. Women don’t matter very much in  this society. I’m not suggesting here that Luke made up this parable,  rather that Matthew chose not to include it. 

Using a woman as an image of God is bad enough for that time and  place, but Our Lord is even more confronting than this. In the  parable Our Lord says that the woman has 10 coins. The word used  in the Greek is drachmae. A drachma had the same value as a  denarius, used elsewhere in the Gospel. It corresponded to the  wage for a day laborer. Using the Australian minimum wage as a  guide, that amounts to about $150 in contemporary terms. The  coins are almost certainly meant to be the woman’s dowry; perhaps  they were worn on a string, or sown into her headdress. Rich  women would have strings and strings of coins. This woman has  only one string. Her entire dowry would be valued at about $1,500  in today’s money. This is a poor woman, in our terms: a battler,  struggling to survive in difficult economic times. 

So Our Lord is doing something quite shocking. He is using the care  and determination of a marginal and poor woman as an image of  the Love of God. Unimportant for two reasons, her gender and her  poverty, this woman nevertheless reveals the determined care of  God for us all. 

Now let’s think about the lost and found sheep. Here it is the  shepherd whose actions teach us about God. But a shepherd was  not an important person in first century Palestine. Shepherds lived  at the edges of society. They were rough and often violent men,  usually desperately poor. We know something of contemporary  attitudes to shepherds in the Holy Land and indeed throughout the  Roman Empire from the literature of the time. 

The Jewish oral tradition, the Mishnah, which was written down at  the end of the second century but has much older oral roots, says: 

Let not a man bring up his son to be a donkey-driver, nor a  camel-driver, nor a barber, nor a sailor, nor a shepherd, nor a  peddler; for their occupations are those of thieves. 

The pharisees accuse Our Lord of consorting with immoral and  dishonest people, and they are right – He does! But He counters  with two images of the care and generosity of God – both using  unimportant people at the edge of society, and neither of whom is  worth any respect. Our lord is really pulling no punches here, not  only does he reject the Pharisees’ morality, but he says God is like  this too. Our Lord is deliberately offending the pharisees. 

So where does that leave us? I don’t know about you, but I am a  boringly respectable man. I have been married to the same woman  for forty four years; the only crime I ever committed was when I  misread a parking sign outside the cathedral – and I felt very  ashamed about that. My sins lack even the virtues of originality and  enthusiasm. They are mostly about petty, small-scale self centeredness; and the trivial dishonesties of every day life. 

But what Our Lord says to me in this parable is don’t you dare  confuse that conventional respectability with righteousness, and  don’t you ever seek to limit God’s Grace from the self-serving  perspective of your own complacent respectability. And yet, God  help me, I do it all the time; it is the besetting sin of religious people  throughout the generations. 

And so I pray: 

Lord Jesus Christ, shock me today as you shocked the Pharisees  long ago. Shake me out of my complacent self-satisfaction. Open  my eyes to see not sinners but your wandering lost sheep, and give  me the grace to understand that I am one with them. Find me Lord,  and bring me home. 


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