Luke Chapter 15:1-10

This is the famous story of the Lost Sheep. It is unique to Luke. There is no real legitimate reason to believe that Luke did not compose this story himself. To the best of my knowledge, most scholarship would attribute this to a tradition that somehow preserved this story intact, but bypassed Mark & Matthew. Now, being honest and blunt, this is entirely possible. Since nothing was written about Jesus until the 50s, but, truly about Jesus, until the 70s, there were doubtless numerous strands of tradition about him. Paul tells us as much when he decries the Thessalonians for succumbing to “another gospel”. Indeed, that was part of the contention with James, brother of the lord: they had different messages, which, I suspect, went beyond Jewish dietary laws and circumcision.

So why not attribute this to the L Source? This is how the Q proponents account for the material unique to Luke; the material unique to Matthew has been dubbed M. While this is possible, it seems unlikely that there was a trove of material floating about that only Luke discovered. And part of the argument is that L and M were oral traditions; only Q was written. It is possible, indeed probably, that such traditions existed. What is unlikely, and highly so, is that these traditions actually traced back to Jesus. Much more likely is that different communities came up with their own set of stories, just like different areas came up with their own episodes for the Arthurian legends. However, while possible, I believe this does a disservice to both Matthew and Luke. Both evangelists were men of some erudition, and each crafted a gospel that fit in with his particular view of Jesus. These views were not always entirely consistent, but they worked towards consistency; I suspect the process reaches apotheosis with John, but we’ll find out when we get there. For now, let’s turn to the



1) ησαν δὲ αὐτῷ ἐγγίζοντες πάντες οἱ τελῶναι καὶ οἱ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἀκούειν αὐτοῦ.

2 καὶ διεγόγγυζον οἵ τε Φαρισαῖοι καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς λέγοντες ὅτι Οὗτος ἁμαρτωλοὺς προσδέχεται καὶ συνεσθίει αὐτοῖς.

There were approaching to him the tax-collectors and sinners to hear him. (2) And muttering were the Pharisees and the Scribes, saying that, “He receives sinners and eats with them.”

That Jesus consorted with publicans and sinners is found in all three gospels. It is very tempting to see this as authentic tradition. It does not exactly square with the idea of Jesus being a magician; these latter usually sought out the more substantial members of society who were able to pay for their services. Then, OTOH, it does not say that Jesus was consorting with the poor, but with sinners. Publicans were notoriously wealthy, attaining this wealth by squeezing taxpayers for more than the required amount. The Roman Empire outsourced tax collection to private contractors in the free market. Would-be publicans bid on how much they would collect, and Roman officials accepted the highest bidder. The contractor then had to squeeze the public for an amount over and above the contract amount in order to realize a profit. That these successful contractors were generally wealthy indicates their efficiency and ruthlessness in collection activities. IOW, if you think the government is rapacious, see what happens if this gets outsourced. And there are proposals out there that this should happen. 

So is this an an accurate description of Jesus’ behavior? That may strike many people as an absurd question. Of course he acted this way. That’s what the NT tells us he did. It’s one of the bases of the Christian ideal. The problem with this assessment, of course, is that we have no evidence for Jesus’ behaviour. The NT does not provide anything close to an actual historical record. Matthew and Luke both tell whopping big lies in their birth narratives*; so, from the start, we should be very selective about taking anything they say at face value. Because what kind of sinners were these people? Well, Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Except nowhere are we told this in the NT. This was part of later tradition. There was the woman who anointed Jesus with the perfume, who the Pharisees tut-tutted was a sinner, by which *nudge-nudge wink-wink* we’re supposed to infer a prostitute; however, nowhere is this woman called Mary Magdalene, and she is not called a sinner in any of the other versions. Matthew uses the word “sinner” five times, and three of them are canned phrase “publicans and sinners”. It’s enough to make one wonder if part of the reason Jesus was reviled by the Jewish establishment (if, indeed, he was) had more to do with him hanging out with tax collectors than ‘sinners’ per se. And interestingly, hanging out with publicans would have been pro-Roman behavior; IOW, instead of railing against Rome, he was chummy with the collaborators. Makes one wonder about the whole zealot thing. Or, it should.

This is a huge topic.

1 Erant autem appropinquantes ei omnes publicani et pec catores, ut audirent illum.

2 Et murmurabant pharisaei et scribae dicentes: “Hic peccatores recipit et manducat cum illis”.

3 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην λέγων,

4 Τίς ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ὑμῶν ἔχων ἑκατὸν πρόβατα καὶ ἀπολέσας ἐξ αὐτῶν ἓν οὐ καταλείπει τὰ ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ πορεύεται ἐπὶ τὸ ἀπολωλὸς ἕως εὕρῃ αὐτό;

He said to them this parable, saying (4) “What person of you having one hundred sheep and losing of them (a single) one does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and seek upon the lost one until he may find it?

Have to pause a moment for a couple of minor issues. The first is verb tense. “Which of you does not leave…until he may find…” The tense of the first is present indicative active. IOW, standard present tense. In English, we would be more apt to say, “which of you would not leave…” That is subjunctive to express unreality or uncertainty that such a thing has or will happen. The second, “may find”, is a subjunctive and has been rendered as such here. The point is that Greek verb tenses do not always translate one-for-one into English. There are frequently times when the tenses within the narrative are inconsistent, switching back and forth between present and aorist. There are rules about this…sort of. The purpose of all of this is to be careful when someone starts lecturing on how the verb is an aorist and uses this as justification to trot out a whole bunch of implications. Be very wary of any conclusions about meaning based on a disquisition of an aorist tense.

The second point is the word “wilderness”. This is the word used of the Baptist to tell us he was “in the wilderness”. The root is “herm–“, as in “hermit”. The first Christian hermits lived in the wilderness. The base meaning in Greek is “alone”. The “lone individual lived an alone life in a lonely place”. Translated: “the hermit lived a solitary life in the wilderness”. Aside from the KJV, all my crib translations render this as “open pasture” or something such. In our world, “pasture” has certain connotations that are wholly lacking in the Greek word. The point is that there was a lot of empty space between towns or settlements, and it was common practice to take your herd into this empty space. This is the sort of historical information that a text like the NT can provide very reliably because it’s so inadvertent. This is why we can discuss things like whether Jesus was a collaborator with the Romans. Or, if he was seen as something along those lines by some of the Jews. 

3 Et ait ad illos parabolam istam dicens:

4 “Quis ex vobis homo, qui habet centum oves et si perdiderit unam ex illis, nonne dimittit nonaginta novem in deserto et vadit ad illam, quae perierat, donec inveniat illam?

5 καὶ εὑρὼν ἐπιτίθησιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους αὐτοῦ χαίρων,

6 καὶ ἐλθὼν εἰς τὸν οἶκον συγκαλεῖ τοὺς φίλους καὶ τοὺς γείτονας λέγων αὐτοῖς, Συγχάρητέ μοι, ὅτι εὗρον τὸ πρόβατόν μου τὸ ἀπολωλός.

7 λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὕτως χαρὰ ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ ἔσται ἐπὶ ἑνὶ ἁμαρτωλῷ μετανοοῦντι ἢ ἐπὶ ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα δικαίοις οἵτινες οὐ χρείαν ἔχουσιν μετανοίας.

“And finding, he places it on his shoulders rejoicing, (6) and coming home he calls together his friends and relatives saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, that I have found the sheep having been lost’. (7) I say to you that in this way there will be rejoicing in the sky upon the sinner having repented than upon the 99 just ones who did not need repentance”.

Take a look at the Latin below and note the bolded words. They literally mean “doing penance”. This is a very different concept than the meaning of the Greek, which is to “repent”. The same distinction between the Latin and the Greek occurs very famously in Mark 1:15. There, in the Greek, the Baptist/Dunker calls on those hearing to “repent” or to “be penitent”. In the Latin, he calls upon them to “do/make penance”. This distinction in translation had serious implications for the development of the Western Church that read the NT in Latin. This translation into Latin led to the Catholic doctrine of Penance, of doing penance assigned in Confession. When Erasmus went back to the Greek in the 15th Century and corrected the translation, changing it from a noun to a verb, this had a major impact on Martin Luther. Recall that Luther was incensed about the practice of selling indulgences, which were a means of lessening the amount of penance that had to be done to atone for one’s sins. In Luther’s mind, there was no way one could keep up with the ongoing demands of doing penance for the constant stream of sins one committed. However, if the injunction was to repent, or to be repentant, then the whole equation changed. Overall, the development of the Church in the West had a lot to do with the Latin, rather than the Greek, NT. It’s a very different set of concepts. That the Church discussed the doctrine of gratia rather than charis had significant influence on the doctrine, since charis lacks the connotation of “free” that exist in the Latin gratia. And too, the Greek word “logos” has very different lexical field than the Latin word verbum. Language matters. To my mind, it’s not surprising that the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches occurred; the remarkable part is that they held together as long as they did. And even then, the final rupture was as much political as it was religious, or doctrinal.

Upon my first reading, the question of what “happened” to the lost sheep that is found again rose in my mind. How are we to understand the concepts of  being “lost”, and then being “found”? The awesome hymn Amazing Grace provides wonderful insight into the meanings of these words, but the song was written nearly two millennia later. It describes how we view being “lost” and “found”. Part of the purpose of this blog is to determine what the author may have meant when using the terms. Of course, the answer is, seemingly, provided in the last verse where Luke talks about rejoicing in the sky. Of course, “sky” is the immediate meaning of the word, which Christians will translate as “heaven”, or even “Heaven”; however, it’s always good to remind ourselves of what the Greek word used actually means. In this case, “heaven” is legitimate as it was used in that sense since the time of Homer, just as we use the term “the heavens” to mean simply the sky. Presumably the rejoicing in heaven will include the rejoicing of the father who is in the sky. So presumably, we are to understand “lost” and “found” in the sense that the awesome hymn Amazing Grace uses the terms. Or can we?

That degree of uncertainty is exactly the point. We think we know. We may think it’s blindingly obvious. But it’s really not. The lost sheep has been found, and it has reunited with the flock; but where? In heaven? Or on earth? The Jewish conception of salvation was corporate; the Chosen People; the flock, not the individual, and not necessarily in an afterlife. So a return to that corporate body would be a cause for rejoicing by the denizens of heaven, but that would have been true in Jewish thought several hundred years earlier, too. What has changed here? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps the salvation of the individual was just assumed by this point. One thing that we must constantly remember when we read these texts is that we’re reading them. For the most part, Luke’s audience would not have done that. They would have listened, while someone else read. Then there likely would have been a follow-up discussion, perhaps including a Q&A period. That’s largely how learning worked, even through the Middle Ages, at the newly-founded universities. The Master read aloud and then the students discussed under the guidance of the Master. In both cases, there would have been additional exposition on the text. This is where the Catholics were horrified by the idea of vernacular Bibles, because then just anyone could read the thing without having the guidance of a learned teacher who understood what was “really” meant. This is why the Catholics insisted on the validity of The Tradition. These were the lessons handed down by Augustine and Tertullian and Clement, who, as Bishop of Rome, theoretically got it, ultimately, from Peter. The line of succession was Peter, Linus, (Ana)Cletus, Clement…The this was recited every Sunday during the Consecration part of the Mass. It’s interesting because I was having a FaceBook discussion with a friend I’ve never met about the number of times Jesus spoke of being saved, in the common, modern sense. I rattled off a few cites, and then mentioned a few more where it was understood. This was one of the examples I used. The thing is, I hadn’t translated and commented on this section fully, so I may have jumped to some unwarranted conclusions. 

So, what do we know? If by know, we mean as a certainty, the answer is all too often ‘not as much as we think’. The Protestants who rejected the tradition in favor of individual inspiration probably retained more of that tradition than they realized or intended.

We’ll come back to this shortly, when we get to the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is coming up shortly.

5 Et cum invenerit eam, imponit in umeros suos gaudens

6 et veniens domum convocat amicos et vicinos dicens illis: “Congratulamini mihi, quia inveni ovem meam, quae perierat”.

7 Dico vobis: Ita gaudium erit in caelo super uno peccatore paenitentiam agente quam super nonaginta novem iustis, qui non indigent paenitentia.

8 Ἢ τίς γυνὴ δραχμὰς ἔχουσα δέκα, ἐὰν ἀπολέσῃ δραχμὴν μίαν, οὐχὶ ἅπτει λύχνον καὶ σαροῖ τὴν οἰκίαν καὶ ζητεῖ ἐπιμελῶς ἕως οὗ εὕρῃ;

9 καὶ εὑροῦσα συγκαλεῖ τὰς φίλας καὶ γείτονας λέγουσα, Συγχάρητέ μοι, ὅτι εὗρον τὴν δραχμὴν ἣν ἀπώλεσα.

10 οὕτως, λέγω ὑμῖν, γίνεται χαρὰ ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀγγέλων τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ ἑνὶ ἁμαρτωλῷ μετανοοῦντι.

Or a certain woman having ten drachmas, if she should lose a single drachma, will she not light a lamp and sweep the house and search diligently until she found it? (9) And having found it, she calls her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, that I found the drachma that I lost’. (10) Thus, I say to you, be happy before the messengers of the lord upon one sinner having repented.

A couple of things. First, up until this point, I haven’t been as punctilious about getting the verb tenses to agree with the Greek. Shame on me, especially when I want to help new learners. Second, the word for “lighting”, as in “lighting a lamp” is aptō; perhaps the root of “apt” is apparent.

But the other thing is that this is where I’m supposed to tell you what a drachma was worth. My apologies, but my sense of currency exchange is lacking for this time and place. I do know that in Classical Athens, two obols was considered a day’s wages, and that there were ten obols in a drachma. Based on that rate, a drachma would represent a week’s wages– assuming a modern five-day week, which is simply anachronistic. The five-day week did not become the norm until the early 20th Century. Still, it was a decent amount of money; as a single sheep represented a decent amount of money. So in both cases, there was ample reason for the one having lost either to search. If you lost $100 USD bill, you would spend some time looking for it. And $100 USD would probably not buy you a sheep in today’s money. 

The minor economics lesson aside, the point is that, in either case, an individual sinner is worth a substantial amount to the denizens of heaven.

Now on to the Prodigal Son.

8 Aut quae mulier habens drachmas decem, si perdiderit drachmam unam, nonne accendit lucernam et everrit domum et quaerit diligenter, donec inveniat?

9 Et cum invenerit, convocat amicas et vicinas dicens: ‘Congratulamini mihi, quia inveni drachmam, quam perdideram’.

10 Ita dico vobis: Gaudium fit coram angelis Dei super uno peccatore paenitentiam agente”.

* Matthew: the Slaughter of the Innocents is not historical. Something this heinous would have left some mark in the historical record. Luke: that Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the census– which seems to have a pretty solid basis in history. The idea that people had to uproot themselves from their occupations and return to an ancestral home from centuries before is patently absurd on its own merits. Plus, once again, there is no historical corroboration.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 20, 2019, in Chapter 15, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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