Theology – Parables

Mining the Parables – The Lost Coin (Chapter 1b)

Lost Coin

The Parable of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep are two parts of the same parable. The Lost Sheep is considered Part “a” while the Lost Coin is considered Part “b.” The audience, plot and ending are quite similar. I considered grouping these together in one chapter, but thought it wise to keep them separate as there are subtle and unique differences between the two. The text is found in Luke 15:8-10 and is as follows…

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Jesus begins this section in like manner by asking a similar rhetorical question. This is done not only to acknowledge the women in the audience by directing a question to them (as opposed to the men in Luke 15:4), but also to parallel the man from the Lost Sheep with the woman from the Lost Coin. Jesus is the true picture of the man in the Lost Sheep parable and the church, his bride, is the true picture of the woman in this, the Lost Coin, parable. The Lost Sheep parable speaks to Jesus’ loving concern and care for the sheep which was lost, while the Lost Coin parable speaks to the church’s diligence in reaching the lost as she turns the light on and sweeps the house diligently to find the coin. Both the sheep and the coin are representative of the unrepentant sinner. One particularly important difference is the value assigned to the coin when compared to the sheep. The sheep was 1 out of 100 while the coin was 1 out of 10. We will see next week, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, that the value is further increased to 1 out of 2. This is important because as humans, we are likely to think losing 1% is small and insignificant in size, so it could be easily withstood. Now considering the woman and her coins, 10% is a much larger hit and thus a more difficult loss. Now thinking ahead to next week, 50% is a huge hit and thus splits a family. As Jesus continues, the value he places on the unrepentant sinner increases.

Much has been discussed concerning the true meaning behind the light and the broom and while it may lend to reading too far into the parable, I think it is safe and helpful to say that they are the tools in which we, the church, are given to help find the lost. The heavenly tools the church is given to work repentance are found through the proclamation of the law and the gospel. The law both condemns and exhorts to good works while the gospel gifts freedom from the weight of the law and motivates one to strive toward good works. Both proper preaching of the law and the gospel are necessary proclamations to bring the unrepentant sinner to true repentance. Therefore the true church searches diligently for the lost through the preaching of the law and the gospel.

The resulting celebration upon finding her lost coin elicits a similar response to that of the man finding his lost sheep. Overwhelming joy.  Sadly, the result that caused great rejoicing in heaven only garners murmuring and malcontent from the Pharisees (Luke 16:14) in the presence of Jesus as he spoke these very parables. By telling this parable to a crowd full of sinners, Jesus uses the very same tools as the woman used to find the coin; the law and the gospel. This is the job of the church; to utilize these tools as the means to call lost sinners to repentance.

The message of the Parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin deal with repentance. Each of the following parables build on what follows after repentance. Please tune in next week for “Chapter 2 – The Prodigal Son.”

 

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Mining the Parables – The Lost Sheep (Chapter 1a)

Lost sheep

This week will begin a series of interconnected parables that build upon each other. The series will start with Chapter 1a, The Parable of the Lost Sheep which is found in Luke 15:3-7. In the preceding text (Luke 15:1-2) Jesus finds himself preaching to sinners and tax collectors while the Pharisees looked on with scorn and ridicule as they attempt to condemn Jesus simply for ministering to these outcasts. Jesus, knowing the hearts of all men, begins to tell a series of parables that masterfully minister to both crowds simultaneously. The first parable he tells is that of the lost sheep.

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Addressing the full crowd, Jesus asks “What man of you…” This question sets the stage to be answered individually by all. The answer had to be “yes” from all in attendance as this was standard practice for those who owned sheep. It was common practice to leave the flock in an open field to find the one that strayed. Jesus’ implication is that as they do for lost sheep, how much greater is it that he does for lost men. Much ink has been spilled reading all sorts of theological ideas into this parable that simply are not present in the text. Many stories are told about an arduous journey that the shepherd makes through canyon and summit to find this poor little sheep. That idea is simply adding to the text. The better analogy is found in Genesis 3:9 where God calls to Adam “Where are you?” Equally so, it has often been suggested that the shepherd bears great pains and severe burden to carry the lost sheep back to the flock. This too is implied as the parable merely says that the shepherd lays the sheep on his shoulder, rejoicing, and thus carries him back to the flock. This parable makes a better case for the shepherds heart being more burdened by the realization that the sheep is lost than by the physical burden of carrying the sheep back to the flock. The parable ends by likening the straying sheep to a heart of unrepentance.

The most difficult part of the parable to understand is the phrase “99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” Precisely who is Jesus talking about here? Is he saying that the Pharisees are indeed righteous and need not repent? The key to understanding this is found in the beginning of his declaration.  Jesus says “…there will  be more joy…” This is important because it points to the fact that there is also celebration for the 99 that did not stray. As pointed out, straying is likened to unrepentance, and therefore staying is likened to repentance. Thus the 99 do not need repentance because they already have it. This declaration was directed at the hearts of the undesirables and Pharisees alike. The Pharisees sought righteousness by strict adherence to the law, but Jesus is calling that idea into question by saying that repentance is actually what delivers righteousness; not works. This picture would have cut the Pharisees to the quick.

This leads to the necessity of setting an objective definition of “repentance.” Repentance has two parts; contrition and faith. Webster defines contrition as “the state of feeling remorseful and penitent.”  Therefore, repentance begins with the realization of being lost without anyone else to blame.

It is God’s call to each of us as if we were Adam in the garden.

It is God saying “Jonathan, where are you?”

It is the reckoning of a righteous God.

It’s knowing that I messed up and that I am responsible.

Contrition prepares the heart to receive faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” True contrition cultivates the heart, plowing the way of salvation and planting faith. Faith always has an object and therefore looks to Jesus as the assurance that contrition hopes for. Thus faith is the passive hand of a beggar that passively accepts the gifts of Christ as a passive response to what contrition has wrought. John 1:13-14 says…

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Faith is a gift born from the will of God. Ephesians 2:8-9 carries this forward giving the reason “…so that no man may boast.” This all fits precisely within the parable. The sheep doesn’t realize that he is lost of his own accord, nor does the sheep desire to return to the flock on his own accord. The sheep is simply lost. The sheep’s owner finds the sheep and carries him back to the flock. The only role the sheep played was getting lost. All the work was done by the sheep’s owner and therefore what does the sheep have to boast about? If the sheep must boast, let him boast in his master (1 Corinthians 1:31).

The Greek word that is translated as repentance is μετάνοια (metanoia) which means “change of mind.” Repentance is simply that. Contrition forces realization of the dire circumstances of the soul and gifted faith grasps the promises of grace purchased by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sadly, our sin nature is ever present as long as we inhabit these earthen vessels. All of us are prone to wander and will continue to forsake our gracious heavenly Father each time that we give into our sinful flesh. It was by no coincidence that the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is not a one time deal in the Ordo Salutis, but is exemplary of the new life in Christ. Thanks be to God that he calls each of us to repentance and by thus, restores us to his flock. Therefore let us look upon repentance as the great and gracious gift that it is.

Tune in next week for “The Lost Coin (Chapter 1b)”

 

Mining the Parables: The Barren Fig Tree – Luke 13:1-9

barren fig

The Hammer of God is a little known classic within Christian literature and the fact that it flies under the radar is indeed sad.  The book consists of three novellas, all which paint the picture of church life from a pastoral perspective.  In the first novella, titled “The Hammer of God”, Giertz introduces the reader to a young curate named Savonius.  Savonius preaches the law with great ferocity, but fails to ever comfort souls with the healing salve of the gospel.  This results in a reduction of sinful living within the community, but also begins to breed an air of self righteousness in many congregants and an internal sense of overwhelming desperation within Savonius as he begins to realize the depths of his own depravity.  One day a cobbler named Anders visits Savonius to seek counsel about his brother who lives with him.  Anders is angry that his brother is drinking whiskey in his home and desires Pastor Savonius to give advice on how to coerce his brother to stop.  Savonius asks if his brother is in the habit of being a drunkard. Anders says no,  but expresses anger that his brother has the audacity to openly drink in front of him. Sovonius replies by asking if Anders would prefer his brother to drink alone where temptation could more easily overtake him?  Anders, frustrated that he isn’t getting anywhere with the pastor, abruptly storms out.  Savonius’ questions were purposefully pointed to show Anders that the true problem didn’t lie with his brother or the whiskey, but with himself.  Self righteousness is synonymous with unrepentance and this is what Savonius attempted to help Anders realize. Todays biblical text is Luke 13:6-9, “The parable of the barren fig tree.”  The contextual setup for the parable is found in Luke 13:1-5 and is remarkably similar to the dialogue between Savonius and Anders.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

In these opening verses, Jesus finds himself in the midst those reporting the atrocity of Pilate desecrating the temple sacrifices.  At this time Pilate was fighting against the Galilean zealots.  These zealots were top priority for Pilate as their motivation was to promote unrest in gaining support to rally the Jews toward insurrection against Rome in an effort to ultimately gain full independance. Pilate was consumed with ridding these zealots from his territory at any cost.  In seeking shelter from Pilate, some zealots sought safe haven in the Jerusalem temple, a place they assumed Pilate would not dare go out of reverence for Jewish religious laws.  Not only did Pilate pursue the zealots into the temple, but also slew them in the temple, thus mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices (which were for atonement from sin).  This was a terrible act of desecration which nullified the sacrifices that were tainted with human blood.  Jesus’ response to the report is very insightful.  Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus knows the heart of his questioners.  His questions are motivated by a desire to aid the questioner in their understanding, not because he is looking for the answer.  Jesus knows that these reporters are telling him this story out of self righteousness instead of remorse.  This is why he responds by asking them if they thought those slaughtered by Pilate in the temple were worse than all other Galileans.  He knows their heart and thus calls them to repentance saying that apart from repentance, they will die in like manner.  This statement is fascinating when understood in the context of what happened concerning Pilates desecration of the sacrifices.  Self righteousness always looks both inward, to prove that we are checking things off of our list, and downward, at others when their sin is exposed.  Repentance comes through the realization of our sinful state by resting in the person and work of Jesus.  Thus, if these reporters reject repentance and cling to self righteousness instead, they are ultimately choosing to rely on their work rather than on Jesus’ salvivic work alone thus desecrating the sacrifice that Jesus will earn for them by his death and resurrection.  Jesus continues to press this issue further by speaking of a tragedy that killed 18 people when the tower fell at Siloam.  Jesus is saying that it is not the manner in which one dies that matters, only the condition of their heart.  Whether a person dies in a car crash, is murdered or succumbs to cancer is spiritually immaterial.  The only thing that matters is where their faith rests.  Saving faith always rests in the person and work of Jesus and always bears the fruit of repentance.  Saving faith is the antithesis self righteousness.

To further paint this picture to the reporters, Jesus tells them a parable in verses 6-9.

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Some theologians attempt to divorce this parable from the previous 5 verses because on the surface, the narrative in verses 1-5 seems detached from the theme of the parable.  However,  a careful study will prove their theories incorrect.  The parable begins with a man who owns a vineyard and plants a fig tree in the vineyard.  The owner planted the tree with the purpose of bearing fruit, but each time he checks on the tree, he sees that it fails to bear fruit.  The owner then contacts the vinedresser, explains the situation and tells him to cut the tree down as it is merely wasting profitable space. The vinedresser petitions the owner to wait it out the rest of the year so he can once more give the tree the best opportunity to bear fruit, but that if tree continues to be barren, he will then cut it down.  With this understood, it is now time to reveal the parable cast.

The Man…..God the Father
The Vineyard…..Israel
The Fig Tree…..Jerusalem
The Fruit…..Repentance
The Vinedresser…..Jesus Christ
The 3 Years…..The collective ministry of the preparatory work John the Baptist and the fulfillment in Jesus Christ
The current year…..Extension of grace that carried through from the time of this parable through Jesus’ death and glorification.

God the Father owns a vineyard.  This vineyard was initiated by God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15 and realized through Jacob and his 12 sons in Genesis 32 when God changed his name from Jacob to Israel.  After many generations of nomadic living and temporal instability, God then plants his presence, through the building of his temple in Jerusalem which makes it the spiritual center of the Jewish faith.  Eventually through sin, Israel breaks into two kingdoms and only a remnant is faithful.  The remnant is taken into Babylonian exile with God’s promise of rescue after 70 years.  After 70 years, God keeps his promise and rescues the remnant, however, their spiritual exile continues until the Messiah comes.  This prophecy is consumated in the preparatory work of John the Baptist and completely fulfilled in the redemptive office of Jesus Christ.  John comes preaching repentance, and Christ, at his Baptism, engulfs John’s ministry and propagates it.  Christ continues to preach repentance.  This means that the vinedresser (or the one who cares for, nurtures and inspects both the condition of the tree/vine and its fruit) is Jesus Christ and the fruit that both he and The Father are looking for is repentance.  The collective ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ was 3 years up to the point of this parable and the remaining year carries forth until Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus is most concerned with the unrepentant hearts of these Jewish reporters.  He is seeking the fruit of repentance, but they are yielding none.  Jesus will continue to preach repentance to them until his time comes.  This understanding adds all the more meaning to Matthew 23:37 where Jesus says ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is the picture of the vinedresser talking to the fig tree at the end of the final year saying that he cared for and nourished it as much as he was given time to do, but that it ultimately refused to produce fruit and thus must be cut down.  Ultimately, this picture is not reserved just for Jerusalem alone, but is a picture of our sinful, hardened, self righteous hearts.  Repentance is the fruit that Jesus looks for in each of us. Repentance is not self righteous, but instead is naked agreement with our righteous God as we turn from sin and admit His ways alone are right and true.  Repentance also is not something that is done once, but is continual in the life of the Christian.  Just as the fig tree continues to bear fruit until death, so too will the Christian.  This fruit is not something that is forced, but comes out of our new nature which was gifted to us.  Therefore repentance is ultimately a gift.

As the first novella in “Hammer of God” comes to a close, the reader is never told what becomes of Anders.  Did he eventually recognize his self righteousness and repent or did he continue down the road that leads to  hardness of heart?  I suppose we will never know and while Anders is merely a fictional character in a book written long ago, the hardened heart he displayed is alive and well in each of us from Adam forward.  Each time the sun breaks the plane of a new day, the battle once again rages.  Self righteousness is our natural, fleshly preset. So although Anders may have never existed, his attitude is all too familiar. The call to repent is not only to the Galilean reporters, Jerusalem or to Anders.  The call to repent is directed to each of us as we go forth in this life. The first of Luther’s 95 Theses says it best. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In 1 John 1:8-10 the Apostle writes…

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 

Let us therefore confess our sins daily with great eagerness. This is the perfect picture of a fig tree that is no longer barren.