Now, there’s a much more subtle point that Jesus makes, that the teachers of the law would likely have picked up. In the Psalms, nearly every metaphor used for God is about his power, his strength, and his holiness. But three metaphors are used of God’s gentleness —
(Psa 23:1-3) A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
(Psa 131) A song of ascents. Of David. My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. 3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.
(Psa 103:13-14) As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
David compares God to a shepherd, a mother, and to a father to show his gentleness and compassion. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about eating with sinners —
(Luke 15:4) “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lo”st sheep until he finds it?”
(Luke 15:8) “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?”
(Luke 15:11) Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.”
God is compassionate toward his people — even the sinners — as a shepherd cares about each of his sheep, as a mother guards a coin, and as a father loves an irresponsible son.
In the Old Testament, God speaks harshly of the people’s leaders, calling them bad shepherds.
(Ezek 34:8-9) As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
By comparing himself to a good shepherd, Jesus implicitly compares his critics to the wicked shepherds in Ezekiel who did not search for God’s flock — leading to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The parable surely stung.
Barclay notes that married women in the First Century wore ten coins on a chain, rather as women today wear a wedding ring. The coins were so important to a woman that they couldn’t be taken from her, even to pay a debt. The loss of a coin was not only a financial disaster, it would be deeply embarrassing that she failed to protect this symbol of her marriage. Imagine her husband coming home and asking how she could have lost the coin had she not taken the necklace off — and why take it off?!
Jesus taught at several levels at once. If we abstract the parables, reducing them to: “God loves people” or “God wants all to be saved,” we lose much of the message. The message is rich and complex, and bears repeated study and reflection at multiple levels. We must hagah the lesson — not reduce it to abstractions.
RVL says that the Jewish approach to the parable would be to ponder it for months, asking daily, “Did I live the parable today? Which character in the story was I?” It’s much more than a life-application moral at the end. It’s to enter the story to try to see myself through God’s eyes as Jesus reveals God to us. Hagah the story.
Church of Christ application
I grew up in the Churches of Christ. I attended David Lipscomb College. And when I finished college, my view of Jesus was that he came to earth to teach some simple moral lessons and to die on the cross so we could be saved via the Five-Step Plan of Salvation. Our job is to pursue God by getting the steps exactly right and then living a moral life, centered on regular church attendance involving 5 acts of worship. These parables were conventionally interpreted to mean that our churches should have “lost sheep” ministries to recover members who’ve become irregular in their attendance.
Jesus tells us that, rather than sitting back and waiting for us to repent and come to him, God pursues us, even to the point of suffering humiliation. God searches furiously and desperately for sinners, like a wife searching for her lost coin in a dark room before her husband gets home and asks how she could have been so careless! God goes into the desert alone, searching for a sheep for fear that the sheep might die — even though the shepherd, wandering the wilderness alone at night, puts himself in danger of hyenas and lions. He risks his own life for the sheep who can’t survive without him.
God does not, as a condition to saving us, give us challenges and tests to see whether we truly love him. God leaves the comfort of heaven to seek those who need him — even though they are impenitent sinners who no more deserve his forgiveness than the prodigal son. God is willing to be humiliated by eating with sinners — in a culture where eating with someone implies acceptance. God is willing to risk the embarrassment of running toward an impenitent son, embrace him, and wrap him in new clothes, because he can’t bear being separated.
Jesus is God. Jesus tells us and then shows us who God is. And yet we play the role of the elder son, resentful that the Father may actually forgive those less obedient than we. We feel unappreciated when God lavishes his love on sinners, and wonder where our kid goat is? Haven’t we been loyal? Haven’t we followed the rules? Why would the Father embrace those who don’t try as hard as we do?
As a result, we re-interpret God to be a God just barely gracious enough to approve us, and certainly not gracious enough to approve others. Our God is a God who waits on people to come to him in perfect obedience to all five steps. Our God keeps his pride … his dignity. Our God would never eat with sinners.
And yet … and yet God came to earth, took the form of a man, and suffered shame and humiliation, showing us his true character. And the lesson is that we should be like God.
The character in the story we should play is someone who used to be like the older brother but is now like God. And like God, we should be looking for prodigal sons, on the road but not yet all the way home, rushing toward them to embrace them, showing them a grace far beyond anything they imagine they deserve. And if we suffer embarrassment because of it, that’s good. It just makes us that much more like Jesus.