One of the things I have appreciated about Kenneth Bailey is the background he gives on Jesus work and ministry. There is a common perception of Jesus as “blue collar” folksy carpenter with tremendous insight and a quick mind. In actuality, the more accurate picture of Jesus is a well educated scholar/laborer. We mistakenly read back into New Testament culture, our expectations of what a scholar looks like. Bailey points out that scholars in Jesus day were expected to work at practical occupations. (Jacob and the Prodigal, 22-25) Being engaged in practical work was considered fundamental to scholarly purists. So what kind of scholarly training did a carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth likely have?
Bailey writes that by Jesus day, serious Jews organized themselves into associations meaning haberim (“the companion/friends.) It was taken from Psalm 119:63, “I am a companion [haber] of all who fear thee; of those who keep thy percepts.” The associations consisted of men in various trades who spent their time debating the law, theologizing, and making applications to daily living. Bailey says that a young teenager was given the option of joining. Doing so meant making a public commitment to studying scriptures and the works of the rabbis. Men who opted not to join the haberim were called am ha-arets, which meant “people of the land” and there was considerable hostility between the two groups. (Jacob and the Prodigal, 22-25)
Everything about Jesus’ teaching reveals that he was well trained in metaphorical theology and in the modes of conversation common to men of these associations. “Rabbi” was a term given to teachers in these associations and it was a term used by the community for a scholarly sage. Several times in the gospels Jesus is referred to as “Rabbi,” surely indicating that he was a premier member of the haberim. Far from being a folksy sage, Jesus was a teacher who had possibly spent as many as eighteen years scholarly debate and application.
Therefore, when we read passages in scripture of Jesus confronting the scribes and Pharisees (who also joined the haberim) we read of a gifted scholar who knows full well how they think and theologize. He has been hanging out with them, or people like them, for two decades. His parables and metaphors do not spring out of nowhere. They have been honed by his participation in the lives of scholars.
For our present purposes, we can no see how masterfully Jesus took the Shepherd and sheep metaphor from the Old Testament and held it up as mirror for the Pharisees to look into. Jesus parables in Luke 15 reveal the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the love of the father, our role in repentance and a host of profound theological ideas. Below I have posted a comparison of the Shepherd stories. Below is a table assembled by Bailey that shows the parallels between the stories. I wrote in an earlier post that the parable about the lost coin is also is the lost sheep story transferred into the daily lives of women. The first four columns below are Baileys and I have added the fifth. (Source: Jacob and the Prodigal, 70)
I invite you to look this table over and reflect on what you think Jesus was doing with this metaphor. Tomorrow I will relate some of Bailey’s observations and begin to brings us around full circle to the “Compassionate Father Parable.”