Jesus was a metaphorical theologian in the tradition of the rabbis of his time. He may have spent as much as eighteen years prior to initiating his itinerate ministry as part of the haberim, a local community of Jews devoted to the study of the scripture. Rabbis typically drew on the rich wealth of stories and themes in scripture, and on the teachings of other rabbis, to fashion their own metaphorical instruction. I have related a few passages where Jesus uses family and household metaphors in passing. I have discussed what is almost certainly Jesus version of the household code in Matthew 19 and 20. But when we see Jesus employing metaphorical theology in its most developed form, did Jesus have the idea of fictive family and household at the center of his theological understanding? While the evidence may elude our Western minds two millennia later, the answer is most assuredly yes!
We are going to look in depth at one of the defining parables of Jesus' ministry; what the church would come to call the Evangelium in Evangelio (the gospel within the gospel.) It is the parable found in Luke 15. Note the first three verses:
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: (Luke 15:1-3, NRSV)
We go on to hear about a man who finds his lost sheep, a woman who finds her lost coin, and a man who finds his lost sons. Yet these three stories are called a “parable” in the singular. They are a unit. They are three mutually reinforcing articulations of the same truth.
Also note the audience: Pharisees and Scribes. Kenneth Bailey instructs us to take special note when we see this type of confrontation develop. This is not Jesus, a country bumpkin, engaging the religious sophisticates. This is Jesus, a peer of the religious sophisticates, sparing with them on their own terms using their own tools. This is the equivalent of theological heavy weight boxing match. If all you come away with from Jesus' teaching in these circumstances is some trite advice like “be nice to others,” then be sure you have missed the point of the parable.
These circumstance and this parable are no exception. Jesus is drawing on imagery that dates back centuries into the Old Testament, the image of God as Shepherd. You may ask what on earth does God as Shepherd have to do with family and household? Much. But we need to dig back into the three Old Testament passages and examine them to understand the images Jesus was drawing on. We will be looking at:
Much of this review will be coming from two sources by Kenneth Bailey: Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 and Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. We turn now to Psalm 23.