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This chapter looks at the way Jesus saw his ministry, with a focus on “The Good Shepherd” and “The Prodigal Son”. It also explains some of the religious background against which this ministry took place.
Jesus described himself as “The Good Shepherd”with remarkable humility for someone well aware of his place in history. Shepherding was the lowest paid, most menial of all the jobs on the farm. Who was “The Good Shepherd”?
Luke 15:1 records how one day, when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law started grumbling:
“This man welcomes outcasts, and even eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has 100 sheep and loses one of them, what do you do? You leave the other 99 sheep in the pasture and go looking for the one that got lost, until you find it. When you find it, you are so happy that you put it on your shoulders and carry it back home. Then you call your friends and neighbours together, and say to them 'I am so happy I have found my lost sheep, let us celebrate!' In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 respectable people who do not need to repent.” (Good News Bible)
The most famous shepherd in Jewish history was of course David. We are told he was the youngest son of his father Jesse, and therefore the most junior. His open air life out on the mountains, guarding his father's sheep, no doubt with the help of others, led to the rugged visual appearance which so attracted the prophet Samuel. David had become famous as someone who had killed a mountain lion and a bear. He was therefore extremely courageous and even prepared to risk his life in protecting his father's property. He was well known for being a good shot with a sling. (1 Samuel 17).
In Jesus' day, King David had become for the Jews an extremely emotive figure, partly because of his great personal courage demonstrated so often in the Old Testament in the stories of his conflicts with King Saul, and subsequently his great victories against Israel's enemies. It was under his rule that Israel became a significant political force in the region; ever afterwards, Jews looked back on his reign as the greatest years of their history. As representative of the people, the King led worship before their God, and it was David who wrote the greater part of the Psalms and was known for being a fine musician. The hoped-for and expected Messiah was anticipated to be a King like David – so Jesus referring to himself as “Shepherd” would strike quite a number of different chords for his hearers. It helps to explain the very large numbers of people who flocked to hear him.
In the account of “The Good Shepherd” in John's Gospel (John 10:7-18) the parable describes the shepherd as the owner of the sheep, that is someone with a very special interest in their safety. Presumably this most accurately describes Jesus' own sense of responsibility for those who are his.
Bailey has researched shepherds and how they work in the Middle East and has produced a clear picture of what shepherding involved in the poorer communities out in the countryside.27 We should understand that people did not have bank accounts, they had animals. Because each family had few, and they were extremely valuable to them, their stock would occupy part of the family dwelling at night.
Neil, J., “Everyday Life in the Holy Land”, CMJ, p. 56 “Interior of a Fellaheen House – Early Morning in Winter” painted by James Clark R.I.)
Sheep and goats represented a family's wealth. The animals themselves were like family pets known by name as individuals, and not simply as a small part of a large herd. Shepherds, in the main, would have been hired men, charged with the responsibility of caring for the family's wealth out on the hills. The shortage of vegetation in the mountainous areas meant that village groups would collect their animals together to be cared for by shepherds who would all be accountable for every single animal. For a group of 100 sheep, Bailey thinks about 15 shepherds would be required to guard them against brigands, thieves, and wild animals. Animals from both Central Europe and Africa might include European brown bears, and even small leopards, in the sparsely populated areas of the Middle East at that time. Shepherds were the lowest social class in the village. Due to the shortage of pasture, shepherds and sheep would travel a considerable distance from their villages, and at night would have regular places consisting of stone enclosures in which to pen the sheep for safety.
At a “Bible Come To Life” exhibition put on in Bristol by C.M.J. (The Church's Ministry among Jewish People)a few years ago, there was a graphic description of shepherding. The sheep fold would be constructed of dry stone walling, and when the main walls were complete, tiny pebbles would be put along the top. If a thief or a wild animal were to attempt to get in during the night, the small pebbles would be disturbed and clatter down, alerting the shepherd to the intruder. We also learned that sheep prefer to drink from still, rather than running water, so small pools would be dug alongside a stream to allow them to drink. As they entered the pen at night, each would have to pass under the staff of the shepherd, and he would examine it to check its well-being, putting olive oil on wounds or giving a drink if need be . (Psalm 23 – “He leads me by still waters... thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” etc.) One of the shepherds would then sleep across the entrance to the sheepfold, effectively forming a human door – this may explain why Jesus said “I am the Door”(John 10: 7, 9). The “Bible Come to Life” exhibition also had a shepherd's pillow on display, a beautifully shaped piece of olive wood, polished through years of use, which fits snugly into the neck and is in fact very comfortable.
“Everyday Life in the Holy Land” by James Neil, CMJ, p. 30, painted by James Clark R.I.)
Small groups of sheep would wander away from one another guarded by one of the team of shepherds. Maybe if one of the team fell asleep during the day, it would be easy for a sheep to go missing. It would only be at the end of the day, as the sheep were counted one by one into the stone pen, that the shepherds would discover that one of the hundred was missing.
A missing sheep must be found and accounted for, dead or alive. Proof would be needed that the shepherds had not sold or eaten the animal themselves (Exodus 22:10-14). It is dusk, the mountains are remote, and the sheep may well have been killed by a mountain leopard. Which of the shepherds would dare to go? Searching for the lost sheep is courageous and dangerous... it could be life-threatening. Most of them have already settled down for the night by the pen, one sleeping across the entrance. It is getting late. The shepherd who goes must be prepared to do the unpopular job, perhaps risk his life, but be a means of possibly rescuing the sheep alive, and certainly saving the reputation of his colleagues. Jesus is teaching “I am that shepherd. I have come for the lost of the house of Israel, for the people of God who know they have lost their way”. He sees the other shepherds as those Teachers of the Law and others merely interested in performing the religious rites in the synagogues or in the Temple, attracting praise for themselves but not actually achieving much.
I have heard this parable presented many times, once by a great internationally famous evangelist, as speaking of a God who – like the Good Shepherd – left the 99 defenceless and went off to search for the lost one. It is said that “God is absolutely mad to do this, to leave the 99 defenceless, and he does it because he loves you so much”. This explanation cannot possibly be right, because God is not like that. He is neither irresponsible nor mad. Nothing can separate us from God (Romans 8:38-39). “The Lost Sheep” story in Luke, and in Matthew 18:12-14, could be read in that way, due I suspect to their economy of words (writing it all out by hand). However, we should remember that they were writing this account in the late 40's or early 50's for readers who were well aware of shepherding practices in the Middle East at the time. Bailey's exegesis (glossary) set out above is therefore extremely helpful in giving us a very valuable insight into the parable, and the issues Jesus was addressing.
Bailey also points out that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son stories in Luke 15 are a defence of Jesus' table fellowship with sinners. A rabbinical injunction stated “Let not a man associate with sinners even to bring them near to the Law”.28 Notice that Jesus used despised people groups to illustrate his point – shepherds, women, and swineherds – the latter in particular being the ultimate disgusting occupation for a Jew – see later section in this chapter.
Remember Jesus is talking to a small group, describing how he sees his ministry in relation to the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. We see his explanation very clearly in the conversion of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) which I shall be describing in Chapter Seven of this book.
This can also be understood in terms of Jesus seeing his ministry as reforming Judaism, and even as his movement remaining within Judaism. J. A. T. Robinson (see Bibliography) considers that the book of James is very early, and that it was written by James the Lord's brother, who remained as leader of the Church in Jerusalem until his murder in AD 62. It seems that James was highly regarded within Judaism and could well have seen what we call “Christianity” as part of Judaism. Neither in James' Epistle nor in the Didache (Glossary) do we find teaching unacceptable to the Judaism of the day. (The Didache is thought possibly to be the document mentioned in Acts 15, produced by the Apostles around AD 50 in Jerusalem, in response to Paul's evangelising of Gentiles. We have included a copy of The Didache in the Addendum to this book.)
The Gospels show Jesus not as watching his ministry evolve, but as someone who regarded his vocation and its outcome with considerable certainty from the start. We are told he wasn't a bit like the Teachers of the Law, the Scribes and the Pharisees, who, when asked to resolve issues, would quote conflicting arguments on each point – rather as lawyers always have! Jesus was not like that. The crowds loved him for it. In fact Jesus warned people of the mendacious, hypocritical attitude of a lot of their leaders, who began to see him as a considerable threat to their authority early in his ministry. Jesus always gave a straight answer based on a correct reading of Mosaic law. He rejected the teaching that had arisen from the inter-testamental Hasidic tradition (Glossary), which he always referred to disparagingly as “your law” as opposed to the Law of Moses.
Jesus treated everyone who approached him sincerely with respect – almost tenderness – such as the one who asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) or the one who asked “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). Nicodemus was another (John 3:1). There seems to have been a group of men in the ruling body, such as Joseph of Arimathea, who were undoubtedly secret disciples of the Lord... just as many are today in theocratic societies hostile to Christianity in different parts of the world. Their opposition should never be regarded as monolithic, i.e. 100% heart and soul against those who would follow Jesus.
Luke 15: 11-32
Jesus went on to say, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger one said to him, 'Father, give me my share of the property now.' So the man divided his property between his two sons. After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. He spent everything he had. Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat”... (Good News Bible).
The selfish behaviour of the younger son in this story is much more appalling in the context of Israel in Jesus' day. The action the younger son is contemplating – even the very proposal he makes to his father – brings tremendous dishonour on his whole family in the eyes of the village. He is also asking his father to do something which the Jewish law of the period did not allow. Asking for his inheritance ahead of time actually implied a desire to see his father dead. The very request is absolutely outrageous. Sale of his father's land in any event would not be permitted until after his father's death, so in structuring the parable in the way he has, Jesus implies that the father enjoys the sort of freedoms that only his Heavenly Father is able to give.
We are told that the son does sell the land and leaves the scene hurriedly, thus avoiding the fury which would be generated in the village by his unacceptable behaviour. In fact it was necessary for him to go a very long way off to distance himself from possible retribution. He wastes all his riches on riotous living. It is worth mentioning that none of the earliest translations from Greek in Aramaic and Syriac imply that he had been living an immoral life – the allegation by the older brother later, that he had spent his money on harlots, was an attempt to blacken the younger son's name still further, and was not true. The younger son is left destitute and is starving.
Modern commentaries on the story consider that it is at this point that the younger son “repents”. In fact he does nothing of the kind. He devises a self-help scheme to get himself out of trouble by seeking employment, and this fails. He then comes up with a second scheme, to go home where he knows there is employment and seek to earn his way out of trouble. In so doing he would never of course earn enough to repay his family the huge loss he has incurred. He will work his way out of trouble as far as he can, not in repentance but in self-help. The great risk he faces is that the villagers at home will get to him first and enact the dreadful ceremony of qetsatsah.
The Jerusalem Talmud makes it clear that the Jews at the time had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost his family inheritance to Gentiles. We are told that the villagers would bring a large earthenware jar, fill it with burnt nuts and burnt corn and break it in front of the guilty individual. The whole village would then shout “You are cut off from your people”. There would for evermore be no contact with him by any member of the local community and he would be unable to survive there. It was a punishment greatly feared.29
At this point in the parable Jesus emphasizes the huge difference between the father in his story and the likely behaviour of a local patriarch. The father, yearning for his son who he fears may have perished, not having heard anything from him for a very long time “sees him coming a long way off”. The love of the father for his son compels him to run to get to him before the village can enact the qetsatsah. He is overcome by emotion on meeting him and the son's request, to be provided with employment because he is no longer worthy to be called his son, is thrown on one side as the father orders servants to bring fresh clothes and the ring denoting son-ship and sets in motion the preparations for the great celebration to welcome the son back into the family. In the circumstances all the son has to do is receive. It would have been deeply humiliating for such an important figure as the father to have to run, and be seen running by the local community. The celebration party was a huge affair to which many would come and no doubt marvel at the father's immense and unconditional generosity.
The older brother is of course furious. Coming in from his arduous work in the fields, serving his father dutifully, he finds that this young scallywag brother is actually being welcomed! He approaches and asks what is going on. A small boy outside (not a servant, as in many translations)30 tells him that his younger brother is being given a hero's welcome. His father implores him to join the celebration, and he refuses. The refusal in fact dishonours his father's welcome of the younger son and would be likely to incur his father's anger. In that society, Patriarchs were to be obeyed unquestioningly. So, ultimately, it is the older son who is lost, not the younger.
This underlines Jesus' teaching that salvation depends on unconditional grace.
The recipient of such grace must be willing to repent i.e. willing to accept rescue from his current situation of alienation from his Heavenly Father. Paul expresses the situation of the sinner beautifully in Ephesians 2:12-13 “...at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope, and without God in the world; but now in Christ Jesus you who sometime were afar off are made near by the blood of Christ.” (Authorised Version).
Many years ago I read a very well-researched novel by James Michener entitled “The Source” which I found most informative about several periods of Jewish history, in particular the different tensions arising between the religious groups in Israel and the effect these had on society.
The extremes of Judaism represented by the Pharisees may not have been widely followed. According to Wright there were probably only around 6000 in the entire Pharisaic movement.31 It seems there were two main groups of Pharisees, the Hillel-ites, who sought the way of peace, and the Shammaites who were prepared to encourage and endorse the Zealots. The Zealots were an underground Jewish terrorist group who saw assassination as the most effective way forward to fulfil the Jewish aspiration to restore their independence as a powerful and influential state, as it had been in the time of David and Solomon. To this end they wanted a revolution against the Roman oppressors. The politics of the time were therefore very unstable with many competing groups; the Jews of Jesus' day saw salvation as deliverance from the Romans rather than as reconciliation with their God.
The Essenes, we know from the texts discovered at Qumran, appear to have been seeking righteousness through the baptism of repentance, similar to what we know of the ministry of John the Baptist. They behaved like a cult, regarding anybody who did not join their group as being beyond salvation. We know that John achieved enormous popularity, calling upon the population to repent of their sin and be baptised – many people went down to the Jordan to be baptised by John. When religious leaders came to be baptised, John rejected them as a bunch of hypocrites. (Matthew 3:7)
In the Gospels, castigation of the religious leaders is often repeated and probably represents a majority view amongst the people at the time. Jesus was absolutely devastating in his condemnation of them (John 8:44) and no voices in the crowd seemed to disagree. The religious leaders were definitely losing public support.
We know very little of the Sadducees – only that they appear not to have believed in the supernatural, or in life after death. Their views would, perhaps, be shared by some of our more extreme liberal theologians today.
The Priests were the real power in the land of Israel. According to Wright there were some 21,000 of them, led by the Chief Priests, members of the leading families in Jerusalem, who rotated the office of High Priest between them.32 The High Priest was the ultimate authority for the Jews. We should remember that the Scriptures were not simply religious documents but the law of the land, which the High Priests were responsible for interpreting. The great rabbinical scholars such as Rabbi Gamaliel under whom Paul studied (Acts 22:3), Rabbi Meir, and others known to us from history, were held in high regard and attracted groups of scholars who applied to them for training in the Law. Many of the rabbis had secular jobs, sometimes quite menial, to free their minds for the study of the Scriptures.
Jesus himself had never belonged to any of the Jewish rabbinical “schools”. His ministry followed on from that of John the Baptist. It really came as a surprise to the authorities. Jesus' spiritual development as a boy was clearly extraordinary judging from the impact he had on scholars at the Temple at the age of 12 (Luke 2:46-47). It would be very interesting to know what influence the local Synagogue in Nazareth had upon this earliest period of his spiritual development. As he began to be seen as a threat to the orthodox Judaism of his day, the religious leaders sought with every means possible to discredit his authority: they attacked his lack of affiliation or training with any of the recognised rabbinical groups.
Rabbis, unlike Priests, had no religious or cult duties but emerged as Hasidic scholars who specialised and debated amongst themselves in Mosaic Law. Their debates were sometimes fierce, hotly contested, and the very powerful words used by Jesus in his rejection of many of their beliefs (which he was able to show diverged from what Moses had intended) were within the bounds of rabbinical debate, according to Derrett. As they did not have to carry the burden of priestly duties, Rabbis would support themselves, until fame and teaching opportunities enabled them to attract voluntary support from donors.
Rabbis taught by example and practice, by answering questions put to them, and would often give lectures in the Temple courtyards where members of the public would ask for disputes to be settled. As religious and secular knowledge overlapped, Rabbis in the time of Jesus had come to be regarded as judges. This was seen as a divine function. It was normal for the public to abide by a rabbinical decision, which enjoyed the full force of Law. The Rabbis would have been able to read and write in order to study and know the Scriptures. The scrolls of the Law were revered and precious; the results of rabbinical debates and the various opinions they produced were not codified in the Mishnah (Glossary) until long after the time of Christ. and much of a Rabbi's work was conducted from memory – which they developed to a phenomenal degree. Around AD 130 the great Rabbi Meir, travelling in Babylon, was able to dictate from memory a copy of the Book of Esther absolutely perfectly, for the benefit of a synagogue there which did not possess a copy. They would be able to recall in detail the decisions of other Rabbis, and in an oral tradition this made their work amongst the people particularly relevant. Rabbis often did not give reasons for their decisions and the more eminent ones were held in such high regard that they never had to justify themselves to the general public. They could only be approched with considerable caution, and in the latter part of Jesus' ministry the texts show how an approach would usually have to be made through one of his disciples – for example the story of “Peter's penny” (Matthew 17:24-27 – see Chapter Eight of this book).
There were also groups of Greek philosophy students who followed the teachings of philosophers such as Diogenes. They would travel the land, peddling Greek philosophical ideas as an addition to the Jewish “Wisdom” literature. We have no idea how popular these were, but they were a part of the rich tapestry of ideas flowing through Israel at this time. There was also a large underground movement who sacrificed to the old Canaanite gods (such as Baal) and attended pagan ceremonies at Caesarea Philippi at the cave known as “The Gates of Hell” which I will explain in Chapter Nine of this book. Jesus' visit there ((Mark 8:27) would seem to indicate it was a popular devotional affiliation for many people. This was a largely agricultural community and Baal worship promised good crops. As such, it was the ancient equivalent of our more modern pseudo Christian “prosperity cults”(Glossary). Historians – from John Bright onwards – agree that Israel seems never to have completely broken free from some sort of secret affiliation with the Canaanite gods, Baal and Molech. Many of them hold the opinion that these loyalties, although underground and against the Jewish Law, nevertheless remained popular throughout their history. It is difficult to see how it could be otherwise in such a poor agricultural community, where the pagan cults seemed to offer so much.
The Roman governors tolerated all these religious groups, which they had come to recognise as a defining characteristic of this rather odd nation. Romans tended to regard Jews with great respect as their unsatisfying worship of the pagan gods was spiritually unfulfilling. The ethical monotheism (Glossary)of the Jewish religion attracted converts even amongst the Roman armies. The story of Cornelius in Acts 10 describes one such high-born Roman who was in the process of becoming a convert to Judaism. Many Romans were to become Christians, even during the earliest period of Church history seen in Acts.
The Chief Priests were sustained in power by the Romans on the understanding that they would hand over anyone encouraging a revolt. The Chief Priests were prepared to do this partly for pragmatic reasons; the execution of one individual revolutionary was far preferable to the hundreds or even thousands likely to be killed in a failed revolt against Roman troops. It seems that individuals were constantly being handed over to the Romans.33 This procedure would be even more attractive in the case of Jesus, who could be handed to the Romans as if he were a revolutionary, but who was actually a threat to the religious authorities themselves. When the High Priest said:“It is expedient that one should die for the people” (John 11:50)it was a cynical statement, but, unwittingly, a highly prophetic one.
In a few short paragraphs we have outlined the extraordinarily unique, complex situation which existed in Israel in our Lord's day. Much of what Jesus said related to issues which were current during this period and not after AD 70 when the whole nation and its systems came to an end. The destruction of cities, the genocide of the Jewish people by the Roman forces, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, amounted to a coming to an end of the Jewish nation, the remnant of whom fled far and wide.
Much of Jewish history after this date is unknown. Certainly we know little or nothing of the beginnings of Christianity after AD 70 until Eusebius, the first Christian historian, whose comprehensive account of the development of the Church begins around AD 200. Accordingly theories of the Church and its development between AD 70 and AD 200, though popular with orthodox liberal scholars, are without historical foundation. Their whole concept is untenable – inventing an imaginary “Early Church” on which to base their far-fetched theories regarding the origins of the Gospels is without any evidence whatever.
27 Bailey, Kenneth. E. (1990): Poet & Peasant. Eerdmans, Chapter 7, p. 142
28 Bailey, Kenneth. E. (1990): Poet & Peasant. Eerdmans. p. 143
29 Bailey, Kenneth. E. (1990): Poet & Peasant. Eerdmans. p. 178
30 Bailey, Kenneth. E. (1990): Poet & Peasant. Eerdmans. p. 193
31 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1992): The New Testament And The People Of God. London: S.P.C.K. Ch. 7, p. 209
32 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1992): The New Testament And The People Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p.167
33 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (1992): The New Testament And The People Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p.210