By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Moderation. Balance. How do we live out these admonitions in a world that paints everything in stark extremes of black and white?
Jesus tells a story:
“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.” (Luke 15:4-7 ESV)
This story is laconic. We are not told why the sheep became lost, only that it repented. From the context, we know that the sheep is loved enough to be pursued at great cost until it is found. This is probably the Bible’s most important lesson in dealing with sinners, even with the color purple. God really does love you, enough to send his only son to die for you.
But, what if the sheep in this story pretended to repent just long enough to be rescued? And when restored to the flock, this sheep danced around bragging about how special it was. Perhaps the sheep then started its own television show where the sheep commended its at-risk, lifestyle and suggested how viewers could join it in becoming special. In our black and white world, craziness like this happens but it is inconsistent with our laconic sheep story where repentance is assumed to be heart-felt and life changing.
The Good Shepherd Context
Luke’s story about the Good Shepherd focuses on God’s attitude about the lost, which we know because he immediately tells two other stories about something lost— a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a father who almost lost his son (Luke 15:13-32). But Luke wrote like a journalist interviewing eye witnesses to the Gospel stories; he was not himself an eye witness. For an eye-witness to the context of the Good Shepherd, we must turn to John’s Gospel.
Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John 10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.1
So how do we recognize a bad shepherd? We read:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2)
In Jesus’ context, the bad shepherds in view were the Sadducees who controlled access to the temple and the sacrifices being offered, and the Pharisees who were jealous of Jesus. More generally, the bad shepherds are those “feeding themselves,” earning a paycheck while avoiding unpopular teaching.
The Testing of Abraham
A lot of ink has been spillt over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the destruction of the cities is not the focus of passage. The story begins with these words:
The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:17-18)
Without delving into details about the nature of sin and its appropriate punishment, God wants to know Abraham’s response to his disclosure—this is a test. To put this in a modern context, its like President Truman calling a good friend into his office and telling him that he has decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—what would you say? In Abraham’s case, he begins a lengthy negotiation (a prayer) over the lives of the people in the cities (Gen 18:23-32).
Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured the cities as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33). If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those caught up in sexual sin.
The Ethical Problem
An ethical problem arises when two theological principles come into conflict. On the one hand, we are instructed “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet, we are also told:
not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)
Setting aside the finesse of who is and is not a disciple and when, these two admonitions are obviously in conflict.
In this context, the words of Jesus in John 8 seem most appropriate. In addressing the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says:
Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)
When the Bible teaches something that bothers us, our role as Christians is not to dismiss the biblical teaching, but rather to find creative ways to honor it and bring glory to God.
1 The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; John 10:22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).
The Color Purple
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.