Jesus was clever. {Monday Guest Post}

Another week, another post from Ryan.  I hope you'll enjoy this feature, a fresh perspective from someone who isn't me. :) Feel free to leave comments with questions, Ryan is great to answer them.

Jesus was clever.  That might win for understatement of the year.  But sometimes we miss it.  When we approach scripture, sometimes that approach softens edges and pacifies its tone.  Unfortunately, sometimes the edges are meant to be sharp and the tone is meant to be abrasive.

Such is the case with Luke 15.  Luke 15 begins with Jesus doing what he does: hanging out with all the wrong people.  And all the ‘right’ people take notice and start complaining.  Jesus doesn’t ignore them.  And he doesn’t attempt to persuade them.  There’s no, “But really guys, this is a good idea.”  No, that’s not what we get.  Jesus, clever fella that he is, tells three stories.  And these stories should not be read separately, nor should they be read out of their context.  Jesus is telling these stories with an audience that is a controversial mixture of the right and wrong people.  The ‘right’ people (the Pharisees) were really interested in the sacrificial system, and quite adept in interpreting the law.  So Jesus hits them where they are.

What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?

Well, Jesus, of course we would look for it.  Sheep are valuable, particularly when it comes to sacrifice.  Losing one is a big deal.

Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?

Well, even a woman would have the sense to know that a coin was valuable.  I mean, how else would you give to the temple?  [Bear in mind here, Pharisees weren’t famous for being friendly to women.  A common prayer of the day was, “God I thank you that I am not a Gentile, a dog, or a woman.”  In that order.]

A man had two sons.   The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’

Hmmm…two sons, younger one takes inheritance out of turn.  That’s pretty on-the-nose, Jesus.  Jacob and Esau, right?  Yeah, we know this one.

But Jesus gets the story wrong.  When Jacob returns from a foreign country, Esau receives him.  He falls on his neck, hugs him, kisses him, and the relationship is restored.  This is a foundational story for Israel, because this is the section of scripture where the name Israel is given!  So everyone knew the story.  How could Jesus mess it up?  Because he’s making a point.

Notice what he changes.  First of all, he adds a character back in.  The father is present.  Why?  Why is this necessary?  Because the elder brother in Jesus’ version is not going to receive his younger brother.  So someone has to.  The father makes sense.  He’s indicative of God, and the representation of what a father ought to be.  But why doesn’t Jesus just tell it like it was?  Why not have Esau embrace his brother?

This is somewhat complicated.  But remember, Jesus is clever.  And so is his audience.  So as he adjusts the story, the point he wants to make becomes clear.  Let’s trace it out, shall we?  One of the best questions to ask in this situation is who identifies with whom in the story?  Of Jesus’ audience, where do the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ people fit in?  The wrong people are pretty clearly the prodigal son.  They are the ones who are unclean, wasteful, and disrespectful.  The right people would then identify with the older brother.  The eldest brother was the most likely candidate for studying to be a Pharisee, so this is a logical fit.

Why does that matter?  Jesus paints the Pharisees as Esau, and the tax collectors and sinners as Jacob.  Jacob is the patriarch of Israel.  He’s the one who is named Israel, and as I stated before that name comes from this very passage.  So it’s insulting to the Pharisees to insinuate that the tax collectors and sinners are more properly aligned with Jacob than the Pharisees. 

So the Pharisees are Esau.  Or are they?  Let’s dig a little there.  Esau is the father of the Edomites, who are Israel’s perpetual enemy.  By the first century, the Edomites were called Idumeans.  So Esau, while a great brother at this moment in Jacob’s life, comes to represent his enemy.  Nowhere is this clearer than in Herod the Great, who is an Idumean.  He is rejected as king because of his heritage.  So to say that the Pharisees were as good as Idumeans would be a terrible insult.  But that isn’t what Jesus says.  Look at the actions of the older brother, then look at the actions of Esau.  Esau is better than the older brother in Jesus’ story.  Esau is more like the father. 

So what is Jesus saying?  The tax collectors and sinners are Jacob.  Why?  Because they recognize their sin, and they are returning to God.  The Pharisees are worse than Esau.  Why?  Because when they see their brethren returning, they scoff.  Instead of receiving them with open arms, the Pharisees look down on them.  The Pharisees, for all their outward show, are worse than the enemies of Israel because they reject and despise their own brothers.  Even Esau knew better than that.

Ryan blogs over at Home Cooked Jesus {the Jesus you need for the day to day and not just Sundays}.  He is also what I consider a Bible scholar, though he would disagree on technicality.  He studies Hebrew and teaches at a local bible college while pursuing a masters degree in the biblical field.   

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