The love of God according to ancient grocery lists
Taking a risk in reading parables.
It has been said that no person ever rises above their view of God. Whom we worship and what we worship is irrevocably tied to who we become. Worship predicts identity.
Within the uncertain, unsteady forecasts of our daily lives, a new vision of God can grant us a new vision of hope. We must be more liberal in this vision; without it, we will find no freedom. A truer vision of God may be costly, but we must embrace it. Our imagination must be more gracious, because if his precious Son was crucified for us, his grace must be more boundless than we could know.
How do I know this? In part, I know this because I am a student of the New Testament. In part, because I appreciate the message of Jesus within its context. And in part, I know this because of specific advancements in recent biblical scholarship.
Beneath Rumours of Wars
I recall the rejection of my first article by a leading peer-reviewed journal in biblical studies. The anonymous reviewer quipped that my article belonged in a publication like that of the Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society. In the upper echelon of the scholarly guild, there can hardly be a more scathing remark.
Little did I know then. In the academy, concepts such as biblical inspiration, the supernatural, and the traditional authorships of the Gospels have little place. No wonder that the schism between the average Christian and the academy is wide indeed.
This is a tremendous shame, because never in our collective history does the academy have so much to offer the thinking Christian. Beneath the wars and rumours of wars over the past decades, a silent humble tide has flooded the academic world: the digitization of over 10,000 ancient Greek texts under the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae project, for example. Even more exciting is the digitization of almost 50,000 pieces of “documentary papyri” by the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri.
What are these strange, dusty happenings? And what can they teach the average Christian? For one thing, I would argue that they can enrich our vision of the audacious love of God.
A Wealth of Trash
Few things are as quirky as a science dedicated to the study of trash: garbology. But the science is fascinating, in part, for what it unearths about us. For example, we over-report our healthy eating habits and under-report our alcohol intake by up to 40-60 percent. We know this because garbologists have compared people’s claims with the contents of their trash.
Antiquity, too, had garbage dumps. In the dry Egyptian desert, along a branch of the Nile River, lay an ancient hub of commerce called the city of Oxyrhynchus. In 1896, two young archaeologists sifted through the dry, undisturbed remnants of this city’s trash heaps and found hundreds of ancient scraps of papyri – from which we get our word “paper.”
These bits of trash are what scholars call “documentary papyri.” They include ancient grocery lists (P. Oxy. IV 738), unsolicited proposals for sex (P. Oxy. XLII 3070), marriage contracts, slave contracts, and legal documents. Many can be dated to an exact year. And many date to the time of Jesus.
Such papyri, being in relative proximity to the Palestine of Jesus, can inform us about real-life conditions within his world. We learn, for example, that complaints of criminality were often directed at shepherds. We learn that shepherds were a despised and nomadic group of people. We learn that they rarely owned the flock they shepherded. We learn that shepherding earned barely enough to survive.
Conversely, we learn that certain items at the time of Jesus were costly. Oil to light a lamp was precious. The value of a single sheep could amount to a month of a shepherd’s wages.The shepherd, further, was responsible to pay for any sheep lost under his care.
A Shepherd and a Woman
How can this be relevant to the average Christian? For one, it can undo simplistic readings of Jesus’ most treasured parables. The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine for the one (Luke 15:3-7), for example, would have been a despised individual – exactly the type of hero we often find in stories told by Jesus. But more, our knowledge of the past can explain an odd feature of this parable.
We know from documentary papyri that a shepherd guarding a hundred sheep (a normal size flock) on behalf of the owner(s) would typically be by himself. Why then would this man leave the ninety-nine unattended (“in the open country,” NIV) while he sought for the missing sheep?
The fact that this parable is coupled with a second parable in Luke’s gospel helps us toward an answer – the parable of a woman who loses one out of ten coins (Luke 15:8-9). Jesus describes her lighting a lamp to find this coin. But the value of a coin is close to that of the oil she would have burned in her lamp. Why then does she burn it to search so diligently (v. 8)? The most obvious answer is that she, like the shepherd, is poor.
It would cost the woman approximately the same value as the lost coin if she searched too long. Likewise, it would cost the shepherd his ninety-nine sheep if he did not find the one sheep soon enough. Why do both characters act this way?
Both the shepherd and the woman wager. They wager that the possibility of gaining back what was lost was worth the risk of losing even more. No wonder they both rejoice (Luke 15:6, 9)! Hope had danced on a razor’s edge.
God, Jesus implies, is like this shepherd and this woman, and heaven rejoices when God’s risk pays off. If one views these two parables in the context of Luke 15, it becomes clear that they form the prelude to the chapter’s third and final parable, Luke’s famous parable of the prodigal son. But this is a silly title. “Prodigal” means “wasteful” or “excessive.” But who is the most wasteful in this parable? And who is really its main character?
Once we appreciate the theme of risk, we see it running through this parable as well. In fact, the scope of risk expands as Jesus tells the stories of Luke 15. The shepherd risks the ninety-nine. The woman risks the oil from her own lamp. But then there appears a father who risks much more. Almost everything.
When his younger son asks for his inheritance prematurely (v. 12), the father gives up his estate, inherited from generations past. When the son liquidates his belongings (v. 13), the father risks his own reputation. Under such circumstances, the father retained the legal right to control his son’s actions, but no such actions appear to be taken.
When the son returns from a distance, the father knows nothing of his son’s repentance but runs to embrace him (v. 20). Grown men in Palestine are not encouraged to hike up their robes to run, exposing their legs. But he is overcome with “compassion” (v. 20). This word, as when it occurs in other stories in Luke’s Gospel, stands in the literary midpoint of the story. The strategic hinge.
Then the father gives a dishonorable son the “best robe.” Whose robe is this? The father’s own. He gives his son the signet ring of responsibility. Whose ring is this? The father’s own. Even in this cursory glance, we see the father risking wealth, legacy, reputation and authority. It is the story of a prodigal father.
Scavenging for the Love of God
We see, then, how some bits of ancient garbage invite us to recontextualize the entire set of parables. What is God risking in the ministry of Jesus? In the context of Luke 15:1-2, the risk is clear: “He welcomes sinners and eats with them!” The reputation of Jesus is at stake. And, given his authority among the people, so is the reputation of God. Holiness. Purity. The otherness of God. Jesus is running a great risk indeed. One might end up believing that God belongs where Jesus is clearly headed – on a cross.
But crosses were common things in those days. Josephus claims that the Romans crucified so many Jews during the siege of Jerusalem that they ran out of room to place their crosses outside of its city walls. In the eyes of antiquity, crucifixions are taboo, are offensive, are unspeakably awful – but they are not special. The cross is taken for granted.
And this is indeed what has happened. Christianity, more than any other religion, is the old sweater in the closet. Worn in and faded. Loved well and stretched out. Such things are easy to take for granted. This is the risk of the shepherd God: a renegade of grace, irresponsible in his pursuit. Is it a pursuit warranted by the many? No, it is warranted by the one. One lost one. Old sweaters, after many mud streaks and cold rains, fit us well and are cast aside. But if God, the God who made the stars and oceans, risked becoming like that so that he might find us, what does that tell us?
Have you ever lost something very meaningless but expended every effort in finding it? My five young daughters often lose their most precious belongings (read: pieces of worthless plastic jewelry or mangy over-loved stuffed animals). Many nights I have expended frantic searches to retrieve these items. And I never find them soon enough. Why do I waste my time on this? Because my child’s heart is precious to me. Take heart in this. God, too, is searching. Under the couch cushions, through our messes.
We, too, are asked to take a risk in these parables, to risk seeing God through a fresh perspective. That is, most simply, what a parable is. These are not merely earthly stories with heavenly meanings. These are challenges toward theological revolution.
Brief parts of this article are excerpted from Luuk’s book: For People Like Us: God’s Love for the Lost of Luke 15.