Who came to seek and save the lost sheep of the house of Israel?

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There is an argument that when the Synoptic Gospels speak of Jesus coming to Israel, we must imagine him making a journey from heaven to earth to fulfil God’s purposes.

The demons ask Jesus, “Have you come here to destroy us?” (Mk. 1:24 par. Lk. 4:34; Matt. 8:29). Jesus says that he has come to preach the gospel (Mk. 1:38; cf. Lk. 4:43), not to call the righteous but sinners (Mk. 2:17 par. Matt. 9:13; Lk. 5:32), not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfil them (Matt. 5:17), to cast fire on the land (Lk. 12:49), not to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34 par. Lk. 12:51), not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45 par. Matt. 20:28), and to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10).

Simon Gathercole insists in his book The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that these sayings provide “evidence for the advent of Jesus from heaven in the Synoptic Gospels” (175). I think the evidence is flimsy.

Let’s consider, for example, the last saying, which comes at the end of the story of the “salvation” of Zacchaeus: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (apolōlos)” (Lk. 19:10).

Gathercole thinks that the verse ‘provides fairly strong evidence for preexistence, because it describes the dynamic movement of “seeking” and “saving” reminiscent of the parable of the prodigal son and of the metaphor of the shepherd who leaves his flock to go out to search for the one stray sheep’ (168).

I don’t see the relevance of the parable of the prodigal son here, because the son is not “lost”, and no one goes out looking for him; he just comes to his senses and returns to his father. But the story of the shepherd who goes looking for the “lost” (apolōlos) sheep needs to be considered, along with the awkward sayings about Jesus being sent “only to the lost (apolōlota) sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24; cf. 10:6). Matthew also tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

On another level, political action would bring about the return from exile and the re-establishment of Israel in the land under a Davidic king who would shepherd his people.

What persuades Gathercole that the imagery suggests pre-existence is that it appears to have been inspired by the prophecy against the worthless shepherds—that is, rulers—of Israel in Ezekiel 34. He recognises that both God and David function as good shepherds in this passage, but he argues that “the action of Jesus here actually suggests the work of God.”

God is the shepherd who will seek out his scattered sheep; he will bring them out and feed them; he will seek the lost and save his flock (Ezek. 34:10-22). David gets only a rather brief mention (34:23). So if Jesus is the shepherd who seeks and saves the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he does so as God who has come for that purpose. “In conclusion…,” Gathercole says, “it seems extremely likely that Luke has in mind the preexistence of Jesus, and a corresponding coming from heaven” (169).

At first glance, this is a compelling argument. God says that he himself will do exactly what the shepherds of Israel have failed to do:

I will seek the lost (apolōlos), and I will turn about the one that strayed, and I will bind up the crushed, and I will strengthen the abandoned, and I will watch the strong, and I will feed them with judgment. (Ezek. 34:16; cf. 34:4; Jer. 23:1-4).

We should notice also that this is prominently framed as a prophecy to the “house of Israel”, which is dying because of its transgressions, which has become desolate, its people greatly reduced in number, which is a valley of dry bones (33:10-11; 35:15; 36:10, 37; 37:11). So the story is that God will seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel and restore his people by breathing the new life of his Spirit into them (Ezek. 37:11-14).

But the question is: how will he do this? He will bring them from the nations to which they have been scattered to “make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel”; and “David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24; cf. 2 Sam. 5:2; Jer. 23:5; Mic. 5:2-5).

So the story is played out on two levels. On one level, God would seek and save the lost and harassed sheep of the house of Israel. On another level, political action would bring about the return from exile—by the hand of God’s “anointed” servant Cyrus, for example (Is. 45:1)—and the re-establishment of Israel in the land under a Davidic king who would shepherd his people.

I think we see the same narrative bifurcation in the Gospels.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables to explain why he hangs out with tax collectors and sinners: a shepherd goes looking for one lost sheep, a woman seeks diligently for a lost coin, and a father celebrates the return of his wayward son, much to the annoyance of the “righteous” brother.

These are not stories about Jesus’ mission. They are stories about the rejoicing which there will be in heaven, before the angels of God, “over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:7, 10). In other words, these stories are told from a heavenly perspective, and arguably the shepherd and the woman represent—if anyone—the God who seeks and saves the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The parable of the prodigal son is not about seeking and saving, but the reconciliation of this “sinner” with his father Abraham reflects the same transcendent perspective. When the beggar Lazarus dies, he is carried by angels to be restored to Abraham (Lk. 16:22).

But on another level, on the level of agency and “political” action, the God who is the shepherd who seeks and saves the lost sheep of the house of Israel sends his anointed Son, as a servant, to seek and to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So Jesus tells the Canaanite woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).

It is this sending which translates the theological story into concrete political action. In this respect, I think we have to say that Jesus comes not in the person of God but as the agent of God on earth, who will actually bring about the transformation of judgment, redemption, and restoration.

There is more to this agency than is suggested in the role of David, who will feed the sheep and rule over them (Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24-25). Jesus will attain this responsibility and rule only by way of severe opposition and suffering, which is why he has been sent and comes to seek and save the lost as the “Son of Man” (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Lk. 19:10). But the Gospel narrative conforms to the functional distinction that we find in Ezekiel.

P Duggan | Thu, 05/30/2019 - 15:30 | Permalink

My personal take is the “seeking the lost” is a callback to Ecclesiastes 3:15 (which has a variety of translations that spin off in different directions, but “gathering the driven away” seems in the wheelhouse. 

Really? What does it even mean: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what is pursued”?

The obscurity of v 15b… remains a problem, but the words seem to be complementary to v 15a: nothing escapes the dominion of God, who has everything within the divine purview. God will seek out “what is pursued,” ie, the events of the past. There is a certain similarity of structure with v 14b. Both parts speak of divine action in the face of unchangeability (v 14) and repetition (v 15). (R.E. Murphy, Ecclesiastes (1992), 36.)

And what’s wrong with Ezekiel 34, where you have reference to the house of Israel, the sheep/shepherd metaphor, a clear statement that God seeks the lost, and the expectation of a Davidic king who will shepherd his people?

Samuel Conner | Thu, 05/30/2019 - 17:13 | Permalink

Re: ‘along with the awkward sayings about Jesus being sent “only to the lost (apolōlota) sheep of the house of Israel” ‘

If one sees a significant part of Jesus’ self-conception of mission as related to the details of the crisis facing Israel, in particular the risk of uprising, Roman intervention and the “taking away” of the nation, the awkwardness dissolves. It does so even more if one suspects that Jesus intended to die as Israel’s king at the hands of the Romans, by the means of execution, crucifixion, appropriate to rebels as a way of deflating militant nationalism in Israel. If the people refused to follow his “way of peace”, he would give them reasons to fear war.

On that reading, the Cross did concretely save people and did concretely make peace, for a generation, between Jew and Gentile.

I should add, and by delaying Israel’s destruction, the seeming defeat of Israel’s king by his crucifixion is actually a triumph, and the means of frustrating, for a time, the purposes “powers” behind the pagan world in their “proxy war” with YHWH,

It’s an intriguing proposal, Samuel. It’s a bit like Brexit, if you’ve been following. You could argue that the awfulness of the process will act as a deterrent to others—that the UK has sacrificed itself in the interest of peace in Europe. The problem is that while this may be the outcome, there is no evidence that the UK voted to leave the EU for that reason; nor is it a rationale currently being offered by supporters of Brexit. So we have to ask, similarly, whether there is any evidence that either Jesus or his followers thought in this way.

I doubt very much that Jesus’ followers — during the public ministry, or even prior to Pentecost — thought along these lines. They were anticipating a visible kingdom and high places for themselves within it. Violence does not seem to have been far from their minds (the strongest example of this that I can think of is the “sons of thunder” and their request to call fire down on unsympathetic Samaritans).

If the “Son of Man came … to offer his life a ransom for many” saying is authentic, it seems to me to suggest that Jesus (at least at that point in the public ministry; perhaps his view of things changed from an earlier point) envisaged that his death by crucifixion would be concretely efficacious in “saving many” (in Israel — the people he came to seek and save) and that it would function as “a ransom.” The question of “ransomed from whom” has puzzled the Gentile churches from the beginning. I suggest that the least problematic “from whom” account is “from the Romans”.

IIRC in your “atonement without the theoretical nonsense” post, you critique the standard atonement theories (I agree). But is there an alternative account of how Jesus death actually turns away God’s wrath? If “wrath” is understood as “what was coming against Israel because of its determination to redeem itself by violent means”, then on what account did the Cross accomplish anything at all? Wrath did come in the end. The proposal suggests that the Cross did accomplish something highly significant (and still in effect at the time of Paul’s writings) by delaying “the wrath of God” and that was crucial for the formation of “new Israel” in “the churches”. There’s no way Paul could have preached a crucified Messiah to Gentiles if Jesus had been crucified after leading a failed military rebellion against Rome. And it’s hard to see how “the church” gets off the ground if the war comes in AD30, as the (Jn 11) Jerusalem authorities feared it might. The apostles would have perished in a war that they may have wanted (Acts 1:6). 

I think Paul may have thought this way, retrospectically interpreting what was accomplished in Jesus’ death (or maybe that’s part of what he saw in his vision? Couldn’t say that too loudly because it would be even more offensive to Jews; that’s highly speculative, of course. But I wonder if this may be part of the Rabbinnic charge that Jesus “deceived Israel”. Convincingly presenting himself as Messiah and then letting himself be killed by the enemy of Israel does kind of look like a deception — worse, it looks like a Roman “Judea pacification psyop”). Paul reckons that Jesus died “at the right time”, that his death saved people (including Paul himself; I suspect that the “us” is “us believing Jews”) from “the coming wrath of God” and that his death made peace between Jew and Gentile. He reckons that the Cross somehow “defeated the powers”. This account makes sense of all that.

It’s a speculative proposal, I concede. I think it makes sense of some otherwise puzzling texts, and sense of the narrative arc of the public ministry as portrayed in the Synoptics.

I thoroughly agree that discerning Jesus’ intentions is difficult; perhaps it’s a fool’s errand. NT Wright thinks this is part of “the doing of history” as a descriptive/interpretive task, and I think there’s value in it, if it can be done well. 

There’s not a lot of direct evidence on which to build a case of this kind. And in the case of this proposal, the very nature of the proposal suggests that Jesus may have concealed his intentions. He may have been obliged to conceal them. I find Wright’s analysis appealing and persuasive, that (IIRC) Jesus was walking a tightrope between “too little” public notice (in which case his program would fail for lack of recruitment) and “too much” (in which case his program would be aborted by “decapitation”)

If Israel under the blessings of Pax Romana was indeed an “ungrateful volcano” (IIRC Churchill’s description of Iraq under occupation in the 1920s), and Jn 11 suggests that this was the view even of Jews in a position to lose a lot if there were large-scale violence, then Jesus would have faced the further problem of triggering a rebellion if he publicly declared himself Messiah. That’s a plausible account of the “secrecy” agenda after Peter’s declaration in Mt 16. That suggests that at least part of his cageyness about “who he was” and whether he had messianic pretensions may have been pragmatic, and also that he didn’t want war (which seems abundantly evident from other sayings).

But if, as proposed, from some point in his ministry he actually intended to be i) acclaimed as king, ii) arrested and tried without any resistance or defense on his part, and iii) put to death by the occupying power in the sight of huge crowds of his countrymen, then …

that is an intention that would have had to been profoundly concealed in order for the plan to work. If word got out that this was what Jesus was up to, it would have dampened the messianic fervor of his countrymen and he would not have been acclaimed as king. The crowds at Jerusalem wanted a liberator, not a suicide. But acclamation was necessary for the plan to work. So the intended outcome had to be concealed.

(Why mention it at all to the apostles, then? I suspect that they needed some preparation for what was going to happen, so that when it did happen, they would not fall utterly into despair and do rash things. They didn’t understand these things at the time, but the memory of these prophecies may have been helpful during the perilous interval between the Cross and the resurrection. Jesus seems to have been concerned for the welfare of the apostles in the interval between his arrest and resurrection. The assurance to Pilate that his followers would not fight may have been to protect them from arrest.)

So this proposal has the weakness that if it is valid, there will necessarily be very little explicit evidence that this is what Jesus intended. The evidence by necessity must be inferred from actions and circumstances. And inferences of that kind can be pluriform.

Definitely not a good candidate for a dogmatic theory; but I think it’s worth contemplating. It seems (to me) profoundly consistent with the kind of person the Synoptics portray Jesus to have been.

an embarrassingly late thought re:

 ”[is]  there .. any evidence that either Jesus or his followers thought in this way. “

A “meme” that seems (to me, at least) deeply embedded in the Johannine tradition (not to mention the evangelical tradition) is the idea that “Jesus died for us” (for some definition of “us” — I agree that historical definitions make better sense of the text). 1 Jn 3:16 is a famous reflection of this offered from a post-Cross vantage point. If one thinks that the Johannine “Supper Discourse” reflects historical memory, then Jesus’ famous “love one another” saying suggests that he too thought that his impending death would have some sort of redemptive efficacy in the interest of his followers (“no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, which surely is a self-referential statement with the Cross in view).

This suggests to me (granting that the Johannine Supper Discourse reflects memory of things that Jesus did say on the eve of his execution) that Jesus envisaged that his crucifixion was in some sense “for the sake of” his followers (at the very least) and perhaps a much larger group within Israel. This is perfectly consistent with the famous “offer his life a ransom for many” saying, which suggests that both the Synoptic and Johannine traditions contain evidence that “Jesus thought this way.”

It’s not proof, merely some evidence. But it also has the attraction that it puts some historical “meat” on theories of atonement, which as you have noted have in the history of theology become swamped with “theoretical nonsense”. Jesus’ death can be regarded to have concretely saved people from concrete ways of perishing that he had previously warned them of. And both the Synpoptic and Johannines contain evidence that Jesus thought about it this way too.

Have you considered that Paul”s audience could have been the scattered elect of Ephraim? They too would be “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”