Joel Elliott Mooneyhan
A Belt Sander On A Pocketknife
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
In relation to my recent post about the importance of understanding Scripture as it comes to us instead of trying mold it to fit our narrative, I want to point out something I have seen touted a lot in the past few weeks.
In the heat of discussions of race, a meme has been floating around using the Parable of the Lost Sheep from Luke 15. In this parable, a shepherd goes in search of one sheep who is lost, leaving 99 others who are safe. This passage is inappropriate for use in the current conversation of race for a few reasons, which I’ll explain. But before you read on, you must promise to read to the end before you get indignant and click away.
First of all, it is a parable that is drawing a parallel between those whose souls are saved and those whose souls are lost. It isn’t a cultural parable, it is a spiritual one. By using this parable in a conversation about racial injustice, you are using a parable that is not about God’s care for marginalized people, but God’s care for souls who are lost. If you’re having a hard time understanding why this is problematic, here is the point: Using this parable in this way tacitly implies that someone’s skin color is a marker of the condition of their soul before God. This is obviously not the case, and that is not what this parable is about.
Second, this parable is not prescriptive; it is descriptive. In other words, it isn’t told to teach us how to behave, it is told to demonstrate a larger reality. Namely, the reality of God’s care for those who are lost, who are without Him, who need spiritual salvation.
Which brings us to point three. This is a parable of God’s relationship to humanity, not a parable of our relationship to one another. Again, it is illustrating a spiritual reality, not a cultural issue.
Now, there is a passage of Scripture that makes the point much better, and is indeed aimed addressing prejudice, injustice, and cultural stratification: 1 Corinthians 12. The whole chapter speaks to this, and verse 26 ties the knot in the thread.
In this passage, Paul likens the Church to a body, where each part is vital to the health and well-being of the whole. He maintains that no part of the body is any less significant than any other. For this reason, no part of the body should say that it does need another, and no part of the body should be made to feel that it isn’t important.
And in verse 26, the coup de grace: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” This is a much better riff on why conversations about race in America are important, and why regardless of our political leanings, we who are Christians have a responsibility to listen to the cries of those who suffer, whether our politics tell us they have good reason for it or not. It isn’t about standing on political ceremony, it is about caring for people unequivocally because they are our brothers and sisters.
You can use a belt sander to sharpen a pocketknife, but that’s a dangerous way to do a job for which there is already a perfectly good tool. If you want to make a case for caring about the marginalized in a society, there is a wealth of Scripture to support it. While Luke 15 is certainly important in understanding the care that Christ has for the souls of people, it is not quite appropriate to apply it to social circumstances. Its aim is elsewhere, and taking it to its logical conclusion ends up in a place that it was never intended to go.
This is why it is vital to study Scripture and not simply read it. Before you reach for the Bible as an ace in the hole to win an argument, and certainly before you repost a meme that is clever and quippy for the sake of scoring another rhetorical point, have the respect for Scripture to understand what is being said, who is saying it, and why.