Jesus Was Bad at Math
By JIM NICHOLS
It is important that we not miss repeated stories and illustrations in scripture. Good pedagogy emphasizes repetition and Jesus certainly knew that. Collectively, many of his parables or descriptions also indicate that he had a different view of mathematics and, in fact, economy, than we do. We would do well to notice how far our views are from his.
You and I work within an economy and worldview that involves product and payment, justice and retribution. You do something for me, and I do something for you, such as pay you for your service. Or, if someone does something wrong or illegal, there is another type of payment required. It all seems fair to us, and we function within the system without even considering its ultimate lack of validity. When we look at the gospel as a whole and the details as Jesus tries to illustrate them, however, we see something quite different.
Finding illustrations of this is not difficult. In the 20th chapter of Matthew, he devotes a full sixteen verses to a parable of a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. He employs workers starting at different times during the day but, in the end, pays them all the same. Those hired early in the day complain about this. This seems like a legitimate complaint to us with our American economic thinking, but the landowner basically retorts that those hired first received exactly what they were promised. “Are you envious because I am generous?” he says.
Both Mark and Luke tell the story of people putting money in the church treasury. While the rich put in large sums, a widow deposited two copper coins, worth hardly anything. Jesus offers strong commendation of her since she has contributed from her poverty rather than her abundance. Apparently, Jesus is not all that interested in quantities for quantities’ sake.
Speaking of coins, there is that odd story of a woman who had ten silver coins but lost one of them somewhere. She turns her house upside down looking for it (despite the fact she still had nine) and finally finds it. She then throws a party for her neighbors (probably costing some money). Jesus uses the illustration to teach about God’s rejoicing over one person’s repentance. Throw a party.
It is not that Jesus downplays compensation or wealth; he just seems to want to keep it in perspective. One of the saddest stories concerns the rich young ruler asking Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. “I’ve kept all the obvious commandments,” he says. Jesus’ reply, of course, was to “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” That is hardly the American way, and I am speaking to myself too.
Peter asks Jesus how many times we are to forgive someone who sins against us. Seven times? Jesus’ reply, of course, was seventy times seven (or, in some versions, seventy-seven). The theological point is the same; the disciples should forgive as many times as it takes. “Don’t keep track.”
Caiaphas suggested that it was better for one man to die (Jesus) than for the Romans to cause problems for all Jews. Jesus, however, does not see numbers that way. In both Matthew and Luke, we see a description of a shepherd who has 100 sheep; really, he has 99 because one cannot be found. Rather than focusing on the 99-conforming sheep, Jesus describes the shepherd searching the hills until he finds the missing one. Most would not consider that a good business practice. What would happen if the 99 were left unprotected?
The Jesus mathematics/economy pays particular attention to the one. It is almost as if he is saying, “Stop doing so much measuring, counting, and weighing,” as Richard Rohr suggests.
An additional feature appears in Matthew’s account. Whereas Luke says the one sheep is “lost,” Matthew (three times) describes that the one “strayed.” You can get lost accidentally, but to stray is an act of will. The point of the story is not that one is missing, but that an act of will has occurred; the shepherd loved the one so much that a successful search and retrieval occurred.
These and many other stories emphasize care by the caretakers, appreciation for small gifts, and the inability to repay sufficiently. Jesus’ numerical interests seem to be different from ours.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain