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Domenico Fetti, c. 1620
Politics of Scripture

Identification with the Remainder—Luke 15.1–10

The two stories of Luke 15:1–10, which we might call “parables of the remainder,” illustrate a core component of the Christian political orientation. That is, they highlight the alternative logic of much of the Judeo-Christian scriptures that urges us to foster solidarity in community through identification with the remainder, with the least of these, and to thereby bring justice and liberation.

15:1 Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

8 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

Luke 15:1–10

The fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke opens with an odd pair of parables. There is little question as to why Luke juxtaposes these two parables, as they have a nearly identical structure. The protagonist loses something of value, leaves behind the majority of their possessions in order to hunt down the singular lost object, and then rejoices at the recovery. The New Interpreters Bible commentary names these the “parables of the joy of recovery and return.” And while this is by no means an inaccurate title, it seems to me that it misses the politically radical core of these two parables. I might instead call these “parables of the remainder.”

The Lukan setting does a good job of situating the radical commentary implicit in these parables. The Pharisees, who had one chapter earlier welcomed Jesus into their company—“Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee” (Luke 14:1)—now grumble at Jesus because “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1). It is Jesus’ cavorting with those who would be morally and ritually impure that strikes these religious leaders as deeply problematic. It is in the midst of this grumbling that Jesus tells these two parables, in which the protagonist vigorously pursues that which has been lost.

Little detail is given about that which is lost. The sheep is merely one among others. Likewise, while the coin is certainly not valueless, it appears to have been intentionally given as a modest sum, according to R. Alan Culpepper in The New Interpreters Bible, “a drachma was a silver coin worth about a denarius, or a day’s wage” (296). These are, by political and economic standards, mundane figures: one sheep in a significant flock, a small portion of a larger sum. Yet this mundane character is no minor detail: it is precisely the relative insignificance of these lost figures that forms the crux of the parabolic argument. As Culpepper continues, “the point of the parable would have been lost if the coin had been of great value” (296).

Indeed, one sees the failure to understand precisely this nuance already in the 2nd century. There, in the Gospel of Thomas, the sheep is specified as “the largest” (Gospel of Thomas, 107), and therefore implicitly as the most valuable. Further, when this sheep is recovered, the shepherd says to the sheep, “I love you more than the ninety-nine” (107). Through these two, seemingly minor changes, the entire force of the parable is inverted. For, what had been a parable about the pursuit of the wayward, the lost, “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), has become its opposite, the pursuit of the greatest—a projection of the self-important uniqueness of the esoteric initiate.

Put in social language, in The Gospel of Thomas, the lost sheep is no longer the “sinner” of Luke 15, but the opposite, the very religious elites maintaining the esoteric purity of their ritual cleanliness.

This is essential because, in its Lukan forms, this narrative illustrates what I believe to be a core component of the Christian political orientation, what I call—following the little-known French phenomenologist Jacob Rogozinski—the logic of the “remainder” (le restant).

Without delving too far into the details of his argument, for the past few decades, Rogozinski has undertaken the task of describing the “constitution of the ego-flesh.” That is to say, he has sought to describe how it is that the various organs, sensations, and experiences come to be constituted into a unified experience of “my body.”

Central to this analysis is his term “remainder.” Remainders are the gaps that form within our experience of our own body, insofar as everything that we experience or sense cannot be perfectly assembled into a single whole. There is, to put it simply, no “perfect” body that is absolutely self-present to itself. Every body is riddled with those things that we find ourselves unable to experience as fully part of ourselves: excrement, genitalia, ignoble desires, etc. As Rogozinski writes in The Ego and the Flesh:

. . . when this intimate Stranger reappears in our haunting, it necessarily takes on the appearance of a dissociated part of the whole, an errant fragment of the body outside of the body—a gaze without a face, an eye without a gaze, a shard of voice, a sliced member, excremental waste, and so on. (197)

Importantly, Rogozinki is likewise convinced that this phenomenon does not only appear within the individual experience of the body. There is a nearly identical tendency to expel social or political “remainders,” those individuals or groups that don’t quite “fit” with the idealized image of the community—racial or sexual minorities, Jews, outcasts, the unclean, etc.

“The corpus mysticum of the Church, the Kingdom, the Republic, or the Party,” he writes, “is grounded in the immanent syntheses that gives body to my flesh. . . . The haunting of the remainder reappears on the plane of the community by being fixated on an individual or particular group, on a ‘caste’ or class, a ‘racial’ or religious, political or sexual minority. . . . The ‘political body’ is grounded, like my own body, on the exclusion of the remainder” (305).

This, according to Rogozinski, is how we build communities. We put together what fits and demonize that which doesn’t.

Yet, at their most radical moments, the Jewish and Christian scriptures suggest an alternative logic. Rather than excluding or demonizing the other in order to generate the solidarity of a community, perhaps community can be founded on solidarity with, even identification with, the remainder—with the least of these.

This logic of identification with the remainder is a cruciform logic, the logic of the cross. And it is a logic that can be found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It is this logic that informs the rightly famous kenotic hymn of Philippians 2: “But [Christ] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7–8). Here one finds more than an account of incarnation. The Christ does more than take on the form of a human. The Christ takes the form of a slave, a crucified slave.

This was, as Paul notes, a scandalous affirmation: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block (literally, a “scandal” [σκάνδαλον]) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). This is a scandal because crucifixion was not merely one form of death, like any other. To be executed on the cross was to be accursed. As Deuteronomy 21:3 notes, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” And this connection was by no means lost on the early church. Paul explicitly invokes it in Galatians, writing: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13). The words of Jesus on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) take on a clear resonance here.

Yet, this logic of identification is not restricted to the incarnate Christ. Rather, Jesus equates this identification with Christian discipleship itself: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23, cf. Luke 14:27; Matthew 10:38, 16:24).

To think politically within the cruciform logic of Christianity is precisely to identify oneself with the victim, with the oppressed, with the remainder. As is often the case, it is the one outside of a tradition who sees its internal logic most clearly. Thus, one can find the logic of the identification with the remainder nowhere more clearly summarized than in the words of the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan in Anxiety, “the Christian has learnt, through the dialectic of Redemption, to identify ideally with he who made himself identical with this same object, the waste object” (220).

And lest the political logic of this identification be reabsorbed into the de-politicized capitalist logic of individual actors, of individual acts of charity, of personal piety, it is worth noting the context from which Jesus draws these parables. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet anticipates the restoration of the nation of Israel from the midst of its exile in Babylon. There Yahweh proclaims: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed” (Ezekiel 34:11–12, 16).

Moreover, in a passage that clearly anticipates Jesus’ judgment of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46), Yahweh proclaims that there will be a judgment “between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats” (Ezekiel 34:17). Thus, the restoration of the lost sheep, just as the restoration of the lost coin, is a restoration of the “the sinner”—the outcast, the ritually impure—that can only ever stand together with a judgment of the nations. Identification with the remainder is not acetic self-renunciation, but justice; not self-flagellation, but liberation.

If we could identify with the remainder, and thereby bring justice to the outcast and liberation to the sinner, then perhaps we too might rejoice, like the angels in heaven.

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