|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
For an article providing an overview of Luke 15.1-32, click HERE. For Bible study resources related to this parable and others, check out this CrossMarks resource.
Chapter 15 can be divided into six subunits -- most are unique to Luke.
a. Introduction to the parables -- Lk 15:1-3 -- no parallels
b. Parable with a sheep -- Lk 15:4-6 // Mt 18:12-14 // Thomas 107:1-3
c. Conclusion to the parable -- Lk 15:7 -- no parallels
d. Parable with a coin -- Lk 15:8-9 -- no parallels
e. Conclusion to the parable -- Lk 15:10 -- no parallels
f. Parable with sons -- Lk 15:11-32 -- no parallels
I don't think that we can look at our text (introduction and two parables with conclusions) without also considering the third parable (15:11-32). Similarly, when the third parable is assigned as the gospel reading (4 Lent C), we need to keep in mind those verses that precede it.
In addition, Green (The Gospel of Luke) notes:
Jesus' teaching in chs. 14 and 16 regarding the import of welcoming into one's homes those who live on the margins of society -- "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" (25:24; cf. 25:32; 26:30) -- underscores deeply the central question raised in 15:1-32. This question whether the Pharisees and legal experts will welcome such persons as toll collectors and sinners, joining in the heavenly rejoicing at the finding of the lost, celebrating their recovery at the banquet table. [p. 569]
Another theme from the context was e-mailed me by a friend, relaying what Rev. Rafael Malpica-Padilla, the ELCA Director for the Division for Global Missions had said about these stories. He picked up on the idea that the numbers 10 and 100 are numbers of fullness or completeness; thus 9 and 99 are incomplete. While three (father and two sons) is also a complete number, one could also approach it as any family with a child missing is incomplete. I've visited with elderly parents who have an empty hole in their heart over the death of a child.
My friend used the example of misplacing his truck keys. He knew where the spare key was -- with his wife -- 45 miles away. The absence of his keys made him feel incomplete -- at a loss -- life was not right for him because those keys were not where they should be.
An implication of this is that congregations, rather than thinking of the unchurched as "the lost" whom need to be found, (which also means that we consider ourselves as "the found,") or "the lost" who need to find their way back home; we might consider ourselves to be incomplete without those for whom Christ has also died.
I will make some general comments about themes from this lesson, then briefly look at specific verses.
Although both of our parables end with a statement about repentance, that can't be the main point of these parables. The idea of a sheep repenting is only slightly less absurd than the idea of a coin repenting! In addition, there is nothing to indicate that the sheep was "bad" or that the coin was "sinful" and that they needed repentance.
However, Dick Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) shares a new definition of "repentance" from Kenneth Bailey (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15): "The only possible action in this story which could constitute repentance is the finding of the lost. Repentance, therefore, may be defined as our acceptance of being found." Later Jensen briefly expounds on this: "Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that we acknowledge our own 'lostness.'" [p. 169]
In notes from Bailey that I received through another e-mail from someone who heard him at a conference, there is this further statement: "The sheep does nothing except to be found. The burden of restoration is not on the sheep but on the shepherd who went looking for the lamb." And, "The lover comes out in the costly demonstration of unexpected love, and we stop running away, and we accept that offer of love and in that acceptance is Jesus' definition of repentance." [notes from the Professional Leaders Conference of the Northern Illinois Synod, September, 1994]
Related to this definition, I think that the key to the entire chapter is found in the phrase, "Rejoice with me" (vv. 6 & 9). See also related terms "rejoice" and "joy" in vv. 5, 7, 10, & 32.
Tannehill (Luke) seems to share this thought when he writes: "Repentance is more an experience of being found by a concerned seeker than the product of human effort. And its public sign is joy at the gift of new life rather than doleful remorse." [p. 238]
The Pharisees and scribes in the introduction will not rejoice with Jesus over the sinners with whom he eats, instead they grumble (diagogguzo). The same word is used of the people's reaction when Jesus goes to Zacchaeus' house -- "to be the guest of one who is a sinner" (19:7 -- this is the only occurrence of the word in the NT). A closely related word (gogguzo) is used of the Pharisees and scribes complaining when Jesus has gone to Levi's house and eats with sinners and tax collectors (5:30). All of the "complaining" in Luke are about Jesus' table-fellowship.
Green (The Gospel of Luke) expounds on this:
Verse 2b summarizes the problem Jesus presents for the Pharisees and legal experts, according to Luke, for it is at the table that his (from their perspective) lack of sensitivity regarding accepted norms and his neglect of the law of God come into incontrovertible expression. The importance of the table as an instrument for drawing and maintaining socio-religious boundaries, from the perspective of Jesus' adversaries, has been repeatedly ignored by Jesus. Indeed in the present instance, not only is he blamed for eating with "sinners" -- that is, at their invitation, as in 5:29 -- but apparently for extending hospitality to them as well. Jesus thus behaves toward these outsides, these unclean, contemptible persons of ignoble status, as though they were acceptable, as though they were his own kin. [p. 571]
Both of these words are used in the LXX to refer to the Israelites' grumbling in the wilderness. They are complaining because God is saving them! (However, after last week's text about hating family members and self, bearing the cross and giving up all our possessions, we might complain that the requirements for discipleship are too tough.) In addition, the complaining in Exodus 16:7-12 involves food!
In all three parables the question is left up in the air: Will the friends and neighbors of the shepherd rejoice with him? We don't know. Will the friends and neighbors of the woman rejoice with her? We don't know. Will the older son rejoice with his father who eats with his son? We don't know. Often the point of a parable is the unanswered question that the hearers are left to answer for themselves. Would you rejoice with the shepherd, woman, or father over finding what was lost? Will I rejoice with them?
In the conclusions to the parables, it is clear that all of heaven is rejoicing. Will we rejoice with the heavenly host over sinners being found and repenting?
Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) ends his commentary on this text with:
In both parables, rejoicing calls for celebration, and the note of celebration may be exaggerated to emphasize the point. Neither sheep nor coins can repent, but the parable aims not at calling the "sinners" to repentance but at calling the "righteous" to join the celebration. Whether one will join the celebration is all-important because it reveals whether one's relationships are based on merit or mercy. Those who find God's mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents. Thus they exclude themselves from God's grace. [p. 298]
I think that this is a very important question for churches today. More than one congregational member has not rejoiced over the influx of new members in the congregation. The non-rejoicing criticism seems especially prevalent when the "found" are somehow different from the mainstream members.
The difference could be:
RACIAL: blacks or Asians or Latinos or Native Americans coming to an all-white congregation;
VOCATIONAL: blue collar coming to a white-collar congregation;
AGE: young parents with children coming to a mostly quiet, sedate, retired congregation;
EDUCATIONAL: drop-outs coming to a college-educated congregation;
CHRISTIAN MATURITY: new converts coming to an "always-been-Lutheran" congregation;
EMOTIONAL: trying to bring gospel-joy singing to a staid German chorale service
I was at a congregation where suburbanites overtook the formerly dairy farming area. One member said: "They're different than we are." In some ways he was right. During a ten-year period, the population in that town quadrupled. During the same period of time, the membership of the congregation declined! Rather than rejoicing at new people visiting the congregation, many members viewed them with skepticism, wondering, "Are they enough like us not to make us change?" I'm sure you could think of other "sinners" that the self-righteous Pharisee in each of us would look down on.
Fred Danker in Jesus and the New Age writes some challenging things about this passage:
Against so much that is drab in religion, Jesus depicts the happy laughter of a Father who invites the angels to the homecoming festival. Somber, morbid religiosity has no place in the Kingdom. Dancing, the blowing of trumpets, beating of drums is a legitimate part of the church's worship (cf. 2 Samuel 6:5). The cult of respectability must give way to the cultivation of the art of joy over God's delight in reclaiming the refuse of humanity. In worship the Shepherd is congratulated, not the sheep. God does not commend the righteous for remaining righteous (vs. 7), and Jesus has not come to compliment them for what they ought to be in the first place. Nor has he criticized their standards. Their position is not made less secure by Jesus' outreach to publicans and sinners. All he expects of them is that they share his joy over the return of the lost. [page 169]
Some commentators have looked for subtle differences between the two parables. The sheep, it has been suggested, was lost through its own stupidity; the coin by the carelessness of its owner. The shepherd and the woman, it has been claimed, represent the church. This is all beside the point. The church comes under rebuke in these stories. It is precisely in the church that arrogant loveless attitudes toward the fallen and the disenfranchised display themselves. A ditty runs to this effect:
We are the choice selected few
And all the rest are damned.
There's room enough in hell for you,
We can't have heaven crammed. [page 169]
A number of years ago I read an article somewhere and wrote down brief notes. The article raised the issue of God in feminine images and suggests that critical letters on this topic usually miss the point. The author asks: "Is the Gospel being proclaimed? Are the lost being found? Is repentance happening? Are sinners being saved? If so, rejoice! All of heaven is rejoicing."
Jensen concludes his section on these verses with:
We hope it is Party Sunday in your church. Party Sunday is the day of Eucharist! "Join me at my table," the God of Jesus says. "Join me at this mealtime-party. Let us eat and celebrate. This is still the place on earth that I 'welcome sinners and eat with them'" [p. 170]
I'm afraid that most of us would have agreed with the Pharisees and Scribes. As parents we are concerned about who our children may associate with. We have the mottoes: "Birds of a feather flock together" and "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch" and "Guilt by association." As clergy, don't we have to be careful about who we may be seen with and where? I imagine most of us have listened to or read materials on boundary crossings and misconduct. The concern about Jesus' eating partners may have some legitimacy. It could be detrimental to his image as a "holy man".
Although one of the ironies in Luke is that Jesus was eating with Pharisees and lawyers in the previous chapter (14:1-24)! Green (The Gospel of Luke) notes the two different responses to Jesus' table fellowship:
Sharing a meal has the potential function of generating intimacy and creating group solidarity. In some meal-episodes, notably among toll collectors and sinners (e.g., 5:29-32), this end is successfully realized, while in others, notably among scribes and Pharisees, table fellowship terminates in protest and hostility (e.g., 7:36-50; 11:37-54). The fundamental difference between these two is not whether the good news is operative in one but not the other, but in how the various groups respond to Jesus' presence and message. As in the earlier meal scene of 5:29-32, so here "sinners" and "the righteous" are presented in parodic ways -- the former as repentant, the latter as unaware of their need for good news. [p. 575]
Perhaps we can take consolation that even though we are preaching the gospel, not everyone will see their need for it and respond favorably with repentance.
Note also that Jesus is not searching for and seeking the lost. The tax collectors and sinners are coming to him -- to hear him -- exactly what Jesus asked for in the verse just before this text: "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" (14:35b). Jesus seems to invite them to eat with him. (Hmmm -- sounds like word and sacrament stuff again.) "Eating with" (synesthio) seems to have been a problem in the early church. Peter is criticized for eating with Gentiles (Acts 11:3), but not for baptizing them!
We still struggle with who should be welcome to the Lord's Table. At what age does Jesus welcome people to eat with him? Is baptism necessary in order to be welcome and eat with Jesus? What if they were baptized "Mormon" or in some other cult group? There is a Pentecostal group that baptizes only in the name of Jesus (based on Acts rather than Matthew). Is that a valid baptism? Does one have to be a believer first? It would seem that if these "sinners" were coming to listen to Jesus, they had to have had some kind of belief in him. Does one have to be acceptable to us before being acceptable to God?
What about our church potlucks? Do we ever think of inviting the neighborhood, or homeless people to our potluck suppers? There's always more food than the members can eat. However, do we really want to eat with "them"? A neighboring Methodist church has had meals that were opened to the neighborhood. Anyone who wanted to come and eat was welcome. I don't know what the response has been or whether or not many of the church members came to eat with their guests. That church has changed ministers since the practice started. The new ministers have told me that the members are deeply blessed by providing these meals for whoever wishes to come.
No reasonable shepherd would have left 99 sheep to go find one. Note that the untended sheep were left in the "wilderness" not in some protected enclosure. However, the analogy can be made that the shepherd is willing to risk loosing everything for the sake of the one. It could also imply that God, as the shepherd, often acts in unreasonable ways. Perhaps this relates to "hating" family members. The things that are most dear to us are what we have to give up to gain what is most important.
This parable, unique to Luke, I think was included to present a female searcher in connection with the male shepherd. Such a male/female pattern often occurs in Luke. Another may be that the shepherd was wealthy According to Green, average families had between five and fifteen animals. 100 sheep was a large herd. He also writes about the woman:
The woman Jesus portrays is a village peasant, living in a house with no window (hence the need for a lamp), and so presumably living in an economy based on barter. Her coins, then, likely represent the family savings -- not a great sum, totaling the equivalent of only (approximately) ten days' wages. [p. 576]
The coin that was lost was roughly equivalent to a day's wage. Was it as unreasonable for a woman to spend the day searching the house for a coin as a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to search for one? I don't know. However, from another perspective, the shepherd had lost only 1% of his flock. The woman had lost 10% of her savings. (The father in the next story loses 50% of his sons.)
Concerning both parables: On one hand: God is concerned about that which we might think is trivial (one sheep, one coin). Who are the often over-looked, trivialized people in our society? We know that God cares for them, but do we? How do we show it?
On the other hand: We are often too concerned about possessions and money; when we should be more concerned about people -- especially about bringing them into the kingdom. How many hours in council or session or board meetings are spent talking about reaching the "lost" or "unchurched" as compared to discussions about the church property or finances or trying to win back lapsed members? How often are such meetings celebrations of lost being found, sinners repenting?
These parables present one model of evangelism -- going out to where the "lost" are located. However, the introduction (vv. 1-3) and third parable (vv. 15-33) present another model -- providing a hospitable place where the "lost" can come and be welcomed (and fed). There is no "searching" in these verses.
Neither conclusion fits well with their preceding parables. As I said earlier, it's somewhat absurd to talk about a sheep or a coin repenting. Both conclusions would better fit the third parable where there is a "sinner" who comes to his senses and returns home. However, both conclusions fit the theme of "rejoicing/joy" as I mentioned above.
In both conclusions, the participle metanoounti (repenting) is present tense. The present stem implies continual or repeated action. It implies "a sinner who keeps on repenting," in contrast to a sinner who repented once and doesn't feel the need to do it again. Repentance is presented as an ongoing life-style rather than a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, repentance is limited only to those people who are sinners. Once we solve the sin-problem, we won't need to repent any more <g>.
In the same way, the opposite is portrayed in the first conclusion concerning the "righteous" who continually have no need of repentance -- ("have" is present tense).
A present participle generally denotes action that occurs at the same time as the main verb. The main verb in the first conclusion (v. 7) is estai a future = "There will be". The main verb in the second conclusion (v. 10) is ginetai a present = "There is". So, when a sinner repents, at that moment there is joy in heaven. Will there be joy on earth, then seems to be Jesus' question.
It would seem that the ways to keep joy out of heaven are: (a) be so righteous that repentance is unnecessary, or (b) be a sinner and fail to repent. However, I don't think that Jesus' main point is about joy in heaven, but joy on earth. The joy in heaven is a given. It is the corresponding joy on earth that can be nearly impossible to attain. The self-righteous, critical, judgmental attitude of the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill the joy of Jesus' parties. I guess that when they couldn't kill the joy of the party, they killed the party-host -- which stopped the joy for only a short three days. Then we again see Jesus eating with sinners. The "party" goes on.
Culpepper includes this Jewish story to illustrate a truth of our text:
A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept. [p. 298]
He concludes: "Only those who can celebrate God's grace to others can experience that mercy themselves."
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