The “Lost” Parables of Jesus (Luke 15)

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who sent your Son our Saviour, Jesus Christ, to seek and to save that which was lost: Grant us your grace diligently to search for the wayward and prodigal, for those who through ignorance, hardness of heart, or contempt of your Word and Commandment neither believe nor are repentant. Bring them home, we pray, and number them among your children, that they may be yours for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen (adapted from BCP 2019, 64. FOR THE UNREPENTANT, p. 665).

THE ORDINAL of the Book of Common Prayer 2019 requires — not suggests, not makes optional, but requires — the bishop to be “ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to the God’s Word, and both privately and publicly to call upon others and encourage them to do the same” (BCP 2019, p. 504). Similarly, the priest is required — again, by sacred vow — to do precisely the same “and to use both public and private admonitions and exhortations, to the weak as well as the strong…as need shall require and occasion shall be given” (BCP 2019, p. 491). While the BCP doesn’t use this language, and while there is much more to being bishop and priest than this, these two orders of clergy are the official “watchdogs” of the Great Tradition, of the orthodox faith.

But, there are other kinds of watchdogs, as well. I suspect that most ideological societies and organizations, groups founded on shared religious, political, or social/cultural convictions, have self-appointed watchdogs to ensure the conformity and orthodoxy of their members and, barring that, even to denounce errant members and nonmembers. Tucker Carlson on Fox News is such a conservative Republican watchdog, and Brian Stelter is perhaps his liberal Democratic counterpart at CNN, for example. Greta Thunberg is a self-appointed climate watchdog, and David Hogg fills the same role with respect to gun violence. There is even an unofficial ACNA Facebook group so filled with these watchdogs — with priests very irresponsibly calling other ACNA priests and bishops heretics — that it is a toxic, hate-filled, unchristian place to be. Whenever you hear perjorative terms like RHINO or DINO (Republican/Democrat In Name Only) bandied about carelessly, or heretic and traitor, you’re probably listening to one of these watchdogs.

In the latter part of Israel’s second temple period, the Pharisees emerged as the religious watchdogs of the nation. They were a separatist group as their name implies; Pharisee derives from an Aramaic word meaning separated or set apart. They were set apart for holiness, for ritual purity according to a very strict, literal interpretation of Mosaic Law. To the Pharisees, those who didn’t observe the Law as they did were not merely wrong, they were dangerous and detrimental to the salvation of the nation. It was sin that led to the exile of the people generations earlier, and it was present sin that was keeping the people in exile under Roman occupation. Eliminate sin — or exclude sinners from among the people — and God will establish his Kingdom, which means God will redeem, vindicate, and restore Israel and Israel’s king. If you are a sinner, you are not just morally bankrupt, you are letting the side down.

So, from the beginning, the stage was set for conflict between the Pharisees and this upstart rabbi from Nazareth who sat rather loosely on the Law. He seemed to show no respect whatsoever for the Sabbath; he plucked grain and healed on the day of rest. He and his disciples neglected the ritual washings. He touched lepers and dead bodies. He presumed to speak as one with authority over the Law: “You have heard it said…but I say to you….” He usurped the prerogatives of God by offering forgiveness of sins, by claiming to be greater than the Temple, by making himself equal with God. And, perhaps worst of all in the minds of these separate ones, he consorted with the sinful rabble, with the very ones who were delaying God’s rescue of Israel. These accounts seem vaguely humorous as we read them, but this was all very serious business to the Pharisees and to Jesus.

The Lost Parables

This brings us to the text for today, a series of ‘“lost parables” in Luke 15, the last of which is perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ parables, the Prodigal Son. Luke gives us the context for the parables so that we know the issue that Jesus is addressing, which gives us an interpretive key. It’s all about the Pharisees and their policy of separation.

Luke 15:1–3 (ESV): 15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:

So, what’s the problem? Jesus, a rabbi who claims to speak for God and, even worse, claims to be the son of God, is sharing table fellowship with those who are impure: tax collectors and sinners. He is acting out symbolically God’s acceptance and welcome of these people. And that is a problem for these purity watchdogs.

Who are these people? Tax collectors aren’t just sinners, they are collaborators with Rome: sinners and traitors. Then there are the unspecified “sinners.” Who are they? We don’t know in any detail, but Amy Jill-Levine, Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School writes:

The Gospels generally present sinners as wealthy people who have not attended to the poor…. Thus, in a first-century context, sinners, like tax collectors, are individuals who have removed themselves from the common welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the community (Jill-Levine, A. Short Stories By Jesus (2014). Harper One.).

She goes on to liken them to “drug pushers, insider traders, arms dealers, and, especially, colonial collaborationists” (ibid).

She is certainly correct that the greedy rich are presented as sinners, e.g. Dives in the parable with Lazarus, the rich fool who tears down barns to build bigger ones. But, the woman who washes Jesus feet with her tears is also called a sinful woman, and it is unlikely that she was among the wealthy. So, sinners probably includes those who were morally suspect as well as those who were exclusively concerned about their own welfare to the detriment of the community. The result is the same for all; the Pharisees grumble that Jesus welcomes them and eats with them. It is to that grumbling that Jesus addresses his parables.

The first two of the lost parables form a cohesive unit, though within that unit there may be some progression of thought; there is not simple repetition, but rather some real change. Jesus begins with a parable about lost sheep.

The Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-7)

Luke 15:3–7 (ESV): 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

So, given the context of the parable — the Pharisees’ grumbling against Jesus for his welcoming of sinners and Jesus’ use of parables as an apology — what stands out to you? What point(s) is Jesus trying to make and how does the parable do that?

First, the lost sheep is part of the flock, intended to be with the flock. Outside the flock is not its normal place; it cannot flourish there. But, just as importantly, the flock itself is diminished by the absence of the lost sheep. Even more importantly, the Shepherd who owns the sheep is impoverished by the loss of the one sheep. So, all benefit when the lost sheep is rescued.

Now, here’s an important question, one whose answer is perhaps not as obvious as it seems: In the parable, whom does the shepherd represent? In the first instance, the shepherd should represent the Pharisees who have appointed themselves watchdogs/shepherds over the people. So, Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “You should be the ones searching for these lost sheep of Israel, welcoming the tax collectors and sinners to repentance and fellowship. That would be as reasonable as a real shepherd going in search of a real lost sheep.” But, since that is not happening, someone else must be the shepherd; someone else must go in search of the sheep. In the second instance, then, it is Jesus who becomes the shepherd. This shift is crucial because it is an act of rebuke and judgement. The Pharisees knew their Scripture, the Law and the Prophets; they would not have missed what Jesus was doing here with an allusion to Ezekiel 34.

Ezekiel 34:1–16 (ESV): 34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

The Pharisees have failed to shepherd Israel, to search for the lost sheep of the house of Jacob, so God himself has come in the person of Jesus to rescue his sheep who have been scattered. This is a provocative parable because it indicts the Pharisees and identifies Jesus with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Second, the welcoming home of the lost sheep is not a cause for grumbling, but an occasion for celebration. Friends and neighbors come to celebrate in a show of communal fellowship; what is good for one is good for all. Why would you not celebrate? If you are envious. If you have a hard heart. If you are indifferent to the welfare of the other. If you do not love your neighbor as yourself or if you restrict the definition of neighbor to one exactly like you.

Third, we have the “moral” of the story: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). Two things stand out here. First, Jesus is welcoming repentant sinners which, in some sense, redefines repentance as being willing to accept Jesus, to come to him, to sit at table with him. The invitation to fellowship is not purity as the Pharisees demanded, but repentance as Jesus offered. Second, Jesus is prodding the Pharisees toward some needed self-examination: are you really like the ninety-nine sheep? have you really no need for repentance? Here, we need to pair this parable with another that Jesus would tell shortly.

Luke 18:9–14 (ESV): 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The parable of the lost sheep is a simple story, but it packs a punch. And while the Pharisees are still pondering it, still reeling from it a bit, Jesus launched into a second similar parable about a lost coin.

The Lost Coin (Lk 15:8-10)

Luke 15:8–10 (ESV): 8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I’m old. I know this because I will no longer stoop down to pick up a penny, a nickel, or a dime on the pavement; it’s not worth the risk of hurting my back. A quarter gives me pause. I will pick up a dollar. In the scheme of things, not even a dollar will make or break my economic status. If I find that a dollar or even five dollars have fallen out of my pocket, I don’t really get upset. But, a hundred dollars? Now that’s real money. A thousand dollar check? Oh, yeah, I’ll look for that!

Jesus tells of a woman who loses one silver coin, one-tenth of her savings. The coin in the parable is a drachma, which was a typical amount a laborer earned in a single day. In modern terms, given the federal minimum wage, that’s about fifty-eight dollars. It may not seem like a devastating loss to us, but, imagine losing one-tenth of your savings. With the current economy, we really don’t have to image. If you have a retirement account, you’ve lost far more than that recently. So, for a woman to lose this much was significant. It might be devastating if she were a widow or if this were part of a dowry.

This woman does exactly what you would expect, exactly what any reasonable person in her circumstance would have done. She lights a lamp, sweeps, searches; she does everything she can do, and she continues searching until she finds the coin. Then, as in the previous parable, she invites friends and neighbors to celebrate with her. And, of course, they come. They are happy for her; grumbling against her is unthinkable. It it will be just like this in heaven when the angels take the place of friends and neighbors and rejoice over one sinner who repents.

Well, there are many similarities between the two parables, and the overall point is the same. So, why tell them both? Are there any significant differences?

First, a sheep is animate and a coin is not. A sheep can do things like wander off. A coin cannot; things are done to a coin to cause it to be misplaced. How does this relate to tax collectors and sinners? Are they sheep or are they coins? The answer is yes; some are more like sheep and some are more like coins. A man decides to pursue a life of cheating and theft because he’s good at it and because it’s easier than working: sheep. A man is born into an abusive family and becomes an abuser himself: somewhere between sheep and coin. A childless Jewish woman is widowed and has no financial support; she ends up prostituting herself to live: more coin than sheep. The son of a tax collector is shamed and ostracized due to his father’s occupation: coin. So what is Jesus saying? Well, perhaps that it matters little how a person became a tax collector or sinner; God searches for sheep and coin alike. We tend to make distinctions that God doesn’t make.

Second, there is a matter of scale. Remember that the Pharisees were often in the upper socioeconomic order in Israel and that they cared very much about money. To lose a drachma would mean little or nothing to a Pharisee, something like me losing five dollars. It was not a thing of great value to him. But, the drachma was precious to the woman, something of great value. What about the tax collectors and sinners? They were nothing to the Pharisees, of no value whatsoever. But, to God, they possess great value, so much so that he goes to great length to search them out, just like the woman with the coin.

The two parables are similar, yes, but each contains some insight the other does not, and, taken together, they complement each other. But, it is the third lost parable, the Prodigal Son, that really drives things home. The other two were jabs; this is the knock out punch.

The Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32)

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”

This parable has been written on and preached from so frequently, that you don’t need me to comment on all the details. Instead, I want to focus on this parable as the capstone of the three, on how it accentuates the themes of the other two and turns the whole sequence of parables right back on the Pharisees in a way they could not miss or wriggle out of. For that, we need only look at some of the differences between this parable and the other two.

First, the son is neither a sheep — somewhat dull witted and prone to wander off — nor a coin — inanimate and incapable of wandering off. Instead, he is insolent and willful. Unlike the sheep or coin, he actually is a sinner, who with a high hand sins against his father. To drive this home, Jesus enumerates some of his actual sins: he fails to honor his father, he squanders his living with prostitutes if the elder brother is to be believed, he violates the purity laws by associating with gentiles and slopping hogs. It is doubtful that the Pharisees had someone this thoroughly sinful in mind when then grumbled.

Second, the protagonist in the parable is not a shepherd or a woman, but a father. The younger son sins against the family patriarch and, by extension, against the whole family. The minute Jesus invokes the image of the Father, it is clear — since he so frequently speaks of God as Father — that he is alluding to God in the parable. The younger son has sinned against God and has fled from his presence.

Third, the foreign land of the youth’s choosing has not proved to be the paradise he dreamed of. Instead, he finds himself in exile and servitude. This is an important part of the story because it evokes the ancient memory of Egypt and nearer memory of Babylon. This is truly brilliant story telling because Jesus equates the experience of the younger son — the tax collectors and sinners — with the corporate experience of all Israel. To the Pharisees this says that the tax collectors and sinners against whom they grumble are the direct descendants — and are no different — than their own ancestors; they are the sons of tax collectors and sinners, those whose sin drove Judah into exile and kept them there for seventy years!

The central — and most surprising — difference between this parable and the other two lies in this: the shepherd searches for the lost sheep and the woman searches for the lost coin, but no one searches for the lost son. I don’t want to push this too far because I’ve never read any commentary that addresses it, but I think it should have fallen to the eldest son to search for the younger on behalf of a grieving father. Think of Saul looking for his father’s donkeys. Think of the father’s only son sent as emissary to the wicked tenants in another of Jesus’ parables. If I am reading this correctly — and you can decide for yourself — then the “righteous” son should have gone in search of the “sinning” son on behalf of the father. But, he doesn’t. Even worse, when the younger son repents — perhaps genuinely, though that is debatable — and returns home, the elder son grumbles against both father and son. He fails to honor his father even though the father pleads with him, and he fails to love his neighbor — his own brother — as himself. He is devoured by his own greed and jealousy. And notice the thing that pushes the elder son over the edge: his father welcomes the sinner and eats with him. There is the knockout punch. The Pharisees could not possibly miss that Jesus is telling this parable against them. Even so, Jesus does it with grace and with an open invitation to the Pharisees:

31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”

The inclusion of tax collectors and sinners does not mean the exclusion of the Pharisees. They, too, are God’s beloved children and all that he has is theirs for the taking. All they have to do is join the feast and sit at the table with their brothers. Jesus left the invitation open.

Application

Now, having seen what the parable would have meant in context to the original audience, we can ask what applications it has for us.

How have you heard the parable most frequently applied? What is the great lesson of it in most sermons, formation classes, and Bible studies? In my experience the focus is typically on the father and the theme/moral is the outrageous love of God for the sinner, indeed for all of us. No matter what we’ve done God will love us and welcome us home. And, that is true; I don’t want to minimize that. But, in Jesus’ telling, the prime focus was not on God or the younger son, but on the elder brother. What will you do when you see God welcoming home the disreputable, the outcast, the challenging? We want to see ourselves as the younger son who is loved by the Father beyond all reasonable expectations. Fine. But Jesus was speaking to the elder brothers in the crowd, and I think we should start by seeing ourselves first in that role. That’s when the parable begins to do the work Jesus intended it to do. How will we respond as elder brothers and sisters who have remained at home faithfully doing the work God has given us to do when the shameful brother comes home to a hero’s welcome? Will we sulk, or will we rejoice?

Frankly, I’m not impressed by the younger brother’s “conversion.” In moral theology there is a different between contrition and attrition. Contrition is true Godly sorrow for one’s sins and repentance based solely on the love for God. Attrition is sorrow that one was caught and pseudo-repentance based on fear of punishment/consequences. I don’t see the younger son as contrite; I see him as attrite. He is tired of being destitute and starving and realizes he can find food and shelter back with dad. So, he practices a speech and goes home. In other words, he’s hit bottom and has no other viable option. Attrition is not contrition. It is not perfect repentance, but it’s not nothing. It is perhaps the beginning of true repentance, the first steps of coming home. And the parable says it’s worth celebrating. The prodigals may still stink of the pigstye and their repentance may be imperfect and perhaps self-serving, but they are moving in the right direction. We should throw a party. We don’t demand moral perfection before accepting the younger brother home; the desire to be home is enough, at least enough to celebrate. Then comes the cleaning up, the process of re-integrating the prodigal into the family. Real repentance has to happen; real change must take place. But, that takes time and patience. At least the prodigal is home.

Lastly, this parable challenges us to ask about the tax collectors and sinners in our day. Who are the prodigals we frankly do not want to see return home, the ones we think are so far beyond the pale that return is impossible, the ones we just don’t want to deal with? I leave that as a question for each of us to grapple with. If we do that well, the parable has done its work.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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