- Bible Reading: Luke 15:1-32
- Free Resource: Target Practice (Families – NL)
- Lenten Theme (February 17—April 2): Journey to the Cross
- The Point: God celebrates when the lost are found and those who were dead find life.
Tax Collectors, Sinners, and Pharisees
As we are continuing our Lenten journey to Good Friday, so is Jesus continuing his journey to the cross. At this point, Jesus is presumably speaking to the large crowds that were following him in the previous chapter (Luke 14:25). Among them were tax collectors and those whom the Pharisees called “sinners.” Who are these?
- Pharisees: a group of Jews that separated themselves from the general public with the goal of maintaining ritual and moral purity, following the Torah to the letter.
- Tax collectors: people whose job it was to collect money from the Jewish people for the Roman occupational forces. Not only do people never like to pay taxes, but these were seen as traitors to the people and could collect as much as they wanted with the support of the Roman military (and therefore were often rich).
- Sinners: a nebulous group defined by the Pharisees, but likely seen by them as their opposites. The Pharisees prided themselves on purity and following the Torah, so these people didn’t, either because they didn’t care or perhaps were actively rejecting them (as judged by the Pharisees).
The Pharisees often took exception to Jesus, but here they are criticizing him for his table fellowship with these Roman collaborators and Torah-rejectors. Many have explained the significance of table fellowship better than me, but in simple terms the Pharisees see this as Jesus accepting those sinful lifestyles.
A Sheep and a Coin
As Jesus was wont to do, he responded to their grumbling with a set of three parables. The first two are short and clearly parallel: 1) a person loses something of value (sheep, coin), 2) that person searches until they find it, and 3) the person wants their friends and neighbors to celebrate. Further, both end with a variation of “there is joy in heaven/the presence of angels for a sinner who repents.” An interesting note here is that these two characters are a shepherd and a woman, and Luke continuing a radical pattern of male-female pairings in his Gospel.
Not Just Lost
I am neither an expert in Koine Greek nor do I have the freedom now to do a deep dive into the language now. However, the word used here for “lose/lost” is apollumi. The most common meaning is “to destroy, destroy utterly” (it’s Strong’s number 622, if you’re interested), from the verb ollymi intensified by the prefix apo. This isn’t just “misplaced.” When it’s not used in the context of lost sheep and lost coins, it means destroy, die, perish. It’s a dramatic word. I assume that the connotations of intensity and finality bleed over into this usage, even if that use is figurative. The sheep is “like dead” and the coin “like destroyed.” Would this be a normal way for a contemporary Greek speaker to describe a sheep who wandered off or a coin that slipped in the cracks? I don’t know.
The Dead Son
Then we come to the third parable, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Using “prodigal” here is not useful, as this parable is probably the only context people hear the word in. It would be better to call it the parable of the flagrantly wasteful son, or horrifyingly disrespectful son. In a patriarchal society in which a father is to be respected, this son basically says, “I wish you were dead now. Give me my money.” And then he abandoned his responsibilities and family and went off to wastefully waste that money. To be clear, this likely meant selling a third of the father’s income-producing land: property that would have provided an income source for the son throughout his life. Now he had nothing.
But, like the first two parables, that which was lost is found, and the one who had lost it throws a party. The father even likens “lost” with “dead” (verses 24 and 32). Jesus previously connected the “finding” with “repentance” (verses 7 and 10). In this parable, the repentance is a part of the story.
The Elder Son
But the story doesn’t end with a party like in the first two. Here we get the older brother, the good one who stayed behind and fulfilled his duties. While he could have been offended on behalf of his father, his reasoning is purely self-centered. His brother got to have fun, but he just had to work. [Note: The father’s statement that all he has is the elder son’s is literally true.]
In the previous two parables, it’s easy to map the allegory. The tax collectors and sinners are the lost sheep and coin. Jesus/God is the shepherd and woman. Here, it’s even easier. The younger son is a sinner of the highest order. “Father” is probably the most common metaphor used to describe God. It’s also transparent whom the elder son represents: the grumbling Pharisees. While their behavior can easily be compared to the proper rejoicing, they were left out of the first two. Now there is no hiding Jesus’ view of them: petulant, selfish, and disrespectful to God.
So, what does this all mean? Well, Jesus says it:
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.Luke 15:7
However, the term “the lost” that is used to refer to non-Christians really bugs me. Partly, it defines people negatively by their “spiritual state” (see my post on person-first language). Secondarily, it is used as a label of judgment. They are outsiders. They are bad. They need to repent. They need us to save them. We heard Jesus tell us plainly last week in Luke 13 that everyone needs to repent or will perish. [BTW, the word used for “perish” in Luke 13:3, 5 is the same as “lost” here.] Judgment is what the Pharisees are guilty of here. So, let’s avoid talking about “the lost” and instead use “people” or, better yet, “children of God” (and we all need to repent).
This week’s free activity is from our new Living the Word: God’s Story @ Home (NL) curriculum designed to be used by families at home (especially when gathering in-person is not a possibility). This activity “Target Practice” is a fun game that can be used to talk about Jesus’ love for “outsiders.”
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