LUKE 15. THREE PARABLES
Chapter 14 concludes with Jesus’ admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (14:35). Chapter 15 begins by saying, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming close to him to hear him” (15:1)—and immediately contrasts that with Pharisees and scribes who grumble instead of listening (15:2). Luke generally portrays tax collectors and sinners in a favorable light—willing to listen—open to repentance and discipleship (3:10-14; 5:27-32; 7:34-50; 18:13).
“So he told them this parable” (v. 3). Jesus gives us three parables. The first two constitute our Gospel lesson for today. The third is the parable of the prodigal son and his elder brother. They all make the same point about joy over the repentant sinner.
Matthew 18:12-14 includes the parable of the lost sheep, but the other parables in this chapter are unique to Luke’s Gospel.
There is a progression in these parables. The shepherd loses one of a hundred sheep (a one percent loss). The woman loses one of ten coins (a ten percent loss). The father loses one of two sons (a fifty percent loss).
The first two parables reinforce their punch by parallel structure:
• “Which of you men” (tis anthropos) (v. 4) is paralleled by “what woman” (tis gune) (v. 8).
• Both stories are about loss (vv. 4, 8).
• “go after…until he found it” (v. 4) is paralleled by “sweep…until she found it” (v. 8)
• Both stories are about rejoicing (vv. 5, 9).
• The joy in both stories is occasioned by repentance on the part of sinners (vv. 7, 10).
LUKE 15:1-2. THIS MAN WELCOMES SINNERS
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming close to him to hear him. 2The Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming close to him to hear him” (v. 1). Jesus has attracted large crowds, including tax collectors and sinners, who travel with him (14:25). Tax collectors are lackeys of the hated Romans, often overcharging the hapless populace to line their own pockets. Sinners include those who fail to observe ritual law as well as those guilty of other moral failings.
Tax collectors and sinners come to listen to Jesus. They know that they are in the wrong and are drawn to Jesus because they sense that he can make things right.
“The Pharisees and the scribes murmured” (v. 2a). Their grumbling stems from the fact that Jesus offers table fellowship to known sinners—conferring dignity and acceptance on the undignified and unacceptable. Their grumbling reminds us of the grumbling of Israel against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness (Exodus 15:24; 16:2, 7-8; 17:3; Numbers 14:2, 36; 16:11; Deuteronomy 1:27)—grumbling that really expressed their resentment toward God.
“This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them” (v. 2b). This is the same accusation and complaining response that Pharisees and scribes made when Jesus called Levi and gave a banquet for him in his house (5:30). On that occasion, Jesus responded, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:32). Jesus’ anointing by a sinful woman provoked similar controversy (7:36-50). Jesus has only recently, at the table of a Pharisee, told lawyers and Pharisees to take the lowest place at the table and to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (14:1-12). The parable of the great dinner (14:15-24) told them that excuses on the part of invited guests will lead to an invitation to the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame—implying that they, the religious elite, will be passed over in favor of the religiously suspect.
We must concede, however, that the Pharisees and scribes have a point:
• Bad company leads to bad conduct. Wise parents encourage their children to seek out wholesome friends.
• Table fellowship implies acceptance, and Jesus could leave the wrong impression by eating with tax collectors and sinners.
• Paul advises, “Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
There is a tension here that we must honor. If this is only a story about good Jesus versus bad Pharisees, it loses force. It is, instead, a story about religious men, pillars of their community, whose preoccupation with ritual observance has blinded them to their own sin. It is a story about men whose concern for God’s law has caused them to forget God’s love for sinners. Jesus calls them (and us) to love sinners while hating sin. He challenges them (and us) to hope for repentance. He calls them (and us) to celebrate the redemption of even one sinner.
LUKE 15:3-7. THE LOST SHEEP
3He told them this parable. 4“Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? 5When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 7I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.“
“Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them” (v. 4). The Old Testament often uses the shepherd metaphor to describe God’s care for us (Psalm 23; 28:9; 78:52; 80:1; 100:3; Jeremiah 31:10; Zechariah 13:7). Ezekiel 34 is particularly noteworthy. God declares, “Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out… I will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day…I will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but the fat and the strong I will destroy; I will feed them in justice” (Ezekiel 34:11, 12b, 16). Israelites interpreted this to mean that God would seek them when they to mean that God would seek them when they were lost and destroy their fat-and-strong enemies. Jesus’ parables impose a new interpretation.
Ironically, in Jesus’ day people no longer regard shepherds favorably. Shepherding is a lonely, thankless job, so people with better options gravitate to other professions. Also, shepherds cannot simply abandon their flocks on the sabbath, so their religious observance is, at best, spotty. A father would not want his daughter to marry a shepherd.
“Which of you men?” (v. 4a). The question, “Which of you men?” makes it sound as if leaving the ninety-nine is the natural response, but that is far from clear. An M.B.A. would protect the core business—the ninety-nine. We can survive a one-percent loss. We cannot survive a ninety-nine percent loss.
“if you had one hundred sheep” (v. 4a). A hundred sheep is a large flock. Most families own only a small fraction of that number. A person wealthy enough to own a hundred sheep will likely hire shepherds to watch them. However, an extended family will often combine their flocks under the care of one or more shepherds, and those shepherds are likely to come from the extended family.
An old Gospel song speaks of leaving the ninety-nine “safely in the fold,” but Jesus speaks of leaving the sheep, not in a safe sheepfold, but in the wilderness—a dangerous place. Matthew’s version of this story has the shepherd leaving the sheep on “the mountains” (Matthew 18:12)—another dangerous place.
However, a flock this large might require the services of more than one shepherd. If a wild animal were to attack, a solitary shepherd would find it impossible to defend against the attack and, at the same time, to hold the flock together. It is possible that the shepherd entrusts the ninety-nine to a second shepherd while searching for the lost sheep.
There is risk, nevertheless, because the remaining shepherd will find himself over-extended until the first shepherd returns. The first shepherd takes the risk, because the missing sheep is precious to him. He knows the sheep’s name, and the sheep knows his voice. He cannot simply “write off” the sheep without trying to help.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has introduced us to the kingdom of God, a place of upside-down rules. This is a kingdom story, which reflects the radical nature of God’s love. Ordinary rules of business calculation do not apply. The loss of one sheep breaks the shepherd’s heart, so the shepherd searches until he finds the sheep.
“When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (v. 5). Laying the sheep on his shoulders is a mark of the shepherd’s gentleness. The shepherd has suffered the loss of the sheep. Now the shepherd rejoices, the natural response to recovering something precious that was lost.
“When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors” (v. 6). The shepherd’s joy cannot be contained, but overflows throughout the neighborhood.
“I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (v. 7). We need to recapture this love for the lost and celebration at the lost being found.
The scribes and Pharisees have murmured against Jesus, saying, “this man welcomes sinners, and eats with them” (v. 2). They have obviously put themselves in a “no repentance needed” category, and believe that Jesus has compromised himself by associating with those who do need repentance.
However, as Jesus will soon make clear, everyone needs to repent, and those who do not will perish (10:13; 11:32; 13:2-5). Therefore, when Jesus speaks of “ninety-nine righteous people who need to repentance,” we can assume that he does so tongue-in-cheek (with ironic intent). The scribes and Pharisees, like everyone else, desperately need to repent.
LUKE 15:8-10. THE LOST COIN
8“Or what woman, if she had ten drachma coins (Greek: drachmas), if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn’t light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’ 10Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting.”
“Or what woman” (v. 8). Luke often pairs a story of a man with a story of a woman (Zechariah and Elizabeth, 1:5-25; Simeon and Anna, 2:22-38; a man with an unclean spirit and Simon’s mother-in-law, 4:31-41; etc.).
“if she had ten drachma coins” (v. 8). The coin is a Greek drachma, roughly equivalent to a Roman denarius—worth a day’s pay for a laborer, perhaps $100 in today’s currency (Matthew 20:2, 9, 13)—not a fortune, but enough to get the woman’s attention. Most of us, if we lost this much money, would be fussed until we found it. The coin may have been one of the ten coins of her dowry.
If we can’t identify with a woman who has lost ten coins, we might consider how we feel when we can’t find our car keys—or our cell phone— or our television remote control.
“Rejoice with me” (v. 9). The woman’s joy at finding the coin is a metaphor for God’s joy over one sinner who repents. God’s joy is the real point of these parables. God is JOYFUL when a sinner repents, and invites the rest of us (friends and neighbors) to join the celebration.
“Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting” (v. 10). God’s joy contrasts starkly with the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes (v. 2). The grumblers do not welcome sinners into their presence lest they be contaminated by association.
They criticize Jesus for welcoming sinners, even though his purpose is redemption. They understand the value of one sheep or one coin, but would “write off” one sinner. While they might give a repentant sinner a chance, their cooperation would be guarded. They would remember past sins. The repentant sinner would always be suspect.
Tax collectors and sinners did not come to hear Pharisees and scribes, because they knew that they would find only judgment. They come to hear Jesus, because they sense that he accepts them—is JOYFUL at their coming.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2004, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan