8. “Friends with Sinners” (Luke 15:1–15:32)
Having essentially just banned the Pharisees from the kingdom of God, Jesus turns to deliver an equally stiff challenge to the multitude following Him. Would they be good material for discipleship—for the kingdom of God? The requirements and level of sacrifice would be very high.
It is important to note once again the change in audience that has occurred in the context. After the parable of the great banquet—which Jesus had just spoken to a dining room full of Pharisees—Jesus appears to have left and was being accompanied by “great crowds” (Luke 14:25). I highly doubt all of these people had squeezed into the chief of the Pharisees’ house during dinner; so, this must represent a change in scene.
Jesus then turns to these people and delivers a similar discourse about the high cost of following Him—a lesson we have already heard more than once (Luke 9:23–26, 57–62; 12:49–53). The lesson is obviously important enough that Jesus retells it in many places as He travels toward Jerusalem. He was probably already well-known for demolishing the pretenses of the Pharisees and rulers and for upholding the poor and the masses. But Jesus wanted these masses to know that He was no mere man of the people: just because He had rebuked the big Pharisees does not mean that all the little people automatically had entrance to the Kingdom. Remember, Jesus had challenged the masses just as sternly earlier (Luke 13:18–35). The gate was narrow, and few would enter in time. Jesus therefore tells these people that despite the fact that they gather near to Him, the path of truly following Him will involve the same division and personal sacrifice (14:26–27, 33), and they should therefore calculate now whether they are able to bear the costs (vv. 28–32).
Jesus punctuates these teachings with a brief parable of salt. The lesson here is that the people in this crowd will, after all, be judged just like everyone else Jesus has challenged so far. These will be held to just as high a standard. They will be examined at a later point, and if they have failed to persevere—if they have lost their savor—then they will be “cast out” (14:35). “Cast out”—Greek, exo ballousin—is a clear reference to the coming judgment/separation which Luke has related already: 1) John the Baptist warns the “generation of vipers” that the axe is coming and whatever it cuts down will be “cast” into the fire; 2) more recently, Jesus had just promised that many of His generation would see the patriarchs enjoying the Kingdom while they themselves would be “cast out” (exballomenous exo; 13:28). The idea is not uncommon throughout the Gospels (i.e. Matt. 5:13; 13:48; Mark 4:11; John 12:31; 15:6) as the idea of the coming division between true and false Israel dominates Jesus’ mission.
Rejoicing Over the Remnant (Luke 15:1–32)
Despite Jesus’ warnings about the costs of true discipleship, crowds continued to throng Him. The crowd included Pharisees and lawyers. These may or may not have included some from the same group He had earlier dined with. If so, they immediately proved that they had learned nothing from Jesus’ miracle and teaching concerning the nature of the kingdom and the elect remnant. They condemned Him for fellowshipping and dining with sinners (Luke 15:1–2). Jesus had just shown them that He would prefer healing the cripple in their midst while they themselves would not taste of the kingdom (14:1–24). Now He shows he would rather dine completely in their midst than with the Pharisees. The earlier episode would have offended the Pharisees’ sensibilities, but this would offend their entire principle of social and religious purity. There is no way the Messiah would hang out among people who hardly ever went to synagogue, had frequent parties, didn’t wash regularly, smoked cigarettes (yes, I know), and ignored the jots of tittles of Pharisaical piety.
The rebuke drew a series of three parables from Jesus including one of His most famous, the parable of the prodigal son. Again we must notice a change of audience: instead of addressing the whole multitude, Jesus gives this parable directly in response to “them”—that is, the Pharisees who had just criticized Him (15:2–3). These lessons are for those “pure ones” the Pharisees. Each of the parables focuses on Jesus’ mission to save the remnant of faithful Israel. The third parable—the prodigal son—includes an explicit rebuke of the envious son, but each carries an implicit critique of those who refuse even to reach out to the lost remnant, let alone rejoice at their return. Let us consider these lessons briefly:
The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3–7)
The parable of the lost sheep begins with a question similar to that with which Jesus has stumped Pharisees already twice before: “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?” (15:4). This is akin to the ox that has fallen into a pit and needs rescuing, or needs untying to be watered (Luke 13:15; 14:5) which Jesus featured earlier when healing on the Sabbath on two separate occasions. The issue again is a point of Old Testament law, particularly one which highlights works of mercy (Ex. 23:4–5; Deut. 22:1–4). The fact that the Pharisees and lawyers with their tremendous focus on obedience to the law failed to see this—let alone obey it—even after Jesus had pointed it out to them twice before presented a stinging rebuke in and of itself. They continued to prove true the condemnation Jesus had pronounced earlier: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42). The failure to reach—or even try to reach—the true lost remnant of Israel among the fallen masses is just one more piece of evidence for this particular count against them.
Jesus continues by describing His mission as a work of mercy and joy:
And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 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.” 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 (15:5–7).
The simple lesson is clear: it is natural for the Shepherd to seek and save the lost sheep, and with redemption comes a special joy that does not accompany the mere possession. This is the typical Sunday school version, and it is correct, but it does not quite go far enough. Jesus is more fully saying that the true remnant of Israel was “lost”—out there among these “publicans and sinners”—not among those who “need no repentance.” The job of the Messiah was to seek and save that remnant. This message appears explicitly in more than one place in the Gospels: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10; see also John 3:17; 4:23; 12:47). In fact, Matthew records Jesus telling this parable in another setting, and some of the manuscripts (though not the oldest) have him prefixing the parable with the phrase, “the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost” (Matt. 18:11 KJV).
The phrase “righteous persons who need no repentance” refers to the Pharisees, etc., and does not mean that they actually were righteous in God’s eyes and needed no repentance. It was a reference to their self-assurance as God’s elect (which we have discussed earlier): they were righteous in their own esteem by their obsessive ritual separation and assumed status in society. Jesus will make this explicit rebuke in a moment (Luke 16:15). The phrase here actually carries an implicit rebuke: these allegedly righteous law-keepers had refused to keep the laws of mercy and thereby rescue the lost sheep. That were described as “righteous” and yet had failed in this clear duty was a standing contradiction that could not have passed unnoticed.
This message of fulfilling the Messianic law is even clearer in the Greek due to a reference to the priestly law. The phrase “lays it on his shoulders” (Greek epitithesin epi tous omous) would certainly apply commonly to a shepherd carrying a sheep, yet it has an interesting parallel in Exodus 39:
They made the holy garments for Aaron, as the Lord had commanded Moses. . . . They made the onyx stones, enclosed in settings of gold filigree, and engraved like the engravings of a signet, according to the names of the sons of Israel. And he set them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod to be stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel, as the Lord had commanded Moses (Ex. 39:2, 6–7).
Here the phrase “set them on the shoulder pieces” is literally, “set them upon the shoulders” (Greek LXX: epetheken . . . epi tous omous)—a phrase nearly identical to that found in Jesus’ parable (only the verb tense is different). The Pharisees being well versed in the law would have recognized the phrase immediately and likely made the connection. And what, exactly, were set upon the shoulders of the high priest? They were onyx stones set in gold and engraved with the names of the sons of Israel. And they were set there particularly as priestly memorials of the sons of Israel. The high priest literally bore the remembrance of the true sons of Israel on his shoulders.
In Jesus’ setting, then, whether the Pharisees fully understood it or not, the true High Priest had come to seek and save the lost remnant of the true sons of Israel. He had remembered them, and He was coming to find them and bear them away on His shoulders. The Pharisees, however—would-be representatives of Israel—had failed miserably as a priestly memorial of the sons of Israel.
In its totality, then, this parable is not only an explanation of Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost remnant of Israel, but was also legal indictment against the Pharisees for failing to obey the commands of mercy and love in the law.
The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8–10)
A nearly identical lesson follows in the parable of the lost coin. Jesus says,
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? 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.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:8–10).
Not much more will add to the meaning already given in the previous parable. The same lessons apply here as well, only with the addition of the image of the lit lamp. As we discussed earlier in the parable of the lit lamp (Luke 11:33–36; see also 8:16–18). The image again highlights the true seeking mission of the Messiah, as well as the same stinging indictment of the Pharisees who should have had their lamps lit. As we noted earlier, Israel should have been a light to the world, but they had failed. Now Jesus, the true Israel, comes with that light shining bright (John 1:4–11), but national Israel—except the elect remnant (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 13:20, 22, 27; Luke 18:7)—was self-blinded by its own inner darkness (Luke 11:33–36).
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32)
Only after these two previous parables do we arrive at the famous parable of the prodigal son. Still answering the same criticism that He fellowshipped and dined with sinners, Jesus continues:
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. “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! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’
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. 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.’ 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. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (Luke 15:11–32).
So much has been written about this parable; I do not intend to provide a complete commentary here, but only to highlight what pertains to the contextual confrontation with the Pharisees, and most importantly, what pertains to Jesus’ lawsuit against Israel. Theological themes running throughout are: things that are lost, things that need repentance, and rejoicing after redemption. The things that are lost are obvious, though in this parable we get a much more human view of how the thing became lost: through consumption and squandering of wealth—but not just wealth in general, rather, inheritance. This is a distinctly covenantal theme. Both sons had a right to the inheritance; the prodigal just demanded his early and then squandered it. The prodigal spent everything and eventually had to hire himself out as a servant. His willingness to feed swine—an unclean animal to Jews—shows that he had abandoned not only his father but his faith as well. He was truly lost.
But he came to an important recognition that the pigs were being fed better than he was. This is the beginning of repentance: realizing the wretchedness of your true situation. The son then realized that his father’s servants had an even better life, and this changed his life. He would return, confess his sins, and offer to work as a servant. This is repentance: a change of mind, heart, decision, and direction with the introduction of humility. The son returned.
His father saw him returning afar off, which means the father had been watching the road constantly, longing for the day his lost son would return home. He ran and embraced the son, and began to shower gifts upon him. Just as with the finding of the lost sheep and the lost coin, here the father threw a party to celebrate.
Now the older son got angry over this outpouring of grace. This is an exact parallel to the Pharisees who had just condemned Jesus for receiving sinners (15:2). They were provoked by His grace to others who did not deserve it based on their lifestyles. Yet the father’s message to the older son applied to them as well: you were here with me the whole time; you could have had everything, but you never enjoyed it. You think only of works, and never of mercy and grace. In short, this statement is the perfect picture of the condemnation we have noted several times now: the Pharisees ignored the weightier matters of the law (mercy and faith) in favor of attending strictly to the minute details.
Other themes arise here that we should notice. First, the loss and return of the prodigal is not once but twice referred to as a death and resurrection (vv. 24, 32). This is pretty hyperbolic language for a father to describe even the return of his reckless son. It can only be understood as covenantal language which Jesus pointedly added into the story. These were the true elect of Israel, lost among the mass of sinners and tax collectors, etc. In the same way Ezekiel could picture the return of national Israel from Babylon as a resurrection of the people out of their graves (Ezek. 37:1–14), so Jesus could describes the gathering of the remnant of elect Israel from among the Jews of His day.
Second, the theme of celebration appears in each of these three parables. In the first two, it is merely stated: the seekers and finders call all their friends and neighbors together to rejoice. In the prodigal son parable this is expanded in to the actual party, the older son’s disapproval, and the father’s defense of the celebration: “it is fitting” (v. 32). In each case, the rejoicing was due to the fact of repentance—the resurrection of the lost—not the mere presence of the rest of the “unlost.” In light of the previous sections of Luke in which we learned of the narrow gate to entry into the kingdom (13:22–30), and the parable of the great banquet (which was a response to the Pharisee who spoke of eating bread in the kingdom of God), it is fitting to connect the rejoicings and feastings here with the idea of the remnant entering into the blessing of the kingdom. In each case, it is the resurrection of the lost remnant that gives fitting cause for celebration.
As the father defends the celebration against the elder brother’s complaint, it is clear that the elder son needs repentance also. Just as the original invitees to the great supper all refused to enter in (14:18–20), so does this elder brother (15:28). Yet we are never told that the elder son repented and eventually joined the rejoicing. Given the previous parables and their Pharisaical audience, I think the implication is that he did not. He would persist in his unforgiving spirit, and in rejecting the acceptance of the lost son, he would be rejecting the father’s will as well. This is exactly what would happen to the Pharisees—and the rest of Israel. And they would soon find themselves completely locked out of the celebration as well.
Next Section: The Parable of the Unjust Manager (16:1–13)