Some Thoughts on Luke 15

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(Updated 201402022058UTC-6: There were, as is most usual, things I missed at first, and there likely remain other things I missed, so here’s a little more to the story.)

(At our small group meeting next week, the focus will be on Chapter Fifteen of the Gospel According to Luke. As we have been encouraged to read the chapter daily, I’ve decided to put down some thoughts that have come to me ahead of time.)

The chapter contains three parables:

  1. The Parable of the Lost Sheep (vv. 4 through 7).
  2. The Parable of the Lost Coin (vv. 8 through 10).
  3. The Parable of the Prodigal Son (vv. 11 through 32).

Of course, everyone is familiar, to some degree, with each of the three parables, simply because they have been the texts of so many sermons through the years. There have been fights, divisions, and all manner of other evil through the centuries radiating from various interpretations of the stories; everyone has an idea about what one or more of them really means, what they are intended to teach. Many consider parables to be simple stories told with the intention of conveying simple ideas; others believe they are more complex because they teach more complex ideas than are readily apparent upon first reading or hearing. The truth, I believe, lies in the receptiveness and honesty of the hearer or reader at least as much as it does in the fabric of the stories.

In the first parable we have a shepherd, charged with care of one hundred animals. One wanders away from the flock, and the shepherd goes to find and rescue it. Upon meeting with success, the shepherd, after having left the remainder of the flock in “open country” and therefore vulnerable, to find the lost sheep, is thankful for the reclamation and demonstrates his gratitude by throwing a party for his friends and neighbors. End of story? Not quite, because this is a story being told by Jesus Christ, and he drives home a point:

I tell you that in the same way there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (NIV)

I notice that the lost sheep, now found and returned, is at this point being compared somehow with a repentant sinner. How do I suppose that the sheep represents a person who has repented? The silly animal had wandered away from the safety of the flock, and the shepherd had to leave the others behind, go and find the wanderer, and bring it back, “on his shoulders”! That honestly doesn’t sound like a very good picture of “repentance” to me. The thought occurs that this just might be a picture of grace.

The parable of the lost coin is short and concise, telling of a woman who has “lost” one of her ten silver coins, and finds it after a diligent and careful search. Upon finding it, she, like the shepherd, calls together friends and neighbors and invites them to rejoice with her over the recovery of the coin. And again, Jesus brings a close to the story:

In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (NIV)

Now, as if the idea of a repentant sheep is not strange enough, this coin, lost and found, is also held in comparison with a repentant sinner! The sheep is, at least, a living being, but this silver coin has never been alive for one instant! If the idea of a dumb animal performing such a feat as repenting is difficult to comprehend, that of a coin “repenting” is certainly off the scale of believability. The coin was, and is, and forever more shall be, a dead thing. Possibly another portrayal of grace?

Finally we come to the parable concerning the prodigal son, who also is lost, and gone to a far land, and in very dire straits. He finally comes to his senses and returns, repentant without doubt, to beg for a servant’s place in his father’s house. But his father sees him coming, and rejoices in compassion and forgiveness, and apparently completely ignores the boy’s confession in his haste to call in the whole countryside for a great celebration. This is clearly grace in action. But there is another demonstration of grace in this parable.

The boy, it seems, has an elder brother, one who has been faithful to his father, to the family, the work, in all ways. Who can not identify with his feelings at this point? He even refused to join the celebration! But their father tells him:

My son,… you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. (NIV)

And that is the first picture of grace we see in Luke 15 with utter clarity. Their father treats both graciously! We are not told if the elder brother did join the celebration, but he has been given the invitation, and the reason for it.

Now, here is point number one. The sheep, having wandered away from the protection of the shepherd (and the remainder of the flock), into the wilderness, was as good as dead. The coin never lived. The father described the younger son as having been dead, and having returned to life. Dead things do not choose. Dead things do not think. Dead things remain dead, unless life is given to them from another source. The shepherd gave life to the wayward sheep by finding it and returning it to the fold. The woman found and reclaimed her lost coin. The prodigal son was given enough life to turn from his lifestyle and return to a true life.

Those are stories of grace.

There is a point number two. But first we should observe that there are two very basic principles one should observe in the matter of interpreting parables. To ignore either principle will ultimately weaken the teaching power of the story, or lead to unreasonable and unfounded interpretations and other confusion. These principles are:

  1. Each parable has a single audience. (It is not a corollary that all parables speak to the same audience.)
  2. Each parable teaches a single truth. (It is likewise not a corollary that all parables teach the same content, or teach in the same way.)

In Chapter Fifteen we have three distinct parables, or stories. The principles stated above require that there be onetwo, or three audiences, and some mixture of truth(s), whether they be onetwo, or three in number. From the complete narrative it appears that two distinct groups of people are involved in this chapter: the religious leaders (Pharisees and scribes), and the common people (tax collectors and “sinners”). Further, it is clear that the religious leaders were there to find fault with Jesus’ teaching, His methods, and His agenda, while the common people were there to learn from Jesus. Therefore it seems obvious that the number of audiences is either one or two. But which is it?

The English text provides an important clue with the introductory clause “So He spoke this parable to them, saying:” (v. 3). What is the antecedent of the objective pronoun “them”? Standard English usage would require that “them” refer to the most recently used nominal(s) in the text, and that would be “Pharisees and scribes” (v. 2). In the usual flow of narrative this would be the case as well, for verse one mentions the “tax collectors and sinners” who had come to hear Jesus teach, and verse two tells of an interruption of sorts brought by the religious leaders in their criticism of Jesus based on the “company” he was keeping. The conclusion is that what follows verse three was addressed to the Pharisees and scribes, so as to dismiss their interruption quickly and effectively in order to take up the matter of teaching those who had come to hear the Master.

But note the subjects of the two parables Jesus then tells the religious crowd. The first is a shepherd who seeks and finds a lost sheep, at the peril of losing others that have not left the flock. Those “religious” would have been familiar with the context of this parable, at least insofar as they considered themselves to be the “shepherds of Israel”, and they believed their criticism of Jesus to be an indication of their “care for their flock”. Even so, we find them here, not trying to reclaim the “lost sinners and tax collectors” who were eager to hear Jesus’ teaching, but preferring to leave them all lost “in the wilderness” rather than risk their elevated positions in society. Having completed the story with the joyous reclamation of the lost sheep, Jesus makes His point with verse seven:

I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. (NKJV)

Another short parable follows the first to make the point more strongly by telling of a woman who has lost one-tenth of her treasure, amounting to one small silver coin. With their emphasis on the Law as they understood it, the religious would have instantly thought of the tithe, the one-tenth portion they would have considered to belong “to the Lord”, and of the fact that this woman had misplaced that much. They would have been pleased, possibly, to hear the outcome, to know that the tithe was safe. But they likely did not notice that the sheep, being no more than a dumb animal prone to wander from the flock, represented some portion of the crowd of “sinners” who had come to hear Jesus; even less would they have noticed that portion of the crowd who, like the coin were utterly incapable of being aware of their lost condition, or to the duty and obligation of care owed to the entire crowd by those very same leaders. Further, they do not appreciate that they each are as much in need of repentance as is any of those “sinners”! Jesus again punctuates the matter with verse ten:

Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (NKJV)

Finally, here is point number two: Earlier in Chapter Fifteen we are told that the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t much care for the fact that Jesus Christ was spending time with what they called “sinners”; those “sinners” happened to be listening to him, and eagerly. While the three parables are possibly only stories, even if told to illustrate serious truths, we have the historical fact laid before us in verse three. Two of those parables were told for the benefit of these religious leaders who had not noticed that the “sinners” were under their care. Jesus took time to tell them these two stories, with the purpose of illustrating their own lost condition, while a large crowd of followers waited to hear their own parable.

Then Jesus told them this parable:

That is grace.

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CC BY 4.0 Some Thoughts on Luke 15 by Dennis Glover is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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