1 The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, 2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So to them he addressed this parable
The three parables of Luke 15 repeat the themes of the previous chapters as they respond to the Pharisees grumbling over Jesus’ sharing table fellowship with sinner (v.1). The common themes that link the parables internally are evidenced in the repetition of the words “lost” (apóllymi) and “found” (heurískō). The themes of joy and celebration also recur in all three parables – and this is in specific response to repentance.
Theologically they are also linked in the two persistent themes presented: (a) Jesus’ ministry seen in the open invitation to the table and (b) the use of the parables for people to reflect on their own attitude towards sinners and the “other.” These two loci point to repentance as key in the divine economy of salvation. But at the same time, neither of the first two parables necessarily represents the need for repentance. There is nothing to indicate that the sheep was “bad” or that the coin was “sinful.” In fact, the sheep does nothing except be found. The burden of the restoration is on the shepherd. Stoffregen notes the work of Kenneth Bailey (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 169): “The only possible action in this story which could constitute repentance is the finding of the lost. Repentance, therefore, may be defined as our acceptance of being found…. Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that we acknowledge our own ‘lostness.’”
Jesus has been invited to dine with a leader of the Pharisees (14:1). It is notable that we find a new setting at the beginning of Luke 15. Now the Pharisees and scribes “began to complain.” The word (diagongyzō) had been used earlier in a similar context (5:30; cf. 19:7), but its more significant overtones arise from its use in the Exodus narratives, where the Israelites “grumble” against Moses (Ex 16:7–12) who enacted not only the moral code but also the code of ritual purity. The scandal against which they complain is the Jesus is receiving outcasts, sharing table fellowship, and even acting as host. The Exodus narrative lingers in the background because it is the place where God showed mercy to the apostate Israelites who became lost in their worship, replacing God with a golden calf. What is playing out before the Pharisees and scribes is (a) will they recognize that again God, through his Son, is again seeking out the lost and (b) will the leadership join the celebration?
Table Companions. There is often a rush to the parables without considering the opening verses: “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain…” (vv.1-2). The first group – those not considered among the righteous by the Pharisees – are persons in need of forgiveness, restoration and the good news. In Luke’s gospel they are the ones who hear (cf. 14:35). The Pharisees are increasingly represented as resisting Jesus’ words and complaining about his ministry of table fellowship and reconciliation. Their complaints echo against the wisdom of Jesus in 14:15-24 describing the emptiness of honor at banquets. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them – this is the central charge that Jesus answers in the parables that follow.
Celebrating the Lost and Now Found. Each of the first two parables:
- Identifies the main character
- Describes the loss and subsequent search
- Narrates the recovery of that which was lost
- Describes the rejoicing with friends and neighbors
- Closes with Jesus connecting such celebration with the heavenly rejoicing over the repentance of a sinner.
In the first parable (15:3-7), the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to search out the lost one. Tending flocks, along with agriculture, represented a substantial portion of the economic basis of 1st-century Palestine – scholars thus take it that people, even urban dwellers, would have been familiar with the basics of shepherding. But all would have been aware of the OT’s description of God as Israel’s shepherd.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care. (Isaiah 40:11)
The image appears most frequently in the Psalms (e.g Ps 23) and in the later prophets (Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:11–22; Zech 13:7). By contrast, God is never called a shepherd in the NT, and the image is limited to Jesus’ parables. But the imagery is powerful and finds a home catacomb art from the third century and then in later art from all Christian eras.
In contrast to the positive image of the shepherd in both the OT and NT writings, shepherds had acquired a bad reputation by the first century as shiftless, thieving, trespassing hirelings. Without a vested interest in the herd, one sheep was an acceptable loss? Also, shepherding was listed among the despised trades by the rabbis, along with camel drivers, sailors, and gamblers with dice, dyers, and tax collectors. The Pharisees’ estimate of shepherds has a particular force in this context, since Jesus responds to the criticism over his acceptance of tax collectors and “sinners” by telling a story that casts God in the role of a shepherd. [Culpepper, 296]
There are some scholars that think too much is made of a single rabbinic writing that disparages shepherds. According to Green, average families had between five and fifteen animals. 100 sheep was a large herd. Perhaps we again are left with the “acceptable loss” theory.
The Lost Sheep. 4 “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy 6 and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
Jesus addresses his listeners directly: “What man among you …?” What he suggests all will do in going after the one lost sheep is actually not what many of us would do, but the attractiveness of this extravagant individual concern makes the listener want to agree. In a split second we are drawn into God’s world, seeing and acting as he would. The description of the shepherd echoes Ezek. 34:11–12, 16:
11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. 12 As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark…16 The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, shepherding them rightly.
The shepherd’s joy is like God’s joy; his dedication to the individual sheep, carrying it back to the flock, is a reflection of God’s love. One should note that the parable ends in v.6. The verse that follows begins Jesus’ comment to Pharisee regarding the meaning of the parable. “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” The joy in heaven is over the change of heart (metanoia: cf. 3:3; 5:32) of the sinner (v.2). The phrase “have no need of repentance” is ironic and tragic: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Lk 7:47)
God does not commend the righteous for remaining righteous (vs. 7), and Jesus has not come to compliment them for what they ought to be in the first place. Nor has he criticized their standards. The tension in the story is not their attitude toward God, it is their attitude towards those God also loves.
Culpepper  writes, “The contrast with the ninety-nine righteous persons creates a tension that requires a reversal in the position of Pharisees and scribes and the tax collectors and sinners. On the one hand, the Pharisees and scribes are likened to the ninety-nine who were not in jeopardy. On the other hand, God takes more delight in the return of the tax collectors and sinners than in the others, and because they take offense at Jesus’ celebration with the tax collectors and sinners, they show that their spirit is far from God’s. The parable poses a double scandal for the Pharisees and scribes; not only are they reminded of the biblical image of God as a shepherd but also God takes more delight in celebrating with a repentant sinner than with the scribes and Pharisees. Their ‘righteousness’ did not make God rejoice. The celebration of the coming of the kingdom was taking place in Jesus’ table fellowship with the outcasts, but because their righteousness had become a barrier separating them from the outcasts, they were missing it.”
Luke 15:1 listen to him: The purpose of this simple phrase with the word listen/hear (akoúō) identifies this group as the ones who are responding to the challenge of 14:35 – “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.”
Luke 15:2 and eats with them: synesthio. This phrase should echo the entire of Luke 14, the preceding chapter in which table fellowship is one of the central controversies of the narrative.
Luke 15:4 what man among you: the man refers to someone who is a shepherd. Commentaries are divided on what to make of the occupational reference. Some hold that shepherds were considered to be looked down upon as people not worthy of trust. Thus the listener is ironically asked to associate themselves with the unclean. Others hold that given there were 100 sheep, this is clearly a wealthy owner-shepherd. Thus the listener is given to draw comparisons with the promised Good Shepherd of Ezekiel 34. Another argument for the “wealthy man” assumption is that the parable that follows represents a “poor woman.” This contrast has been a pattern in Luke’s telling of the gospel story (cf. 1:6-7; 2:25-38; 4:25-27; et. al.)
lost: apóllymi The literal meaning is “to destroy,” “kill,” in battle or prison; – or “to suffer loss or lose”; “to perish”; “to be lost” (cf. Lk. 15). The three parables are told from God’s standpoint and while the meaning used is more passive in our English translation “lost” as in wandered off, in the Greek it can be understood as “lost” in the war between good and evil. Notably, in Matthew’s version (18:12-13) the sheep “went astray.”
Luke 15:6 joy…Rejoice: The words used in these parables are all from the same root word that gives us Eucharist – chaírō (to rejoice), chará (joy), synchaírō (to rejoice with).
- Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 294-305
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 568-86
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985).
Oepke, apóllymi , , Vol. I, pp. 394-97
W. Zimmerli, chaírō (to rejoice), chará (joy), synchaírō (to rejoice with), Vol. IX, 376-87
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/