The Parables of Luke 15

This coming weekend is the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Lectionary Cycle C during which we take the majority of our gospels from the Gospel of Luke. This coming weekend the gospel has a “long” option and a “short” option. Both readings are taken from Luke 15 which contains the well-known parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. The longer option includes all three parables. The shorter option considers only the Prodigal Son. This is my way of giving you a “heads up” that the posts this week will be on the longish side.

Here is my plan – and on any given day I might break the materials into more than one post, just to keep the length manageable:

  • Monday: context and some common features across the parables
  • Tuesday: the “Lost” and the parable of the Lost Sheep
  • Wednesday: the parable of the Lost Coin
  • Thursday: the beginning of the parable of the Prodigal Son
  • Friday: end conclusion  of the parable of the Prodigal Son
  • Saturday: a final reflection

Luke 15 is one of the most unique chapters in the Gospels in that it consists of three memorable parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. Many commentators locate these three parables (Luke 15) within a larger section of Luke that asks the question “who will participate in the reign of God?” (13:10-17:10). The section includes the foundational formation of the disciples – but often via the encounter with the Pharisees in which the assumptions of right relationship with God are put to the question. The Pharisees and others in the Jewish religious leadership assume folks such as tax collectors and sinners are outside the “faithful remnant” that awaits the return of the Messiah. At issue is the question of fellowship in the community of God’s people. Each encounter in this larger section seems to be an opportunity to form the disciples (and anyone who would listen) in the understanding of the reign of God.

The setting for teaching about this fellowship is so often the meal setting where questions of boundaries and community play out in terms of admission, honor, and hospitality.  So often in this section the characters within the pericopes and parables are those who should attract respect and honor according to the conventional wisdom, yet within the parables are casualties of a reversal of values and misfortunes: “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (13:30).

Central to participation in the kingdom is the position of the poor and marginalized. Jesus’ teaching in chapters 14 and 16 (which includes the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) regarding the importance of welcoming into one’s homes those who live on the margins of society – “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (25:24; cf. 25:32; 26:30) – underscores the central question raised in 15:1-32.

Beyond the poor and marginalized, one should also be aware that one should not neglect the category of sin when asking this same central question. This broad category would also include those considered “lost.” In Jesus’ time there were four categories of sinners: physical, racial, social, and moral. One can see the physical category in the story of man born blind (John 9) that highlights the belief that his blindness was due to either his sin or the sin of his parents. The racial aspect can be seen in the attitude towards foreigners because they did not observe the Law (e.g., Gentiles and Samaritans). The social category applied to tax collectors. The moral category can be seen in the attitude towards money lenders (usury), divorcees, and prostitution – to name a few. Because Jesus sits and eats with them, he too is accused of being a sinner and empowered by Satan.

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