Come and Join the Party

Luke 15

Now the tax collectors and [other] sinners were also coming along to hear what he had to say. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled mightily about this, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
And so it was to them that he gave out this parable which he told especially for them: “What one [man] of you, having a hundred sheep, and unable to locate one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after the one who is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders rejoicing, and comes home and calls to his friends and neighbors, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be joy just like that in heaven over one sinner repenting moreso than over the ninety-nine right-standing who do not need to repent.
“Or what [kind of] woman [is it], having lost one of her ten silver drachmas, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently [every nook and cranny] until she finds it? And when she does, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice [come celebrate] with me because I have found the drachma I had lost.’ Just like that, I tell you, there is such joy before the angels of God over one sinner repenting.”
And [in going on with a further elaboration] he said,
“There was a man who had two sons. And the younger said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the inheritance falling to me.’ And he divided his property to them accordingly. And after not many days, having gathered all what he had together, this younger son took off to a far country, and there his substance was dispersed in an utterly wasteful life. But when it was all spent, a severe famine descended on that land, and he began to experience [real] poverty. And so, on his own initiative, he joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to tend the pigs. And he developed a strong craving for the mash pigs eat, but no one gave him any.
“But coming to, he [found that he was] checking himself saying, ‘Will not my father’s hired servants have more than enough loaves. And here am I in this famine on the brink of destruction! OK then. Rising up from here I will go to my father, and I will say to him straight up, ’Father, I have sinned against heaven and you, right in your face. I am no longer worthy to [have your surname and] be called your son. Take me and treat me as one of your servants.’ And with that he got up and went [right away] to his father.
“But while he was still some way off [up the road], his father saw him and moved with deep pity ran and embraced him heartily and fervently [hugged and] kissed him. And his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and you, right in your face. I am no longer worthy to [to have your surname and] be called your son.’ But his father said to his servants, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe, and dress him in it, and put a [family] ring on his finger, and sandals upon his feet, and fetch the calf that has been fattened, kill it and let us eat together in celebration. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and now is found.’ And they began their celebration.
“But the other son, the older one [working] in the [administration of the] fields, upon coming near the house heard the music and the dancing. And he called one of the servants to him to ask what was going on. And this one said to him, ‘Your brother has come [back], and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back killing the fattened calf because he is safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in [and join the celebrations]. And so it was that his father came out to plead with him, but he [would have none of it] and answered his father, ‘Consider how for many years I have been here serving you, and I have never disobeyed any of your rules [your considered advice], yet you never gave me so much as a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this [person], your son, having cannibalized your inheritance with prostitution, you killed for him the fattened calf!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours already. It is fitting to celebrate and to rejoice [before God], for this your brother was dead, and has come back to life; he was lost, and now he is found.’”

These three parables are well known. Some readers may assume that for this reason they do not need further discussion, or at least not much. On the other hand, given what we have already noted again and again, from the evident continuity in Luke’s Gospel, it might be appropriate to put such conventional interpretations of these three parables to the test by a careful examination.

Let us keep to our assumption that Luke is building a picture of how Jesus responded to the opposition from the Pharisees and the Lawyers that was mounting against him on his way up to Jerusalem. Our interpretation of this Gospel is not consistent with views that suggest Luke was merely documenting disparate discoveries he had collected together about the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Rather Luke is also telling us what he has discovered about Jesus, about his purpose, and all that he was doing. And it may sound rather confused but Luke’s documented “discoveries” show us how his understanding of Jesus’ “going up to Jerusalem” deepened as he gathered these accounts together. And meanwhile, do we not also have an account of how Jesus’ understanding deepened of what lay before him and those who answered his call to follow him? Here we have an account of how the Son of God and Son of Man, Israel’s Messiah, embraced the work that was disclosed to him by the Holy Spirit, in conformity with the commission given him by the Father in heaven, as attested by the law and the prophets.

And it is not just the “content” of what Jesus taught, or the details of what he did, that Luke is passing on to Theophilus. Of course all of it is of immense significance. But it is also the literary form (or forms) in which this teaching is conveyed. Luke gives us every indication that the Son of God, Immanuel, came amongst us from within a family-network with remarkable story-telling, poetic and song-writing talent. Jesus of Nazareth is presented to us as a Rabbi from an economically poor region of Israel, a wandering teacher, who was also a gifted poet, psalmist and story-teller.

And the people flocked to him in a way that deeply disturbed and annoyed the Pharisees and the scribes even if they presented themselves as the elite litterateurs of Israel. When confronted by the literary service Jesus was providing they were apparently completely oblivious of the need for the “sinners and tax-collectors” to learn the rhyme and harmonies of a new song to sing to Israel’s Protector, Shepherd, Householder, Father.

And so in this context my reading assumes that these three parables are Jesus’ threefold attempt to encourage the Pharisees to turn away from their bitter grumbling. Why were they so annoyed? Why the perpetual scowl? Luke’s account is suggestive of Jesus busily engaging the crowds and there they are standing aloof as a group, frowns on their faces, murmuring among themselves. It may not be loud but their silent disapporval of Jesus is self-evident and has an impact upon the atmosphere which otherwise is overflowing with good humour.

Is Jesus perhaps embarrassed for these killjoys? He is alert to their habitual grissling. I think that these three parables are to be told together – Luke’s intention in retelling them in this way can be summed up as Jesus’ challenge to the scribes and Pharisees that is present in the concluding plea-without-words of the delighted father to his not-so-delighted son:

Come and join the party!

In other words:

Get in step with heaven’s joyful dance over the repentance of sinners, the return of the prodigals.

So how then are we proposing that the three parables go together? Consider how the first parable involves Jesus’ attempt to evoke some imaginative response from those murmuring disapproval at Jesus’ open welcome to quisling tax collectors and other sinners of all kinds.

What one [man] of you, having a hundred sheep, and unable to locate one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after the one who is lost, until he finds it?

Jesus presents the Pharisees and scribes with a picture of a determined shepherd. It is as if he says to them:

All you see in me is a reckless shepherd who wants to have a party with his friends after a hard day’s work in which I went off in search of the stray one from the flock? Which one of you would dare to be like me and do that? I guess it would be too much of a stretch to suppose that you would ever be so foolhardy, and as for having a celebration with your friends when you finally get through the day’s search, well that also is beyond you. And so the kind of joy that we have in learning about God’s Kingdom and the way the Good Shepherd of the sheep rejoices in one repentant sinner’s return is simply not on your horizon. That’s too bad. That’s a celebration that is beyond your reach and experience. It needn’t be.

And then Jesus turns away from the male occupation of shepherding to ask whether a dilligent woman in charge of her household budget would go in search of one of her ten silver coins that has been misplaced.

You might not be able to identify with the shepherd, his search and subsequent party, but can you appreciate the frantic search when 1/10th of the household treasure is mislaid? Surely you can. And having imagined the emergency you may be able to sense the relief she experiences when she finds it and the beaming happiness on her face when she shares the news with her friends and neighbours that she has finally found it.

Jesus continues, and it would seem that the Pharisees and the scribes, as well as the crowds of “sinners”, were able to hear him explain that heaven’s joy at the repentance of a sinner is very much like the kind of relief, mutual support and celebration that we can imagine in such a women’s circle.

In the third of these three parables about heaven’s joy at the sinner who repents, Jesus gives his hearers the opportunity to celebrate God’s mercy. The lost son had been dead but is now alive, lost and now has been found.

So Luke leaves the question with us: can the Pharisees and the scribes imagine themselves in this culminating story? They had murmured at the scandalous conduct of Jesus (15:2). He receives sinners into his inner circle and eats with them! The elder son had complained similarly to his father about his brother and this was his excuse for not joining in the celebration.

So could the Pharisees see themselves as in some way like the younger son? Maybe not. They had not gone away “far off” or at least had no idea that they might have strayed even a short distance. But would they have been alert to seeing themselves and their bitter murmuring depicted in Jesus’ story by the determined unwillingness of the elder son to join in the party?

Luke’s account of Jesus’ parables carry with them an implicit assessment of the bitter murmuring of the Pharisees and the scribes. Their refusal to “join the party”, their inability to welcome the teaching and ministry of Jesus, their unwillingness to join with the tax collectors and sinner, is more concerned with maintaining elite solidarity than with joining in heaven’s delight when repentant sons find their way home.

It is a remarkable feature of the three parables that they all culminate in Jesus’ explanation of the rejoicing that takes place – what was lost is now found, what was dead has now come back to life again. The sober dimension is that there is no statement from Luke that the parables had any impact upon those gathering their forces to resist Jesus’ ministry.

5th January 2017

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