Commentary on Luke 15:1-32
This collection of three parables highlights the lost among us: a lost animal (sheep), money, and a child (son).
They include two living creatures and one object of exchange necessary for living. Jesus deploys the parables because of the Pharisees and their scribes in his audience who object to Jesus’ regular and intimate association with so-called “sinners and tax collectors.” Yet if the Pharisees and scribes view “sinners and tax collectors” as lost, then all the more reason they should celebrate rather than complain about the time Jesus spends with them (verses 6-7).
Jesus has come to call to repentance those who recognize they are spiritually ill to the degree that they need a physician (5:31), and to raise the consciousness of the self-righteous who think they have no need of repentance. Some Pharisees and their scribes fail to see their own lostness. People who only do good toward and love those who love them must change course and learn to love those they perceive to be enemies and “tax collectors and sinners” (6:32-36). Some Pharisees publicly demonstrate piety but are greedy, wicked, hypocritical, and neglect the justice and love of God (11:39, 42-43).
Perhaps the many times Jesus eats with the Pharisees and their scribes demonstrates both their comradery and his concern for their lostness (5:27-30; 7:36; 11:37-38; 14:1). We should rejoice that “sinners” like us are welcomed in the company of Jesus, who facilitates repentance. Sometimes or too often Christian identity is predicated on the ideological and theological construction of a group of people we can perpetually and consistently identify as “other” or “sinners.” We identify ourselves based on who we believe or convince ourselves we are not; we are not them. Christian white supremacy and nationalism, for example, makes such claims. “Sinners and tax collectors” are a problem for certain Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem where he will be crucified (5:29-32; 7:33-50; 9:51).
The three parables share a common structure: (a) something or someone considered valuable is characterized as out of place or lost, (b) it or he is found, brought, or returns home, (c) the owner, friends, family, and neighbors celebrate that what was lost is found. A relationship is restored. Common language and themes are: lost (apolesa), home (oikos/oikia), found (euron), friends (philoi/philas), neighbors, community celebration, and joy over one sinner who repents.
In the first parable a certain human (anthropos)1 discovered that out of one hundred sheep, one strayed from the fold. Thus, he leaves the ninety-nine together in the wilderness to bring the other one home (oikos) (verses 3-6). The one lost sheep drifted from the fold and thus is in greater danger. Home should be a safe place for those that stray and those that stay. When the shepherd finds the one lost sheep, he calls his friends (philoi) and neighbors—his community—together to celebrate (verse 6). Community is a place where we can lose and recover, without judgment.
In the second parable, Jesus asks what woman who earned ten drachmas, representing ten days of labor, would not light a lamp, take a broom, and frantically sweep the entire house (oikia) to find the one missing drachma (verse 8)? That one drachma equals a day of hard labor. When she finds it, she summons her sister friends (philas) and neighbors to celebrate with her (verse 9). The money is what she needs to remain sheltered or feed her household. She and her family will suffer if the coin remains lost.
The physical and spiritual are existentially connected. The personal is political; the domestic and public are interconnected, as some of the Pharisees and their scribes’ critique of Jesus’ dinner company demonstrates (for example, 5:27-30). The woman with the lost coin, unlike the father whose son left home, is not wealthy. The woman cannot risk that the coin will show up on its own. Her wellbeing and that of her household depends on retrieving the lost coin. The lost ones in our homes and in our global neighborhoods impact all of us. If we cannot see our lostness as connected with the lostness of others (economically, spiritually, physically), we will likely work less diligently for a quality of life, justice, and love for others.
The third parable begins with the words “a certain man (anthropos) had two sons. His younger son demands that his father give him an inheritance now (15:11-12).The son who insists on receiving an inheritance before his father dies is lost before he leaves home. We do not have to leave or stray, physically, from church, home, or community to be lost. The younger son appears to care more about living life on his terms than about the wellbeing and feelings of his father and older brother.
Sometimes we can only find ourselves in uncomfortable spaces, away from home. The older brother is the legitimate heir to the inheritance after his father’s death. But like Jacob (and Rebekah, Genesis 27), the younger son rejects the hierarchical and patriarchal tradition of inheritance. Daughters did not generally inherit property, but like the younger son they sometimes challenged traditions and policies that excluded them (see also Numbers 27).
Not all fathers possess the wealth of the father in the parable. He can give his younger son an inheritance that allows him to live lavishly for some time and have enough left to throw a feast when he returns home, partly due to the slaves he owns and the older son who works like a slave in the younger brother’s absence (verses 22, 29). Luke has much to say about rich men, most of which is not positive (for example, 16:19-31). The older son, the one who stayed home, is impacted by the father’s decision to give his younger brother what he demands. He has reason to feel slighted when his brother returns home to a lavish celebration (verse 29). Unlike the owners of the lost sheep and lost coin, the father does not search for his son; he finds his own way home when all is lost: money, dignity, and shelter. He can go home or stay in the mire. Home is a place for the lost and the found, the “lost” who stay and the “lost” who leave.
- Note that women cared for sheep, too, as seen in Exodus 2:16.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
You celebrate when one of your lost children is found because no one is worthless to you. We stand humbled and in awe that you would count us among your most prized possessions. Give us eyes to see the priceless value of every living soul, for the sake of the one who became human for the sake of our souls, Jesus Christ our seeker. Amen.
Lead me, guide me, Doris Akers