Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 15:1-10 launches an extended reflection on one of the most provocative aspects of Jesus’ ministry, his companionship with tax collectors and sinners.

September 12, 2010

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Commentary on Luke 15:1-10

Luke 15:1-10 launches an extended reflection on one of the most provocative aspects of Jesus’ ministry, his companionship with tax collectors and sinners.

Context is everything here. The passage includes a setting (15:1-2) followed by the parables of the Lost Sheep (15:3-7) and the Lost Coin (15:8-10). It sets the table for the grand third parable concerning things lost, the parable of the Lost Son (15:11-32). Moreover, Luke 15:1-10 follows close upon the parable of the Banquet, in which the “poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind” replace the anticipated guest list (14:15-24).

Luke makes Jesus’ companionship with sinners a special point of emphasis. Like Mark and Matthew, Luke relates the call of Levi and the debate concerning Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners (5:27-32). Luke alone provides the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears (7:36-50), in my opinion a radical redaction of the anointing at Bethany from Mark 14:3-9. Luke alone also includes the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14) and the account of Zacchaeus, the tax collector whose company Jesus requires (19:1-10). We might add Jesus’ behavior on the cross, praying forgiveness for his executioners (23:34) and blessing the neighboring thief (23:43).

Note one aspect of the setting: “All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near in order to hear him” (15:1). Sage preachers will ask, “Why? What is it about Jesus that attracts tax collectors and sinners to him?” Here we want to avoid vain romanticism about Jesus’ winsome personality and follow Luke’s lead instead. Luke provides a mixed message: Jesus seeks to bring sinners to repentance (5:32), but not once does Jesus actually scold or correct a sinner. Instead, he eats with them. Four times Luke reports (a) meals in which (b) Jesus receives criticism for (c) his relationship with sinners, but (d) Jesus never once comments on the sinners’ behavior (5:27-32; 7:36-50; 15:1-32; and 19:1-10). We might note that all three of the parables in Luke 15 assume celebrations, or meals.

Congregations may stumble over the term sinner, especially if they are well educated in Christian doctrine. “Aren’t we all sinners?” some may protest. Not in Luke’s world. In Luke’s world, some people so habitually transgress the ways of God that they are sinners in need of repentance. Others do not. We must take our passage on its own terms: Jesus distinguishes between sinners who repent and “the righteous who have no need of repentance” (15:7). We may struggle with that distinction, but it is critical for engaging this passage on its own terms. Here lies the cutting edge of the passage: Jesus embraces the very people the rest of religious society rejects.

Preachers, then, face the task of helping their congregations imagine what it is to welcome “sinners.” In most parts of North America, religion lacks the cultural clout to define righteous persons from sinners. Most churches lack the moral authority to make such determinations. However, our society does name its losers, and the church’s task is to take sides with the underdogs. Do we have the courage, first, to speak out loud who are the “sinners” in our cultural moment, and, second, to take sides with them? Politicians and demagogues are constantly scapegoating people as “sinners” who place an undue burden on the rest of society. As we move from one public debate to another, “sinners” includes undocumented immigrants, but apparently does not include respectable people who prevent group homes from entering their neighborhoods and people who conduct business in predatory ways. Eating with sinners means taking sides.

The two parables begin on slightly different notes. “Which one among you?” invites the audience into the story. A literal translation of 15:3 — “He spoke this parable to them, saying. . .” suggests a reply to the complaint of the Pharisees and the scribes. Luke has taken the parable of the Lost Sheep from Q material (Matthew 18:12-14), but characteristically adds a story with a female protagonist: “Or what woman?” The man with one hundred sheep would seem to be better off than the woman with ten coins, though the woman’s ten coins do not necessarily suggest extreme poverty. While shepherds represented a despised trade in Jesus’ world, the woman is entirely a sympathetic character.

Despite their distinctive beginnings, the two parables share a basic structure. (a) One is lost from a much larger group, (b) the protagonist goes to great lengths to seek out the lost item, (c) the finder invites friends for a celebration, and (d) Jesus offers the moral of the story. Preachers might observe how the story slows down to describe how the woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully. Who among us does not know this experience?

As with most of Jesus’ parables, there is a “hook,” something that seems out of place. That hook lies in a certain lavishness in the celebrations. In the ancient world, “rejoicing” implies eating. Would a shepherd really throw a party over the finding of a lost sheep? (“Which one of you” does not do so?) If the lost coin so concerns the woman, are we to expect her to endure the expense of a party? (“What woman” would not?) As with most parables, this “hook” provides rich material for reflection. It invites us to recognize the extravagant joy with which God, present in Christ, welcomes sinners.

Finally, let us attend to the role of meals. If we take on the risk of naming today’s “sinners” and then welcoming them, words alone do not suffice. There is the matter of setting a table — literally, not figuratively. Table fellowship reveals the boundaries of human relationships.