In the fifteenth chapter of Luke Jesus tells three parables, each to illustrate that God loves all people and desires a relationship with them, no matter where they are or what they have done. The occasion in which these parables are told is a response to the Pharisees and scribes who “grumbled” and criticized Jesus for keeping company and dining with sinners and tax collectors (English Standard Version, 15:1-2). Four particular people groups are the focus of this passage, who are essentially the righteous and the unrighteous. Understanding these groups provides insight into Jesus’ following parables.
The Pharisees and scribes are considered the righteous; they are the Jewish elite who were guaranteed to be in God’s favor. The Pharisees were a prominent and influential party in Judaism. Josephus records the “Pharisees have the multitude on their side” (Ant. 13.298), and according to Luke’s second letter they were the strictest sect (Acts 26:5). The Pharisees sought to holiness and purity from within the larger society and were concerned with the proper observance of purity regulations in the Torah (Simmons 60). Among the existent literature, there is no mention of the Pharisees involved in any ritual gathering around a common table. This absence has led some scholars to conclude that “table fellowship for the Pharisees was not a matter only of nutrition but of spiritual communion . . . [and] may well have meant acceptance before God” (61).
The second group of righteous persons challenging Jesus is the scribes. As a group who had the skill set to write correspondence and copy important documents, the scribes were very close to the ruling elite. While the scribes in antiquity had a variety of roles, the scribes in the New Testament are frequently paired with the Pharisees. For this reason, it can be reasonably inferred that these scribes were the scholars of the Torah, and in the later writings the term was substituted with “prophet” (77).
The two groups which fall under the unrighteous category are the sinners and tax collectors. Tax collectors were the individuals who collected money from their people to pay tribute to Israel’s oppressors. Such foreign dominion is strictly forbidden in Deuteronomy where God states “you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community” (17:15), and collecting taxes would present as an endorsement of this foreign rule which would equate tax collectors with traitor. Also of note is that tax collectors were in frequent company with Gentiles, whom the Pharisees considered unclean (Simmons 102).
The term sinner is ambiguous and not fully defined in the New Testament. However, its pairing with prostitutes and tax collectors suggests it as an unfavorable group who were morally unprincipled, disobedient to the Torah, and thus unclean (108). In the opening of the passage in question, Luke distinguishes sinners from tax collectors (15:1); however, the Pharisees and scribes comment, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2), appears to classify both groups together.
In the first two verses, there is a conflict between the righteous people and the unrighteous. The righteous people were by all outward appearance guaranteed to be in God’s favor did not feel it was appropriate for the man who was believed to be Elijah or “one of the prophets of old” (Lk. 9:19) to have table fellowship with those unworthy of God. A similar question had previously been posed by the scribes and Pharisees to which Jesus answered “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:31-32). The three parables in Luke 15, tell of the joy of God when these sinners repent.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep is the first Jesus tells. He describes a man with one hundred sheep, and how one has wandered off and gotten lost (15:4). In this parable, the shepherd leaves his flock in search of a single sheep. Alone, a sheep is in danger of predators and rough terrain. There is no reason to assume the shepherd in this story is irresponsible, especially since it is intended to represent God, perhaps meant to recount Ezekiel where God states; “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:11-12). It can be assured that the ninety-nine sheep are left in safety. This parable not only describes how a single sheep, or sinner, is actively sought by God, but how upon finding it He carries it home and rejoices with others (Lk. 15:5). Just so there is no misunderstanding Jesus interprets this parable for His audience and states “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).
Jesus’ second parable is The Parable of the Lost Coin, in which a woman loses one of ten silver coins and desperately searches her house to find it (v. 8-10). This woman sweeps the floor and lights a lamp to illuminate even the darkest corners of the house (v.8), and when she finds the coin, she rejoices with others (v. 9). Again, Jesus interprets this parable for His audience when he states, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).
The first two parables have illustrated the sinner’s inherent value, how God actively searches for them, and how he rejoices once they have been found. The parables have built up to the third, which not only focuses on the role of the sinner but also presents as a rebuke of the Pharisees and scribes. The Parable of the Prodigal Son (v. 11-32), tells of a second born son who rejects his family, demands his inheritance, and leaves home (v. 12-13). This son spent his entire inheritance on immoral acts (v. 13, 30) and fell into poverty (v. 14). In this parable, the son went to work with swine (v. 15) which illustrates both his disregard for the Law (Lev. 11:7) and his desperation. However, he was even neglected by his employers who fed the pigs but not him (Lk. 15:15). It is here that the son recognized this error, repented and started traveling back to his father (vv. 18-20). It is here that the parable begins to parallel the previous two in God’s searching for the lost. It reads “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (v. 20). To observe and recognize the son who was still “a long way off” indicates that the father had been watching and searching the distance, and when he spotted the son he ran to meet him. The son, having been in contact with pigs, would be ceremonially unclean, but the father embraced him anyway. The son turned around and made a choice to go home, and the father met him where he was and carried him the rest of the way. Similar to the other two parables, there is a public celebration at finding the lost (vv. 22-23).
However, unlike the other parables, the story of the Prodigal Son does not end with the celebration. Jesus continues with a reaction of the older brother. As first born, this son was guaranteed a double portion of the inheritance (Deut. 21:17), his younger brother taking his portion or returning had no effect on his inheritance. However, this son was jealous (v. 30), took offense to the celebration and refused to go (v. 28). Similar to how the Pharisees and scribes separated themselves and criticized Jesus for dining with sinners (v. 2). And just like the father came to the younger son, he also came to the firstborn (v. 28) and explained that a celebration was in order (v. 31), for to be lost is to be dead, but to be with God is to be alive (vv. 24, 32).
How far are you from God? These parables demonstrate that no matter where you are God is actively searching for you. That light shining is for you to see, you just need to turn around and look to it. Like the younger son, we must recognize that we have strayed too far, and seek to return to God. Just as in the parables God will come for you, and no matter what you have done He will embrace you and celebrate your return to life!
Or are you like the scribes and Pharisees? Do you know the Bible inside and out and go to church every Sunday, but think that the church is no place for “those people”? Do you distance yourselves from certain people groups? The question is how does their salvation affect yours? The Father is still with you, and like the older son, it is fitting that you turn back to the house and celebrate with Him, lest you stray away from the sheepfold.
English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.
Josephus, Flavius. “The Antiquities of the Jews, 13.298.” Lexundria.com. Trans. William Whiston. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.
Simmons, William A. Peoples of the New Testament World. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub. ,2008.