In Luke's gospel, the narrative often lingers at the dinner table. Indeed, a good meal in the gospel is often accompanied with a parable spun by Jesus. Luke's fifteenth chapter is a good example of this sort of experience, where Jesus tells of the Kingdom/Reign of God and its subverting of the current order. He often tells this good news to an assemblage of folks marginalized or rendered "less than" by the political, social and religious leaders. Good news from Jesus is indeed good news for all!
Unfortunately, the Pharisees never got the memo on this. They see Jesus spending time with, heavens, even eating with people who the Pharisees know to be “sinners”. They stand there aghast at how (yet again!) Jesus befriends those who ought to be kept at arm’s length. So Jesus directly addresses the issues through three interlinked parables. One is historically the more famous, yet read together, all three stories invite us into the parables of the lost and found.
A lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son: each of them might seem fruitless to search for, yet the woman, the shepherd, and the father never give up. The Pharisees are told these stories as they see Jesus sitting among people they have considered “lost”. To Jesus, these folks may be conflicted, may be rough around the edges, but as far as Jesus is concerned, they are “found”. These people are not “those people”, that infamous phrase oft-heard when one group thinks another group inferior, suspect, or of little worth. The parables point to this dinner crowd not as “undesirable riffraff” but beloved children of God.
At the start of Luke 15, before the parables start rolling, one after the other, the Pharisees are off in the corner, grumbling. The Greek text uses a word that harkens back to the days when Israel wandered in the wilderness and did not like much of their life, not least Moses’ leadership or the manna provided by God. The Pharisees are not only grumbling to themselves, they are grumbling hopefully in the earshot of any passersby.
Ironically, their chief grumble (“This person welcomes sinners and eats with them”) is exactly what Jesus wishes to be caught doing: welcoming. You see, the Greek word for “welcoming” or “to welcome” (prosdechomai) appears elsewhere in Luke’s writings when people are looking forward to God’s own visitation, when they are yearning to see God bring about comfort, hope, and an end to the woes of life. The Pharisees see Jesus welcoming the seedy and unclean. Jesus sees a group of people who really need to hear God’s welcome.
Now, here in this story of “a dinner party for the unwelcome and the written off” appears this word where “welcome” means hospitality as well as hope. When Jesus welcomes the sinners in, it is the gospel he preaches being acted out. Indeed, he does welcome people, to table as well as to hear of the Kingdom of God. As one Baptist New Testament scholar observes, “Place Jesus at a dining table filled with all kinds of folk whom the religious tradition had rejected, and you will see Luke’s [gospel] clear and undiluted” (Linda McKinnish Bridges, The Church’s Portraits of Jesus, Smyth & Helwys, 1997, p. 68).
Each of these three parables offers very little instruction about how one repents. Each parable avoids moralizing, instead ending on a celebratory note. The shepherd invites his friends to celebrate, the woman claims the angels dance in heaven above with joy, and the father throws one of the wildest parties the neighborhood has seen. The lost are found by the God who is like a shepherd searching, who is like a woman diligently seeking, or who is like a father long pained by a child’s absence and now overjoyed at receiving the prodigal.
In his recent and masterful commentary on the Gospel of Luke, scholar John T. Carroll observes, "The parables of Luke 15 are a vigorous attempt at persuasion (deliberative rhetoric); the third parable leaves the outcome in the hands of the Pharisees: will they be able to move beyond offense at Jesus' gracious hospitality toward the lost and join the party, symbol of the realm of God?" (Luke: A Commentary, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2012, p. 319).
The evangelist and American Baptist Tony Campolo shares a story of traveling by train around the United Kingdom. He notices in his train car is a young man, looking ragged from what Campolo presumed was an annual rock music festival going on near that part of the country. Oddly, the man has just one shoe on.
Campolo asks the young man, "Sir? Have you lost a shoe?"
The young man replied, "No, man. I found one!"