Robert Farrar Capon argues that the Parable of the Prodigal Son was “for Luke, the organizing principle of the entire tire sequence of passages in chapters 14 and 15” (Kindle Location 3652). The first twenty-four verses of Luke 14 happen at a Sabbath dinner party at the house of a leader of the Pharisees (see Luke 14:1). The dinner party presents Jesus with opportunities for both parabolic teaching and political challenge to the elites around the table.
More important, it sets up the homecoming party in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “As far as I am concerned therefore,” Capon writes, “the parable of the Prodigal is the sun around which Luke has made the rest of these materials orbit” (Kindle Locations 3659-3660). If that’s the case, and I think there’s good reason for the assertion, then we should look at the lead-in to chapter fifteen for interpretive clues to our text.
Luke 13 ends with Jesus’ lament over unwilling Jerusalem and the veiled reference to the Passion Sunday parade. The Pharisees who have come to warn Jesus about Herod’s threat are cast as opponents and adversaries. “And it so happened,” the Lukan author slyly continues, “that when he was going into the house of a certain ruler of the Pharisees on a Sabbath to eat bread, they also were watching him closely” (Luke 14:1, my translation).
Quite without preparation or explanation, a man with dropsy appears in his presence. Take a look at the description of “dropsy” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible for a brief description of the condition. The term describes symptoms more than causes. It could be, for example, cardiopulmonary disease with edema gathering in the chest and making breathing difficult. It’s not likely that this man was one of the invited guests.
That being said, the man presents Jesus with yet another opportunity to challenge the teachings of his opponents. Now, we should be clear that healing on the Sabbath was not regarded as a sin in later Jewish generations. So, let’s be careful not to generalize in such a way that we may Jews look bad in order to make Jesus look good (see Amy-Jill Levine’s repeated cautions and exhortations in this regard).
We need only think about how we might respond if an uninvited guest were to crash a dinner party we had thrown for a select crowd of people. It’s pretty easy to put our priorities ahead of the needs of others, especially when our reputation is at stake, or our plans are in danger of being disrupted. Especially in the honor and shame culture of the first-century Mediterranean world, the rule of “kiss up and piss down” would certainly have been in effect at the table.
That rule is patently obvious in Luke 14:7-11. The language of verse seven is interesting. “But he spoke a parable toward the ones having been invited…” (Luke 14:1a, my translation). The NRSV translation is just fine, of course, but it does not convey some of the verbal nuances. Jesus speaks “toward” (pros) some of the guests. This could be quite innocent, but I think the Lukan author means that the parable is about them as much as it is to them.
The “guests” are actually those “having been called.” The verb is the perfect middle of kaleo. This can mean to be called, to be summoned, or to be invited. It can refer to those who have been called to follow Jesus as disciples and apostles. I think the Lukan author wants to make sure that we who have been called will hear this parable as directed to us as well as to those who were gathered around the table with Jesus. I think that double meaning carries throughout the parable and should be remembered every time the verb “invite” shows up.
The Lukan author wants us to wrestle with who has a place at the table and where that place should be. The default understanding of room at the table is that the number of seats is a fixed quantity. Therefore, the seating chart is a zero-sum game. If I get a seat at the table, that may mean that you do not. Therefore, table seating becomes a competitive sport, where you earn your spot by some measure of “worth” or entitlement.
The throughline that connects the narrative in Luke 14 with the parables in Luke 15 is really quite clear. It’s not really about forgiveness or acceptance. It’s about who gets a place at the table. Now, this isn’t just any old table. This is the table God sets for people in the Kin(g)dom – the Wedding Banquet at which Jesus is the host and all of Creation are the invited guests. If that’s the Table that matters in this conversation, and if we are responding to Jesus’ call to follow him, then our table manners need to match those appropriate to the etiquette of the Kin(g)dom.
First, Jesus talks to those who have been invited. Don’t assume that you are the big fish in the little pond. Who knows, a bigger fish might show up. By the time you figure out the pecking order, everyone else will be in their places, and you’ll be stuck at the far end of the table – away from all the action and lucky to get a few crumbs by the time the platter arrives at your place. The host decides who gets honored, not the guests.
Second, Jesus talks to those who do the inviting. He once again attacks the principle of mutual reciprocity that provides the social grease for Greco-Roman political and business wheels. Luke 14:12-14 takes us back to the “woes” for the rich in the Sermon on the Plain. If you want to live by that system of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” that’s fine. But that’s not how the Real Table works in the Kin(g)dom of God. You have nothing to offer in exchange for a place at that table. So, manage your table in the here and now the way God does.
The truth is that many people aren’t interested in a table where merit doesn’t matter, and money can’t buy happiness. It seems that one of the guests didn’t quite get the points of the parables (well, one spoke up and was outed, at least). We come to the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24. The parable portrays a contradiction in values. The invited quests want it to be a big enough deal to be worth their time. The host wants the tables filled, no matter what it takes.
Capon gives a humorous description the man who didn’t quite get Jesus’ parables. His response, Capon writes, “is pure gush. The gentleman in question has been just as mystified as everyone else by the idea of giving dinner parties for the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind.” Instead of asking for some clarification and/or reexamining his own thinking, the man “does what so many of us do when confronted with paradox: he takes the first spiritual bus that comes along and gets out of town” (Kindle Locations 3670-3671).
I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about when you mention inviting all those misfits. But resurrection! I can hook on to that idea and give you a compliment to move the conversation on to other ground. “Earlier in the evening, when Jesus saw the guests vying for the best seats, he gave them a little lecture (appealing to enlightened self-interest) interest) about how their efforts at being winners could very well spoil their enjoyment of the party,” Capon writes, “But now, in the parable, he portrays the pursuit of a sensible, successful life as something that will keep them – and us – out of the parry altogether” (Kindle Locations 3678-3681).
Capon reminds us to resist making this about Jew/Gentile distinctions in the ministry of Jesus, the thinking of the Lukan author, or the life of the Church. Instead, “The point is that none of the people who had a right to be at a proper party came,” Capon concludes, “and that all the people who came had no right whatsoever to be there. Which means, therefore, that the one thing that has nothing to do with anything is rights” (Kindle Location 3709-3710).
Therefore, Capon labels the Lukan version of the Parable of the Great Banquet as a parable of grace. It is about what we are given and not about what we think we can earn. “Grace as portrayed here,” he argues, “works only on the untouchable, the unpardonable, and the unacceptable. It works, in short, by raising the dead, not by rewarding the living” (Kindle Locations 3711-3712).
This, then, is the narrative and rhetorical context that sets up Luke 15. The Lukan author makes the connection explicit in the beginning of the chapter. The Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling. They are murmuring, as did the ancient Israelites when they didn’t like what God was up to. They said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).
The lost are now found at the Great Banquet, welcomed by the host and brought in from the four corners of the earth. The sheep did nothing to deserve being sought or saved. Neither did the coin. Most of all, the son did everything possible NOT to be sought or saved. Yet, he receives a place at the Table of the Father, and the Party begins.
So, the Father says, let’s get this party started! But will those who have played by the rules join in the celebration? That’s the unanswered question in the Lukan account.
Resources and References
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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