The sinners are much more fun…
These days, I wouldn’t consider reflecting on one (or more) of Jesus’ parables without consulting Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. “It is unlikely a first-century Jewish listener would hear the first two parables and conclude that they have something to do with sheep repenting or coins confessing,” she writes of our texts (page 29). “Neither sheep nor coins have the capability to repent,” she continues, “and I doubt the younger brother does either.”
Levine argues that the first parable is about the shepherd who lost his sheep. Likewise, the second parable is about the woman who lost her coin. The Lukan author continues the practice of pairing men and women in parallel stories. In addition, we have a “rule of three” structure here. Somehow, the first two stories set the expectations for the third one. Levine would name the third parable “The Father Who Lost His Son(s).”
I would humbly suggest, however, that these titles are incomplete. The first parable is the story of the sheep owner who lost and found his sheep. The second parable is the story of the woman who lost and found her coin. Thus, the third parable would be the story of the father who lost and found his son(s). This makes a facile identification between the protagonists and God more complicated. But then, it’s a parable!
Levine rightly dismantles the argument that God is the forgiving finder and that this is a peculiarly Christian discovery about the nature of God, “as if Jews had no notion of a divinity who seeks relationship and reconciliation” (page 30). She proposes a more faithful and less anti-Jewish interpretive framework: “the parable’s message of finding the lost, of reclaiming children, of reassessing the meaning of family offer not only good news, but better news” (page 30).
Levine’s scholarship helps us to keep from making Jesus look good by making Jews look bad. Nonetheless, we still have the text as the Lukan author has presented it. If we should not make this a subtle anti-Semitic trope (and we should not), then what shall we do?
It seems clear to me that the rhetoric of the text directs it to the Lukan audience, and thus to us, as the Church. Which man among you, which woman among you, the parables ask. The narrative is designed to pull us into the middle of the parables and to examine our faith practices accordingly. It may be that Jesus used this phrasing to pull his listeners into the conversation. It is certainly the case that the Lukan author used this narrative strategy to engage the listeners and readers.
The chapter is launched by the grumbling of some of the Pharisees: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” How did that grumbling reflect life in the Lukan communities? How does it reflect life in our communities?
Jesus will eat with anyone. Prior to Luke 15, Jesus has eaten with Pharisees at least three times: in chapters 7, 11, and 14. These meals erupt on controversy, but that doesn’t mean the meals were failures. That’s just what happens when you get some teachers together to debate the finer points of the Torah. As it turns out, the controversies are about Sabbath, the Temple, and Purity laws. These are three of the main pillars of Judaism and are worth arguing about.
My point is that Jesus does not reject invitations to party with the Pharisees. He embraces those invitations with gusto. He gets no further invitations, following our text. That may be because his hosts had had enough of him. Or it may be that the Lukan author has used these scenes enough to make the points the author wants to make.
Nonetheless, Jesus will eat with anyone, regardless of theological, social, or political inclination. That’s worth noting in a time when we tend to gather more and more only with people who look, think, talk, and behave like us. Then, as now, eating with anyone and everyone is a countercultural activity. “To invite a person to a meal was an honor that implied acceptance, trust, peace,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write (page 370). To accept that invitation was to accept that honor.
In Luke 15, Jesus embodies and enacts the table manners of the New Age that he outlined in Luke 14:7-14. He accepts dinner invitations from the wrong kinds of people. He parties with the poor and the rich, the reviled and the respectable. It’s not bad enough that he sits down at the table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. He’s having a good old time with traitors and collaborators, with those who play fast and loose with their religion and probably fast and loose with a lot of other rules as well.
Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? Perhaps it’s because, as Billy Joel noted, “the sinners are much more fun” (from “Only the Good Die Young”). But I think it’s also because when there’s a chance to throw someone a lifeline and offer a chance at rescue, Jesus is going to do it. If he finds someone who has fallen into an existential well and gotten lost (see Luke 14:5), Jesus is going to move heaven and earth to effect a rescue.
And there’s something about eating together that lowers our defenses. I was privileged for some years to be part of a congregational prison ministry called the FEAST. A major component of that ministry was and is a Sunday meal together including inmates from the local community corrections center, members of the congregation, and other volunteers, family, and friends. The meal often did and does take on the character of a celebration, whether there’s something to celebrate or not.
I remember a FEAST partner (we call our inmate friends “partners” in that ministry) who was sure there was a catch to all of this. Numerous times he asked me what it was that we actually “wanted” from him. There must be something. Nobody in their right mind would do this for free, he thought. “What do you people really want from me?” he asked again. “We’d like to know how you want your burger cooked,” one of the volunteers replied.
We hoped our time together might change all of us for the better, but that wasn’t a condition for being together. Yet, my friend began to soften a bit. He was less defensive and paranoid. His emotional shell became softer and thinner. His shoulders relaxed, and he even smiled a few times. After a few months, he came to me one day with a broad grin. “I’ve figured it out,” he told me. “I know what you people want.”
I held my breath, waiting for the content of the epiphany. “Well, tell me,” I said, “what is it that we people want?” He laughed as he spoke. “You don’t want anything. You just give yourselves and your time and your love for free. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think such a thing was possible. But do you know what really gets me?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I have no idea. Tell me.”
“All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I don’t want anything either. Because,” he took one more deep breath, “I know that God wants to give me everything.”
If I hadn’t been in that conversation myself, I’m not sure I would have believed it. Yet, nearly twenty years later, that conversation rings in my mind as clearly as the Sunday we had it. It didn’t work that way every time. Some never got over their suspicion. Some took what they could get and left. But many more had precisely the same experience. After a lifetime of judgment and punishment, grace changed their hearts and their lives.
The story may sound like a cheesy exercise in self-congratulation. I apologize if that’s what you get. What I know is that those of us who appeared to be on the “giving” end of the deal were (and are) the ones who benefitted the most. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a greater privilege than to watch week in and week out as living, breathing human beings were transformed (repented, in the real sense of the word) by the power of God’s grace in Christ, embodied in meals, friendship, acceptance, and love. I get chills even now as I write about this experience.
Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? In a sense, Billy Joel has it right. The sinners are more fun. I suspect there really is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance. The challenge to the ninety-nine is to accept the joy that’s on offer when such a transformation happens. Thus, we get the real tie-in to the third parable. Can the older son take joy in his brother’s return?
This will work out different ways in different settings. But the challenge of the Good News is there for all of us. In the last few weeks, Jesus has made it clear that he offers real freedom to those who fully follow him. When we receive and accept that invitation, can we take the same joy in offering that freedom to others (all equally undeserving, by the way)?
Resources and References
Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.
Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.
Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.
Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005. Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.