Text Study for Luke 15:1-10 (Part Four)

Just a reminder, friends, that I’m back in the weekly preaching business for a while. So, I’m even more interested in your feedback and comments than previously. Please feel free to add comments to my posts. I’d be glad to hear your thoughts regarding the texts, the posts, and your own reflections as we move toward the crafting of messages for our worshipping communities.

“Was Jesus right,” John Kilgallen asks in his Biblica article, “to eat with sinners and tax collectors?” Kilgallen notes that the Pharisees were also in favor of the repentance of sinners. In the Lukan account and elsewhere, however, it is clear that they differ with Jesus on their outreach strategy. The reported strategy of the Pharisees was to avoid contact with the sinners.

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This strategy, according to Kilgallen, accomplished two things. It kept the Pharisees from being influenced toward sin by the sinners. And it communicated the disapproval which might lead such sinners to a change in worldview and resulting behavior. “If the Pharisees held other Israelites in lesser esteem,” he writes, “it was only as a confirmation of their impatience with sins and sinners against the Law” (page 590).

I think it’s important to be fair and accurate in our portrayal of the Pharisees in the Lukan account. It is not fair and accurate to suggest that, somehow, they did not care about the welfare of the “tax collectors and sinners.” They sought the holiness and wholeness of the people of God. They put more emphasis, perhaps on the “holiness” than Jesus did. But that was a difference in strategy and not a lack of care.

Jesus, on the other hand, chose to approach the sinners – to welcome them and eat with them. As we’ve noted previously, one realistic concern was that such interaction would communicate approval and therefore would not lead to repentance and reform. Kilgallen suggests that the Lukan author is at pains to show that Jesus’ outreach strategy was successful and, in addition, received the Divine stamp of approval.

It might be worth the time, in a sermon, to track Jesus’ consistent path in the Lukan account when it came to welcoming and eating with sinners. In Luke 5, Jesus calls Levi, the tax collector, to follow him as a disciple. Levi answers the call. “And abandoning everything, [Levi] got up and followed him” (Luke 5:28, my translation). This little verse vibrates with verbs. Levi leaves it all behind. The verb for “getting up” is a cognate for “resurrection.” Was Levi dead and now alive, according to the Lukan author? I wonder.

Levi hosts a huge feast in his home. Jesus and his disciples are the guests of honor. The word for “joy” is not in the text, but it’s fair to presume that the feast was fun. The Pharisees and their scribes “grumble” to Jesus’ disciples. That’s a form of the same verb in 15:2, applied once again to the Pharisees and their scribes. “What’s the reason you (pl) eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30b, my translation). It’s clear that this is a textual companion to the opening of Luke 15.

Jesus replies to the grumbling. “The healthy have no need for a healer; instead, the ones in a bad way have such a need. I have not come to call the just ones but rather sinners into repentance” (Luke 5:31b-32, my translation). As Kilgallen notes, this description is not an argument in favor of Jesus’ strategy but rather a simple assertion of that strategy. The argument comes as we move through the Lukan narrative.

Kilgallen next takes us to Luke 7. Jesus compares himself to John the Baptist and says, “There’s just no pleasing the people of this generation!” John the Baptist was an ascetic prophet, and they accused him of having a demon (Luke 7:33). Jesus (“the Son of Man”) has come “eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look! A man who is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. And Wisdom is justified on the basis of all her children.” (Luke 7:34b-35, my translation).

The cryptic proverb is the key to this text, according to Kilgallen. A wise understanding of Jesus’ strategy looks at the results, the outcomes, “the children” produced by the strategy. To drive home the point, the Lukan author takes us to a dinner in the home of Simon the Pharisee. There, a woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. The Pharisee expects Jesus to distance himself from the woman. Jesus welcomes her overture.

The difference in strategy is clear. And the results are obvious. The woman’s sins are forgiven. She has shown great love. She has enacted and embodied that love, at great risk to herself, in a highly visible fashion. Her trust has saved her, and she can go in peace. This is how Jesus’ outreach strategy works in practice.

Now we come to our parables in Luke 15. Kilgallen suggests two lessons from the first two parables. “They show us that it is unremitting searching that finds what was lost, not disinterest in or distance from the sheep. Certainly,” he continues, “leaving them lost achieves not a thing.” The second lesson is that finding the lost produces joy and celebration. This second lesson “confirms the value of searching, achieving happiness for going after what was lost until it was found.” For Jesus, searching is the only way to bring about repentance (page 596).

The third parable makes clear the stakes of the searching and finding. This is a matter of life and death for the one who is lost. The father says that the lost son was dead and is now alive. Remember that when Levi responds to the call to discipleship, he rises up to follow. The joy evidenced in the finding finds its way to heaven itself. Kilgallen argues, “whatever can produce joy in heaven is worth doing. One cannot prefer not searching after sinners, if one is convinced that such searching is the way, the best and necessary way, to produce joy, and life” (page 597).

This third approach to welcoming sinners and eating with them gives the justification for Jesus’ outreach strategy. “That heaven rejoices over the result of Jesus’ winning over sinners is assurance that the means is justified by its effect,” Kilgallen writes. This heavenly celebration is “further proof that Jesus’ way of trying to convert sinners to repentance is valid” (page 597). But there is one more story – specific and personal.

As we’ve noted before, this trajectory in the Lukan account climaxes with the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get a better view of the parade. Jesus calls him down and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, presumably for a meal. Zacchaeus responds with joyful repentance. He promises to fulfill the Torah concerned with reparations and repayment. What’s not to like?

Yet, the story is interrupted by familiar words in verse 7. “And when they saw this, all were grumbling and said, ‘He has gone down to enter the house of a man who is a sinner” (my translation). The vocabulary is rich here. We have the same verb for “grumbling” that we found in Luke 15. Now it’s not just the Pharisees and the scribes who grumble, but rather all who saw it. The verb for “going” has the clear sense of “going down” (the kata- prefix in the Greek). Jesus is “lowering himself,” they say, by entering the home of this notorious sinner.

“For our purposes,” Kilgallen writes, “the most striking feature we find in this story is the fact that we have been given a clear example of the result which comes from Jesus’ fraternizing with sinners” (page 598). In regard to our text, Kilgallen argues, “These parables are meant to encourage those sinners who listen favorably to Jesus, but equally are meant to make clear to Jesus’ critics the supreme value of his efforts to encourage repentance” (599). The Lukan author is at pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ outreach strategy is effective, ratified by heavenly celebration, and gives life in the midst of death.

So, what do we preachers do with this analysis? We have the good news that the God who comes to us in Jesus seeks us relentlessly to save us. I’m not sure if I’ll use any quotes from Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven, but such quotes would be well-placed. We have the great privilege to share that good news with any and all. And we have the rule of thumb that if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us. The strategy for responding to “sinners” is to welcome them and eat with them, whatever that means.

We should observe that in this strategy, Jesus never hosted a single dinner himself. He went out. He got himself invited. He invited himself. He was interesting and enjoyable enough to generate the invitations. He engaged in dialogue and debate. He stirred the theological pot. He was “out there,” and that’s our place as Jesus followers too.

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.

Doole, J. Andrew. “Observational Comedy in Luke 15.” Neotestamentica 50, no. 1 (2016): 181–210. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417475.

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.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

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.

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