All three of these parables seem more than a bit “over the top.” The sheep owner leaves the ninety-nine to search for the wandering lamb. Upon finding the lost one, the owner doesn’t go back to the remaining flock. Instead, the owner heads home and throws a party. The woman turns the house upside down and inside out to find the displaced drachma. Then she spends that drachma, and perhaps more, to host a party celebrating the recovery of the precious coin. These are odd behaviors.
What if these parables are part of Jesus’ stand-up routine, rather than neat little morality tales? I have found Doole’s article on observational comedy helpful in reflection on these texts. I hope you might take the time to read it yourself, but I’ll hit the high spots as I continue my message preparation for Sunday. Doole argues, based on contemporary research, that the Lukan account is the funniest of the gospels. He seeks to demonstrate that our parables are not only sharply critical of Jesus’ opponents but that this criticism is couched in the language of laughter.
Todd Strong describes the process of comedy writing. He suggests that most of the jokes we tell involve some degree of exaggeration. “Exaggeration jokes work by first evoking a fairly common, day-to-day image,” Strong writes, “and then exaggerating one or more aspects of that image to such an extent that the ensuing pictures in the minds of the audience members become ridiculous, and funny.” That sounds a great deal like our two parables (and the third one, as well, but that’s for another time).
To illustrate his point, Strong invokes the work of Nebraska native son, Johnny Carson, whom Strong describes as a “master at telling exaggeration jokes.” Carson’s trademark line – “it was so (small, big, fat, skinny, etc.”) followed by the audience response – “How (blank) was it?” became a cultural staple for a generation of television viewers. The set-up gets listeners to imagine the scene in question from their own experience. The punch line takes that standard imagination and exaggerates it to absurdity.
The description in the previous paragraph is almost a schematic of our two parables. Jesus invites his listeners to imagine the scene. “Which man of you?” Jesus asks the crowd. Immediately, they are imagining themselves as sheep owners. With that dynamic established, Jesus doesn’t have to ask the question about the woman. Listeners are already there. By extension, Jesus doesn’t have to ask the question about the father. Listeners are immediately thinking about their own family situations.
Then Jesus ratchets the absurdity to extremes. Doole points to this joke-telling practice in a number of Jesus’ parables: the friend at midnight in Luke 11, the persistent widow in Luke 18, the great banquet in Luke 14, the unjust steward, and the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. Each of these stories observes some typical human behavior and then elevates that behavior to the heights of folly. “So,” Doole summarizes, “it is interesting that previous research has already demonstrated the significant role of humor in Luke 14 and Luke 16, which surely suggests that Luke 15 is fertile ground for further investigation of Jesus’s humour in Luke’ (page 185).
If the Doole’s argument is valid, then a first conclusion has to do with the tone of our messages on our text. When possible and appropriate, I think it’s helpful for a message to reflect not only the content of the text in question but also the tone and style of the text. Stories tend to call forth more stories. Jokes elicit more jokes. The tactic Jesus uses in our text is to get the folks laughing and then gently slip the rhetorical knife between their ribs at the end.
Of course, we must remember the words of actor Edmund Gwenn as he faced the end of his life. A visitor commiserated that his journey toward mortality must be terribly difficult for Gwenn. “Dying is easy,” Gwenn is supposed to have replied, “Comedy is difficult.” Even that deathbed line is an example of the nature of comedy – human situation raised to an absurd level and then then punch line lands. Any experienced preacher knows the truth of that (exaggerated) sentiment about comedy. Nonetheless, if Doole is right, we have our invitation right in the text.
Now, what about the details of our own comedic parables? Doole notes that Jesus is speaking to a mixed audience where the potential for laughing at one group and with another is great. “At this point in the Gospel,” Doole writes, “we have a mixed group, the perfect audience for the observations of Jesus on social absurdities” (page 187). In addition, standup comedy depends on audience interaction. Clearly, Jesus calls for that interaction as he begins the parable in Luke 15:4.
The Lukan author was apparently familiar with the conventions of classical humor. Doole notes five such conventions. Humor was a feature of the meals known as symposia, where a variety of people is present and where dialogue and debate are on the menu. The Lukan account would be half its current size if such gatherings were deleted from the text.
Speakers entertain the guests by comparing typical and exaggerated human characteristics or behavior. Common sense wisdom is used to make elite behaviors appear foolish. While the punchlines are joyful, they still put the Pharisees and scribes “in their place.” And the humor can be used for persuasion and/or censure, not only for entertainment (pages 189-190). The parables of the lost and found fit these parameters and would speak to the modestly elite target audience of the Lukan account.
So, on to the parables. Doole suggests that going after the lost sheep is not unusual behavior, in the experience of the audience. What’s crazy is that the sheep owner doesn’t go back to the ninety-nine. The audience might have seen this as careless and even ridiculous. Perhaps this was a typical rookie mistake or the work of one who was not going to be a shepherd for long. In the same way, the woman’s reaction is out of all proportion to the value of the coin. But just as some shepherds might have made a rookie mistake, so some women might have succumbed to such irrational exuberance.
The charming foolishness of the sheep owner and the woman pales in comparison to that of the forgiving father. Here Doole reminds us of Paul’s words regarding the foolishness of God in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1. That’s a worthwhile connection to make in our messages. When it comes to being rescued from ourselves and this broken world, there’s a real sense in which “the joke’s on us!”
“Luke’s story of the two sons, just like those of the sheep and coin, draws on observation of human behavior when people are confronted with loss,” Doole writes, “and the disproportionate joy that defies traditional values when that which was lost is recovered. We can all laugh at the actions of the father because we see our own foolishness in him,” Doole continues, “Yet the implied meaning of this joke is that God acts in the same foolish way” (page 204).
“The joke,” Doole concludes, “is on those who thought they understood God” (page 207). That’s an idea that’ll preach.
I have had no reason to expect that things would turn out well between God and me. I envy those folks whose journey with God has been relatively straightforward and uneventful. I don’t have that gift of a modestly tranquil faith. I am the sheep who nibbled itself lost. I am the coin who fell between the couch cushions. I am the son who told a variety of families that I had no interest in what they offered. Like the lamb, I fell into ditches. Like the coin I sat useless in the dark. Like the son, I hoped for a measure of survival but despaired of the possibility of acceptance and love.
Some of that travail is years in the past, but it’s no less painful or powerful. So, when God reached out in Jesus to find me and bring me back, I thought it was a joke. When I heard the voice of God telling me to go to seminary, I was sure that God must have the wrong number. When the Holy Spirit blessed me with a call into ministry, I was positive that someone would figure out pretty quickly just how much of an imposter I was in this God and grace business.
Yet, the joke was on me. And it continues to be on me. I return over and over to the words of Brennan Manning. In The Furious Longing of God, he writes, “Those of us scarred by sin are called to closeness with Him (sic) around the banquet table. The kingdom of God is not a subdivision for the self-righteous or for those who lay claim to private visions of doubtful authenticity and boast they possess the state secret of their salvation. No,” Manning continues, “The men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their own imperfect existence” (page 32).
And there are the words of Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love” — “Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine. I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away. Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah…”
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.
Manning, Brennan. The Furious Longing of God. David C. Cook, 2009.
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.