Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Six)

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. Repentance – personal change of mind and heart – is the result of encounters with Jesus. Such change is not the precondition for such life-altering interactions. Jesus goes looking for tax collectors and sinners in order to invite them into a new way of living.

John Kilgallen argues that the Pharisees – at least in the Lukan account – shared Jesus’ intention that sinners should repent and find new life. The disagreement was about the most effective and appropriate method. He suggests that the Pharisees, as portrayed in the Gospel accounts, went to great lengths to make sure that the Law was fulfilled – such as washing to the elbows in order to make sure one’s hands were clean. More to our point, they tended to avoid contact with “sinners” in order to impress upon the community the importance of repentance.

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The assumption of the Pharisees, as described in the Gospel accounts, is that sin could infect the righteous. Thus, the company of sinners should be avoided when possible. “Not only should one not suggest an indifference to the lives of sinners,” Kilgallen writes of the Pharisees, “but one should avoid them lest one fall into their sinfulness. Finally,” he continues, “how best to influence a change in behavior of sinners, if not to avoid them and so make them ever conscious of their sinfulness?” (page 591).

Jesus adopts the opposite strategy. He welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them. Kilgallen notes that this is a narrative concern and focus at least four times in the Lukan account. The concern begins in Luke 5:27-32 with the call of Levi, the tax-collector. Jesus takes the initiative with Levi and calls him to be a follower. Levi gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus. In Lukan terms, Levi becomes an ideal disciple.

In response to this gracious call, Levi hosts a large dinner party at his house, apparently with Jesus as the guest of honor. The table was occupied by a large crowd of tax-collectors as well as other people. The Pharisees and their scribes observed this party (from some distance, we can assume) and were complaining to Jesus’ disciples. They asked, “On what basis do you all eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30, my translation). The grammar of the question makes it clear that they want to hear some justification for the unusual strategy.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and their scribes that avoidance is the wrong treatment. A physician wouldn’t do much good for a patient by avoiding contact with that patient. Physicians stay away from those who have no need of treatment. But the tax collectors and sinners need this gracious, personal, direct, and sustained contact with Jesus. “I haven’t come to call the righteous ones,” Jesus concludes, “but rather sinners into repentance” (Luke 5:32, my translation).

In this account, Kilgallen argues, we now have the reason for Jesus’ unusual strategy. We don’t yet have a description of why this mode of “treatment” will work. The next reference in the Lukan account to tax collectors and sinners moves the conversation forward. We find that mention in Luke 7:31-35. On the one hand, Jesus’ opponents have criticized John the Baptist for being too austere. On the other hand, they criticize Jesus for having too much to eat and drink and for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Jesus drops a cryptic quip in response. “Wisdom is justified on the basis of all her children” (Luke 7:35, my translation). In other words, the wise person looks at the results, not just at the theory. The quip serves as the lead-in to the forgiveness of the “sinful woman” at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus’ strategy results in repentance and reconciliation on the part of the woman. Simon the Pharisee is left as he is, forgiven little and loving less.

“What Jesus offers now in chap. 7,” Kilgallen writes, “is a proof that his method is justified, for…he points to a number of people who have done what God and Wisdom have asked: they have repented” (page 595-596). So far then, we have the reason for Jesus’ strategy and some general demonstrations of its effectiveness. This takes us to the next mention of tax collectors and sinners – in Luke 15.

The same complaint appears. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds, in the Lukan account, with the three parables. Kilgallen notes two points in the first two parables. “They show that it is unremitting searching that finds what was lost,” he writes, “not disinterest in or distance from sheep or coin…Moreover,” Kilgallen continues, “finding what was lost leads surely to great joy and celebration. The latter aspect, that of rejoicing over finding what was lost, confirms the value of searching, achieving happiness for going after what was lost till it is found. Indeed,” Kilgallen observes, “one cannot imagine how else the sheep and the coin will be found except by continued searching” (page 596).

The third parable shows the life and death stakes of the seeking and finding. The parable of the Prodigal Son “means only to reinforce what the first two parables had made clear: 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,” he argues, “the best and necessary way to produce joy, and life.” Luke 15, then, gives the reason for Jesus’ strategy of welcoming sinners and eating with them. If God is rejoicing, it must be a good thing.

The final installment of the tax collectors and sinners throughline is, of course, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. This time it is an anonymous voice from the crowd that grumbles loudly. “He went along with a sinful man to be a guest!” It’s not just eating and drinking this time. Jesus is staying at the house, taking up lodging for a brief stretch. Jesus has raised the stakes of the interaction even higher.

“For our purposes,” Kilgallen suggests, “the most striking feature we find in this story is the fact that we have been given a clear example of the result that comes from Jesus’ fraternizing with sinners” (page 598). The results of Jesus’ strategy are individual repentance and promises of repair consistent with Old Testament regulations in Exodus 21, Leviticus 6, and Numbers 5. Welcoming (and being welcomed) by tax collectors and sinners and eating with them is what it takes to seek and to save the “lost.”

The criticism from the crowd comes as a reminder that Jesus’ strategy is not the accepted way of dealing with tax collectors and sinners. The result meets this criticism head on. In addition, Zacchaeus didn’t come predisposed or prepared to repent, Kilgallen argues. Instead, he begins with “benevolent curiosity” rather than some expressed desire for repentance. “No,” Kilgallen concludes, “it is only the actual time spent with Jesus that accounts for repentance” (page 598).

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. I am reminded of a congregational ministry to, with, and for incarcerated people who are preparing to return to life “in the world.” The ministry revolves around Sunday worship, a communal meal, fellowship, and Bible study. Interested participants are interviewed to orient them to the nature and operation of the ministry. But the one real qualification for attending is whether or not one likes to eat.

I was often struck, when I was involved in that ministry, by the suspicion that such a gracious invitation evoked. The suspicion was understandable. Our guests were coming from a world in which no one ever did anything “for free.” For the first six to eight weeks that the typical guest attended, that guest would ask at least three or four times, “What do you want?” Nothing of value in this world is free, the questioner reasoned. Therefore, we must want something. The trick, they thought, was to figure out what “the catch” was.

There was no “catch.” A few of our guests never caught on to that fact. They tended not to stick with the ministry. But most of the guests had a personal epiphany during that initial time period. These people really don’t want anything from me. “Free” really means free. Grace really is grace. While these people don’t want anything from me, they certainly something for me. What they want for me is a life of wholeness and joy. And that’s it.

Honestly, we didn’t go into this ministry thinking about any of this. We were just trying to help some folks who weren’t getting much help. But, over and over, we got to witness the transforming power of real Grace. Personal change happens when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. In the life of the Church, Jesus uses disciples to seek out people and spend that table time with them.

This is why eucharistic hospitality is really the measure of health and faithfulness in a congregation. Who we welcome to the table and under what “conditions” says everything you need to know about the life of a congregation. That welcome includes our willingness to put that table on legs and wheels and to meet people where they are, at their tables and in their lives. Going out to eat, as Jesus did, removes the last “condition” that might impede our eucharistic welcome.

Grace changes people. That’ll preach.

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, 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.

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

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Four)

In each of the three parables in Luke 15, the “finder” takes the initiative. That seems quite straightforward in the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. The owner of the sheep leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the lost one. The woman is the only one in the second parable who can take any initiative. After all, coins do not call out to be located.

This perspective may be harder to support in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the younger son, after all, who has some sort of personal epiphany and heads for home. That being said, it is the father who sees him coming at a distance, who runs to greet him, who embraces him, restores his stuff, and throws a party. In addition, it is the father who comes out of the house during the party to encourage the older son to come in and join the festivities.

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The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Sheep is the sheep owner. The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Coin is the woman householder. The pattern remains consistent, I think, and the protagonist in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the father. Whether that was the case in Jesus’ original telling may be difficult to discern. But the structure and sequence of the Lukan narrative makes it clear, I believe, that the primary actor in the third parable is the father.

Trevor Burke also sees the father as the main actor in the parable. In addition, Burke argues “that this story is as much about a ‘prodigal father’ for his behavior is highly unusual and appears to be every bit as rash and unconventional as the younger and older sons” (page 219). But is the father’s “prodigality” a positive trait, or is it a negative and foolish trait like the wastefulness (see Luke 15:14) of the younger son?

Burke examines three “prodigal actions” of the father. The first is the distribution of his property to the sons. Remember, in response to the demand from the younger son, the father divides his property between them (see Luke 15:12). This was weird behavior on the part of the father. “Such an action would have been surprising to those listening,” Burke writes, “especially [since]…fathers were specifically cautioned against giving their inheritance to their offspring or to anyone else during their lifetime” (page 222). That wasn’t an ironclad rule at the time, but this premature distribution would have been regarded as strange, and perhaps foolish.

The father does not exercise authority or discipline over either son in the parable. The younger son blows off the old man and then comes running back when things get tough. The older son won’t do as he’s told and tells the old man off in front of God and everybody. The father is “prodigal” with his patience and property in both cases, in spite of and in disregard to the responses he gets from each of the sons.

The second scene of the father’s prodigality, according to Burke, is when the younger son returns. The father runs to the son, hugs him, and kisses him. Burke subscribes to the “old Middle-eastern men don’t run” line of thought, although not all commentators agree on that fact. But, in any event, “Once again the impulsive and reckless father in the heat of the moment acts out of character and breaks with the social norms,” Burke writes, “he does not do what the first hearers would expect him to do” (page 225).

The father’s extravagance takes on material form in the ring, the best robe, shoes, and the well-fed calf. No one would have seen this coming, in the context of the parable. The younger son may have wasted his inheritance on loose living. But the father outdoes the younger son’s extravagance by an order of magnitude and without a second thought.

The third scene of paternal prodigality, according to Burke, is the conversation with the older son. The father leaves the house, the party, and the guests, and thus risks embarrassing himself in the eyes of his invitees. He goes outside the house and absorbs the older son’s tirade where everyone in the village could see and hear them. In the face of all this dishonor, the father dialogues with the older son rather than disciplining him. “Evidently the maintaining of the relationship by his patience and compassion,” Burke writes, “is more important to the father than his own social standing, position or winning the argument” (page 227).

Burke wonders if the Lukan author is just oblivious to the social and cultural conventions of the period or if there is a point being made. Given a variety of evidence in the text, Burke concludes that the Lukan author “is fully cognizant of the expectations vis-à-vis parents and their offspring and draws on widely held cultural assumptions in order to affirm them” (page 228). The parable of the Prodigal is, therefore, not a product of cultural ignorance or misunderstanding.

But the Lukan author also has no problem with overturning social conventions and structures under the impact of the Good News of Jesus. The Lukan account, after all, is at its heart the story of the Great Reversal. Burke quotes Brendan Byrne’s assertion that the Gospel’s essential purpose is to bring home to people a sense of the extravagance of God’s love. And the Gospel account is filled with characters who perform extravagant gestures in response to God’s salvation (pages 228-229).

Who are these other “prodigals” in the Lukan account? Burke points to the massive and unconditional generosity of the “Good Samaritan” as one example. In addition, there is the extravagant love of the women who comes to Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. She does not stop expressing her devotion even when she is rebuked. Instead, she is the one who has offered prodigal hospitality to Jesus – precisely what Simon should have done as the host. Her actions demonstrate extravagant gratitude.

Those who accompany Jesus to Jerusalem put their most expensive and valued articles of clothing on the road as he passes. “Such a generous and unexpected action appears rash, hasty and spontaneous in the circumstances,” Burke observes, “but it is a no less appropriate response and expression of devotion to Jesus the Messiah who had come to deliver his people” (page 233).

The clincher in this argument, of course, is Zacchaeus in Luke 19. His promises of reparation are the definition of extravagant and prodigal. Most important, in my estimation, is the conclusion that Jesus brings to this interaction. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The connection to the parables in Luke 15 is obvious.

Burke offers this summary. “When the father’s behavior in Luke 15 is viewed against this portrayal of the magnanimous actions of others (cf. Luke 9:17) in Luke, his actions are essentially a hermeneutical key for the rest of the Gospel since he is not the only ‘prodigal’ in Luke; rather, the author has a proclivity for portraying the conduct of a number of different people as also being ‘prodigal’ in order to get his point across” (page 234).

But, Burke then wonders, what exactly is the evangelist’s point being made by all this extravagance?

The father is an image of God in the third parable, just as the sheep owner and the woman are images of God in the first two parables. Burke suggests that “in the kingdom of God grace is always bestowed upon those who least warrant or presume upon it.” In addition, “in the divine scheme of things, no one gets what they deserve for God’s mercy is not contingent upon the actions of others.” In sum, the parable portrays “a God whose love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity” (page 237).

Yes, here’s an obvious connection to the first reading. God’s ways are not our ways, thankfully…

Richard Swanson notes that this extravagance does not “count the costs” of loving. This parable, he argues, “is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.” After all, we don’t know how anyone responds to the father’s extravagant love in the long run. We don’t even know how things might have gone at the breakfast table the morning after the party (although we might have some educated guesses).

On the one hand, it is grace that produces repentance, not the other way around. We see that in our parable. We see it as well in the story of Zacchaeus. Both the younger son and Zacchaeus may have come with mixed motives at best. The younger son may just have been hungry. Zacchaeus may just have been curious. Maybe he just loved a parade. It was the invitation of grace that made any change of heart and mind conceivable…and worth the risk.

“Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love,” Swanson writes, “And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love,” he hopes, “might indeed re-create the world.” As we hear this parable again, the question is there for us. Will God’s indomitable love in Christ re-create us? (Yes, that’s an obvious opening to the second reading –Yay!).

Resources and References

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.

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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Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Two)

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.

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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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