Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
This brief narrative at the beginning of Luke 15 initiates a series of three parables that have to do with items that are lost and found. The first focuses on the diligence of the shepherd in tracking down his lost sheep. The second watches a woman search for a lost coin in her house. Each of these follows a formula: there’s a lost item, a diligent searcher, a retrieval of the item, and a celebration of the recovery.
The third parable is the most well-known here – it’s of the son who leaves home, and the father who receives him back – and follows the same formula: loss, search, recovery, and celebration. It is the most elaborate of the three parables, with vivid characterization and emotional detail, but the rhythm is the same. More importantly, the context is the same: it is told in sequence with the others, and in response to the situation at the beginning of the chapter, where the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” This context naturally prioritizes the possible meanings of a parable – even one as richly nuanced as this one.
You can see that by pulling parables and teachings out of their narrative context you run the risk of adjusting the meaning or missing it altogether. I’m not advocating for a particular interpretation of any of these, but rather pointing out that Luke wrote them, and Jesus spoke them, in response to a literal life situation. Just as authors have original intentions for that they write, so characters have original intentions for what they say and do.
At times it seems like Luke only uses events to set the stage for Jesus’ teaching, and that’s certainly a device that recurs often. But the events themselves can’t be cast off; they matter as much to proper interpretation as the teaching itself. Jesus wasn’t just speaking into a vacuum; He was using words to push and pull at what He saw and heard. Those experiences are not mere staging, but are integral to the plot itself.
Our verse for this week is Psalm 27:1: The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Luke 15 and 16. Now let’s read it!
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?