Two Parables from the Gospel of Luke: Costly Love
Part One: November 2022
Married love is the gift of our whole selves to each other without reservation—or it should be. It is a love that is very costly. This month we will reflect on two parables from the Gospel of Luke; in January, we will look at dramatic action that took place in Jericho as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, and also at his encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
The Gospel of Luke has much in common with Matthew and Mark. It shares the same general chronology, and many of the same parables and stories about Jesus. However, unique to Luke’s gospel are some of the most beloved and memorable parables and stories about Jesus in Scripture. We will examine how much it cost Jesus to love, and we look at the way he used meals to prophetically inaugurate the wedding feast, the great messianic banquet.
The parables of Jesus are not timeless moral lessons or ethical teachings. They do not have a general point that can be easily boiled down and simply applied to new settings. They are not like the fables of Aesop, which teach timeless ethical truths.
Jesus’ parables, at least the two we will examine this month, are stories that have a historical context. Like all good storytellers, Jesus invites us, the audience, to step into it and live in the story, to live in the world he is creating. The challenge for us is to put aside our own cultural presuppositions that can distort or shape what we see. That is, we are always in danger of importing our own meaning and hearing a reflection of our own thoughts rather than those of Jesus.
The parables of Jesus have three contexts. The first is that of the gospel as a narrative work. The two parables we will examine, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, are set in the bigger story that Luke is telling. Jesus has set his face like flint and is on the way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). He is on his way to a final confrontation with the key powers of his day: the Roman Empire and the religious establishment of Israel. For Luke, the journey to Jerusalem goes from the end of chapter 9 to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in chapter 19. The Good Samaritan parable is set near the beginning of the journey, and the set of three parables that form chapter 15 (including the Prodigal Son) are near the end of that journey. As Jesus draws nearer to Jerusalem, the rhetoric is getting more strident and more pointed. It reminds us of the sound of a beating drum, getting louder and louder as the final conflict approaches.
The second context is the life and vocation of Jesus. The parables help to explain what Jesus sees as his mission, his calling. He knows that his encounter with the powers that be will result in his death. He also knows that that is the only way in which he can fulfill his vocation, which is to be and do for Israel what only Yahweh, Israel’s God, can be and do: to suffer and die, and on the other side of death, to be vindicated. This is how Israel's God plans to defeat their enemies, to restore the king, to return to Jerusalem, to bring justice, to defeat evil, to heal the nations, to restore creation, and to once again live with them in a new heaven and a new earth. In short, his arrival is the end of Israel's long exile.
The third context is the great story of Israel and God’s plan to rescue humanity through making a covenant with the descendants of Abraham. Unfortunately, Israel was not being or doing what their God intended them to be and do. Like the prophets before him, Jesus had a stinging critique of his people. They had failed to live out their vocation to be God’s covenant people. They had divided the world into the righteous and the unrighteous. They, the leaders of the Jews (or those who considered themselves the leaders), were the righteous; all others, including the Gentiles, were the unrighteous, the unclean, and therefore were not part of God’s plan.
What they had failed to take into consideration was that they were a nation of sinners, and they were still in exile because of their sin. Yes, they were in the land, but there was no king. The hated Romans were ruling their country., and Yahweh had not returned to Zion or to the Temple yet, as he had promised. (See Ezekiel 1–3 for the story of Yahweh leaving the Temple as the people went into exile in Babylon.) The sinners were the whole people of Israel, not just the tax collectors and the outcasts. The leaders were living in the wrong understanding of their own story. They did not know what Yahweh was doing.
Jesus was a threat to the religious establishment in the very same way that Jeremiah had been a threat to the establishment just prior to the Babylonian exile. As they had tried to kill Jeremiah on multiple occasions, so Jesus knew they would try to kill him as well.
It is necessary to keep all three of these contexts in mind in order to appreciate how the parables fit into the bigger picture of Luke's Gospel.
Introduction to the Good Samaritan
I once heard someone say that there is no such thing as a bad question. Having been a high school teacher for more than 35 years, I can say from long experience that that is not true. There are all kinds of ways to ask bad or wrong questions. Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to one such question. Luke tells us right at the beginning that the lawyer stood up to test Jesus. There are all kinds of clues in that simple sentence. First, in that culture the teacher would sit, and the student would stand to show respect. Here the lawyer stands to test Jesus. It is not an honest question. Second, it is curious that a lawyer would ask what one must do to inherit something. Everyone knows that inheritance is a gift. It is not payment for services rendered. As we will see, Jesus will ask a good question at the end of the parable. One that each of us must answer.
Introduction to the Prodigal Son
We have a story in which both sons dishonor their father, and the father responds in a way that differs radically from what a father in that culture "ought" to do. His is an incredible response to the unbelievable actions of his sons. Do not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is saying that the father in the parable is like God our Father, who has been deeply dishonored by his children. The setting in which Jesus tells the story—his eating with the sinners and tax collectors—reveals the unconditional loving response of the Father.
The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 is the third story of a little collection of stories (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son). Jesus uses all three of these stories to explain why he is “eating with tax collectors and sinners.” And in fact, Jesus is using this act of eating with sinners as a parable too: it is a visible enactment of Israel’s story and of what Yahweh is doing in their midst.
So, if we look at Jesus’ actions and those of his listeners as a parable, then each of these characters, while actual and historical, is also representing a participant in the larger story of Israel. In his welcoming mercy, Jesus represents Israel's God, Yahweh. The sinners who are dining and listening represent sinful but redeemed Israel, at long last returning from exile. The Pharisees represent proud and rebellious Israel, still in exile.
In the actual scene recorded in Luke 15, these three are present: Jesus himself, the sinners eating with him, and the Pharisees who are standing outside, unwilling to join the party, and strongly critical of Jesus' action.
And each of the three stories Jesus tells also contains three main characters, each character representing something or someone else. Jesus is represented respectively by the Good Shepherd, the searching woman, and the prodigal son’s father. The sinners are represented by the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the younger brother. The Pharisees are represented by the 99 other sheep, the 9 coins, and the older brother.
Like proud Israel, the Pharisees had longed and hoped for this day. Now that it is here, they should rejoice. But they have the wrong response.
Actual scene Lost Sheep Lost Coin Lost Son Story of Israel
Jesus Good Shepherd woman father Yahweh
Pharisees 99 other sheep 9 coins older brother Israel in exile
Sinners lost sheep lost coin younger brother end of exile
Although parables don't have a "point" or a "moral" that can be boiled off and simply applied to new situations, we can learn a lot about ourselves as we try to live in the story Jesus is telling.
. Much of this month’s introduction and meditations is drawn from the work of Kenneth E. Baily. See The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove Il, 2005. And Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove Il, 2005.