Parables of the Lost and Stories of Mercy — Luke 15:1-32

Kathleen Rushton examines three parables of the lost in Luke 15:1–32 showing what they reveal about relationships with God and one another.

Luke 15:1–2 is the framework for understanding three parables of action and words of mercy — the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Sons. The Pharisees and scribes grumble: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” To welcome (dechomai) implies hospitality and being host at a meal. An invitation to a meal suggests persons are accepted by the host for who they are. “All tax collectors and sinners” represent the social and religious outsiders. These people ate with Jesus and were “coming near to listen to him.” Previously, a division began between the rich and powerful and the poor and outcast about their attitudes to John’s baptism and the justice of God (Lk 7:29–30).

Humanity and God

Jesus pulls out all the stops when talking to these furious leaders who are critical of his table companions. Patterns ring out which reinforce Jesus’ words. The first two parables begin with a question, one centred on a man and the other on a woman. Jesus invites these leaders to consider their response. The parable characters would have been offensive to the Pharisees.

Shepherds worked in a despised occupation. Jesus is direct: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one . . . ?” His audience would have been shocked to have been addressed as if one of them was a lowly shepherd. Although Psalm 23 uses the shepherd as an image for God, the scriptures also evoke harsh criticism against “the shepherds of Israel” who did not care for the people (Ezekiel 34:1–24). Then Jesus expects the leaders to learn from a woman! They would have seen the behaviour of both shepherd and woman as foolish and over-the-top.

Each parable tells something about humanity and about God. The first and third begin: “Which one (anthropos) of you . . .” (Lk 15:4) and “There was a man (anthropos) who had two sons . . .” (Lk 15:11) Anthropos, meaning the human person, suggests the human condition. Framed by these two parables, and still about humanity, is one concerning a woman’s experience (Lk 15:8).

The setting is likely to be a village or rural location. We are invited into the context of each parable and in the hard realities we glimpse images of God. These parables are addressed explicitly (Lk 15:4, 8) and implicitly (Lk 15:11) to the well-to-do and, maybe, absentee landlords and owners of peasant tenants and flocks. Different social and economic circumstances are presented. We see the poverty of the woman; the life of a probably not so poor shepherd; and life on a farm — which seems prosperous compared to the other two situations.

Five-Part Structure

Each parable is structured in five parts. They begin with an introduction or context followed by a search for the lost. Then the centre of the parable gathers the household to rejoice. A celebration follows, which ends with an expression of God’s joy (first two parables) or the joy of the whole household (third parable).

The Lost Sheep

A flock of a hundred sheep would have belonged to a clan rather than to an individual. Several members would be tending a flock of that size. If someone lost a sheep that person would be accountable to the extended family. They would have been able to go off looking for the lost one without putting the rest of the flock into jeopardy. When the lost sheep was found, the whole family could celebrate.

The shepherd lifts the sheep and carries it back to the flock. I know from my childhood on a South Canterbury hill-country farm that sheep that had separated from the flock would often be distressed and refused to move. They would need to carried back to the flock.

The Lost Coin

By lamplight the woman searched for a drachma in her window-less house. This coin had the same value as a denarius, which was the usual daily wage of the vineyard labourers (Matthew 20:9). A drachma represented one two-hundredth of the annual amount required for a person to subsist at the poverty level. It paid barely for two days of provisions and other needs. Like a denarius, a drachma symbolised the money for daily bread.

Ancient sources tell us that the economic survival of families then, as today, depended on the additional paid labour of women. Then, as now, women were paid half as much as men. The woman is searching for a drachma which took her twice as long to earn. An interesting nuance is that the terms for her “friends and neighbours” are female in Lk 15:6 in contrast to male terms for “friends and neighbours” in Lk 15:9. Women celebrated with women and men with men.

The Lost Sons

For the third parable it is difficult to give a title which does not obscure the triangular relationship of father and his two sons. The younger son’s request for his inheritance is culturally offensive. Seeking to use his inheritance while his father is still living, is like regarding his father as dead. He views his inheritance as his due, not as a gift.

Agriculture was hazardous as the land was dry and subject to famine. In a foreign land the son is hired to feed pigs. He is taken on as a day-labourer, unlike slaves or servants who were part of an extended family. He eats carob pods — the food of animals and of the poor. While he is with the other–than-human creatures he experiences “coming to himself” (Lk 15:17), a Greek expression suggesting self-knowledge and an experience of realism. He resolves to go to his father.

There is a threefold pattern. First is an implied description of need. The father saw the son coming from afar. He knew the returning one was in a danger. In failing to “honour father and mother”, his son had severed communal relationships and was risking the villagers’ anger. Second, the father is described as “having had a heart moved with compassion” (splagchnizomai cf. Lk 10:33). This expression, meaning being moved from the depths of one’s being, echoes womb-compassion (rahamim) which comes from the Hebrew word for womb (rehem).

Third, something must be done to address the heartfelt need. Throwing dignity aside the father runs towards his son and receives him home. The welcome is extravagant in all its details. Many companions join the father at the celebratory table as suggested by the killing of the fattened calf.

However the elder son is bitter and alienated over having “slaved for you” and his relationship with the younger son is not restored. The tragedy of the elder son is that he does not see his position of privilege, blessing and relationship.

The pattern of hospitality in these “lost” parables evoking God’s mercy is given flesh by Jesus’ insistence that the poor and outcast are welcome as his table companions. Australian biblical scholar, Francis Moloney, in A Body Broken for Broken People, outlines the Eucharistic practice of the early Church. He shows that the early Church believed that Jesus gave the Eucharist in a context of weakness, betrayal and denial — his body is broken for a broken people. When revising his book in 2015, Moloney added the subtitle, Divorce, Remarriage, and the Eucharist. In it he suggests we need a responsible examination of the Church’s pastoral practices around who is invited to be Jesus’ table companions.