Lectionary Reflection for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 15:1-10:


Among the most widely known of Jesus’s parables are those found in Luke 15. All three parables are unique to Luke’s Gospel, and each has to do with a common subject: redemption of the lost. What occasions this string of stories is a particular setting; a large crowd has gathered to hear Jesus, but pressing closest to the front, of all the crowd most eager, are “the tax collectors and the sinners” (15:1).

Seeing this, the Pharisees and scribes, as is their wont, are reported as standing off at some distance, yet just close enough to monitor what Jesus is saying. They “complained, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them'” (15:2).

We may from our own perspective too easily fail to grant them the measure of rectitude from which they judge; if hospitality to Gentiles was, for observant Jews, an offense, so especially was table fellowship (5:30; 7:39) and, as here, even standing in close proximity with those that Jews considered reprobate by the Pharisees’ strict standards. It was regarded in the Mishnah as an offense to ritual purity. These scruples have also a certain biblical warrant, perhaps most memorably in Ps. 1 (also Deut. 21:20-21; Prov. 2:11-15; Isa. 52:11; cf. Talbert 2002: 148).

Where the text says Jesus “receives” (prosdechetai) such people, the force of the verb is such as to suggest that he has, in fact, “goodwill toward” these sinful folk (Nolland 1989-93; 2.770). In fact, this verb becomes a key to the whole chapter.

Yet there is much about Jesus’s receptivity to suggest to the more strictly religious that he is himself insufficiently scrupulous in regard to injunctions found in all of the Law, Prophets, and the Wisdom books, in their injunctions about separation from such people. It is altogether clear that Jesus does not “stand off” as he should (and as they do) by these standards and that, to this degree, in their eyes he lacks the comportment of one who is “righteous.”

All three of the parables that follow are spoken to them by way of declaring, as Jesus does elsewhere, that his mission is not primarily to people of a strict observance—that he has come not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.

Christian interpretation here is well represented by Gregory the Great, who draws from the contrast between Jesus’s standard of righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees the observation that a new standard of justice is being exhibited, by which we see that “true justice feels compassion, false justice scorn” (Homily on the Gospel 34).


©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.