Lent 4: 31 March Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
Luke places the famous parable, which forms the heart of today's reading, in the context of controversy: why is Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners and eating with them (15:1-2)? He first brings on the parables of the lost sheep (15:3-6) and the lost coin (15:8-9) and supplies each with a commentary which puts the focus of repentance of sinners (15:7,10). This will doubtless also be the way Luke saw the parable of the Prodigal Son, linking it with the theme of repentance. This certainly fits the season of Lent. But it may also miss some important emphases.
Luke is probably right in the way he envisages the context. 'Pharisees and scribes', or at least some of them among Jesus' contemporaries, are shocked at Jesus' behaviour. The tax collectors are probably locals hired by the government to collect indirect taxes, such as customs fees at the border. Capernaum is not far from the border between Antipas' territory and his brother Philip's - Bethsaida is just over the border. Levi was such a toll collector. 'Sinners' are not everyone else (for all have sinned!), but notorious people who appear to hang out with the tax collectors. It is not that Jesus is accused of cavorting with separate groups. It is that he welcomes and dines with such a mixture of 'undesirables'. Tax collectors were 'undesirable', partly because they were often seen as agents of oppressors of Israel (traitors) and partly because they were given the opportunity of profiting for themselves and doubtless some did so unfairly.
Luke suggests Jesus welcomes them, as though he is putting on the meals. All the other evidence suggests that Jesus accepted them by dining with them on their turf. We need to imagine the settings. We have a meal with a number of people present, including toll collectors, sinners, and Jesus, probably with his associates. This is not your common daily meal, but something more like an outing. Only people with money can afford to throw such parties, feasts, dinners. Jesus accepted such people by accepting their invitation, we may presume, to join in. We know that such meals were common social occasions for entertainment. Entertainment need not be limited to dancing girls (and boys), which it probably did, but might include stand up teachers, 'philosophers', and the like. Here is the place for Jesus to fit in. The standardised accusation, based on Deut 21:20, that Jesus is a 'glutton and a drunkard', will be related to this phenomenon. What was he doing keeping company with such people?
It was a problem of immoral company - Psalm 1 warns against keeping such company. It was also an issue of purity. Such people were unlikely to observe biblical laws about tithing and protection of food, and were likely to be lax about relations with Gentiles and generally about law observance. There are plenty of examples throughout Christian history of similar concerns. We might let Jesus get away with it if he was rubbing shoulders with the poor and destitute, but that is not the case here. Here are the small entrepreneurs and their shady hangers on - perhaps, in modern terms, closest to the drug scene with its links with prostitution and the underworld.
There are two kinds of answers. Jesus was, indeed, accepting these people as people, not writing them off, nor avoiding them. He was treating them as people who matter. And, secondly, Jesus was doubtless being himself with them, which would mean he was communicating to them what mattered to him. A major part of that communication was just being there - it said: they matter - but another part would have been just as challenging and confronting as he was elsewhere: communicating that God wants also to include them. To reduce all this down to Jesus making evangelistic forays into the pub to call wicked people to repent distorts the evidence, though one could head in that direction on a one-sided reading of Luke's glosses to the first two parables. Few, especially among scribes and Pharisees, would have objected to Jesus turning up at such gatherings to announce repentance. The problem was that Jesus put the loving first, rather than keeping it till after repentance. People matter most. It was in that sense unconditional love, but this should not be seen as love which does not care about how people are and what they are doing to themselves.
If Jesus was demonstrating radical inclusiveness in his behaviour - no one was 'beyond the pale' - his parables were also radically inclusive, because instead of arguing from the tradition which only the knowledgeable could appreciate, he starts his theological comment - that's what the parable is - with common daily experience. This is a way of democratising religious tradition; making it accessible to all. So Jesus talks about a typical human situation and tweaks it with some elements which make it spin.
Arrogant young man insults father (give me what I could have if you were dead!), leaves home to make his fortune (familiar enough then and now), hits rock bottom (especially as a Jew ending up in the piggery), comes to his senses and goes home (motivation far from noble at this point). Father, not knowing anything but that the son is coming, abandons cultural norms of fatherly dignity, runs to embrace son. The message is basic: if a parent loves that much, why can't you think about God being like that? Why can't you see my ministry as doing that? Notice: the father does not know the mind of the son, that he has repented, so it is not about loving people after or if they have repented.
So meals were a place of controversy for Jesus. But we remember he also made much of them in his own movement and they feature regularly as an image in his teaching. Prophetic oracles had depicted future salvation as a great feast. Feasts were celebrations of belonging, not only among the rich entrepreneurs, but also in modest form in religious groups, like the Essenes and the Pharisees. Like them, Jesus saw such meals as celebrating what was to come and celebrating that belonging already in the present. They, too, used bread and wine as the key elements. The difference with Jesus was the openendedness of the belonging: no one was excluded (which makes later Christian exclusiveness at the meal particularly painful).
His willingness to be present at the revelries of the tax collectors and sinners is closely related to his willingness to include all in what would have been the much more meagre celebrations of belonging to his group. For this he lived and told stories and for this he would die and just before his death would link the broken bread and poured out wine to his broken and poured out life. It became the nourishment for celebrating life, for keeping the vision alive and for living its agenda ever since.
Epistle: Lent 4: 31 March 2 Corinthians 5:16-21