CONCERN FOR OUTCASTS Luke 15
“Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear Him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law muttered, ’This Man welcomes sinners and eats with them’ “ (Luke 15:1–2).It’s not necessary to be like the people we associate with. That’s good, because we must spend time with people if we are to say, “I care.”
Criticism of Jesus’ association with the outcasts of Jewish society (15:1–2) was answered by three parables: the Story of the Lost Sheep (vv. 3–7), the Lost Coin (vv. 8–10), and the Lost Son (vv. 11–32).
Understanding the Text
“Tax collectors and ‘sinners’ ” Luke 15:1–2.
The tax collectors, who worked on commission and were notorious for overcharging, were automatically considered dishonest or immoral in first-century Jewish society. “Sinners” is placed in quote marks in the NIV to show that the evaluation was made by Pharisees, not by Jesus or Luke. The fact is that we are all “sinners.” But in the eyes of the Pharisees, the title belonged exclusively to those who were less rigorous than they in keeping the rituals of law. The very idea of having table fellowship (eating) with such persons horrified the Pharisees, for to eat with sinners would contaminate them. Yet throughout the Gospels “sinners”—including such real sinners as prostitutes—are constantly portrayed as “gathering around” Jesus! Somehow they felt comfortable with the holy Son of God. How do we explain that? Very simply. Jesus constantly showed that He cared. The outcasts of society were comfortable with Jesus, because instead of dislike and condemnation, they sensed love. The outcasts of society still need less of our judgmentalism, and more of our love. We need to remember that it was the outcasts who responded to Jesus, not the “respectable” Pharisees, and learn to express that nonjudgmental love that so attracted first-century social outcasts to Jesus. “The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law muttered” Luke 15:1–2. It’s impossible to leave these two pregnant verses without noting that anyone who feels comfortable with society’s outcasts, and spends time with them, will be muttered about by folk like the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Two divergent views of people and of holiness come into conflict here. For Jesus, holiness was rooted in a dynamic, intimate fellowship with God. For the Pharisees, holiness was rooted in do’s and don’ts. Jesus’ kind of holiness was warm and attractive. The Pharisees’ kind of holiness was austere and judgmental. Jesus, freed by the nature of His holiness, reached out to others to share God’s love. The Pharisees, bound by the nature of their holiness, drew back from others in distaste, fearful of contamination. Today if you and I maintain that warm, intimate relationship with God that is the source of true holiness, we too can reach out lovingly to the outcasts of our society and be welcomed by them. But if our “holiness” is a front, a pretense maintained by desperately following a modern rule of do’s and don’ts, we too will fear and be repelled by the outcasts of society. What a test of the quality of our relationship with God! Are we more like Jesus in our contacts with outcasts? Or more like the Pharisees and first-century teachers of the Law? “And loses one of them” Luke 15:3–7. The three parables related in Luke 15 are each designed to reveal God’s attitude toward the outcasts of society. The Pharisees muttered when Jesus ate with tax collectors and “sinners.” But God rejoiced. These outcasts of society were precious to Him. And are still. One hundred sheep was a typical flock in the first century. When even 1 was lost, Jesus reminded His audience, the shepherd went in search of it. “Open country” was a relatively safe place to leave the 99, so there is no question of abandoning the many to seek the one. The impact of the story was felt as Jesus related the shepherd’s joy as he carried the lost sheep home. “In the same way” rejoicing echoes in heaven when one sinner repents! It’s important to note that Jesus’ purpose in associating so freely with sinners was redemptive. He was seeking God’s lost sheep. We can’t defend participating with sinners in their sin on the basis of Luke 15:1–2! But we need never apologize for associating with sinners with the redemptive intent that moved our Lord. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one” Luke 15:8–10. Both the story of the 1 lost sheep and the 1 lost coin were drawn from first-century Jewish daily life. All were familiar with shepherds. All felt the impact of Christ’s story of the 10 coins. These were 10 dowry coins, given the woman when she married. The chances are that she wore them constantly on her headdress. Ten coins were a small dowry, yet were an important symbol to her. They showed that she had worth and value to her father, who had sacrificed to give them to her. And that she came into the marriage as a partner, bringing resources of her own. If she were ever divorced, or widowed, the 10 coins at least were hers, a symbol of her identity as a person. The 10 coins, then, were vitally important to her, and the loss of even 1 had far greater significance than the coin’s intrinsic worth might suggest. Again Jesus emphasized the intensity with which the woman searched, and her joy at finding the coin. Ecstatic with delight at finding the precious object, she hurried and told her friends. Again Jesus was affirming the importance of the outcast. Of little intrinsic worth, the coin was vitally important to the woman who lost it. In the same way, while human beings may discount the worth of the outcast, in God’s sight every individual is of infinite value. What a reminder to us to look at others with God’s eyes, not society’s. The mother on welfare, the teenage dropout, the convict behind bars, the jobless and homeless, the drunk sleeping in the doorway, are God’s lost coins. They have value to Him. “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him” Luke 15:11–27. The only possible rival to this parable for “best known of Jesus’ sayings” is the Story of the Good Samaritan. Probably the Story of the Prodigal Son would top most people’s list. It has so much to say. There’s the vivid picture of the younger son, who wanted to go out on his own with his (one third) share of the father’s estate. He left, made unwise and immoral choices, and found himself abandoned and starving. He realized what a mess he’d made of his life and decided to go home. Knowing he had no right to expect treatment as a son, he hoped to be treated as one of his father’s hired servants. In earlier stories Jesus stressed the joy in heaven over a sinner’s return. In this story we are invited to share the lost son’s joy, as his father rushed out to welcome him and shower him with evidence of his love. So is our welcome when we, like the lost son, come to our senses and appeal to God for mercy. We are treated like sons and showered with love. The “best robe” is none too good for God’s lost who have been found. Consider too the father. He gave his younger son freedom, and the resources to use that freedom. He knew the son would waste his inheritance, yet the father also knew that only through the free exercise of choice can the decision to return be made. And then the father waited. We can imagine him, each day glancing frequently toward the road his son must travel to return. We can imagine his anxiety. And yet the father waited. The lost son had to make the choice. And then one day the choice was made. While the boy was still a long way off, the father saw him, was filled with compassion, and “ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Oh, friend, you and I never need to fear turning to God, even after the most terrible of sins. We must make the choice. But as we make our first, penitent step back toward God He runs to us, and we can sense His loving, forgiving embrace. “The older brother became angry” Luke 15:28–32. And so we turn to the older brother, who like the Pharisees stood by and muttered angrily at the welcome given sinners. What gave the father and the lost son joy made the older brother resentful and angry. How long he had lived with his father. Yet how little he understood him, or shared his capacity for love. Perhaps this is the primary lesson you and I need to draw from this most famous of Jesus’ tales. Those who live with and in God must adopt His values, and be moved by His love—or lose salvation’s joy.
Which Lost Son?(Luke 15:11–32)
We all know the Story of the Prodigal Son. We know how foolish the younger brother was. And we wonder at the forgiving love of the father, who welcomed his lost son home even after all the boy had done. But the strange fact is, it is the older brother who had really lost his way! When the younger son left he was given the equivalent of one third of the estate, for the eldest son in Judaism received a double portion. While the younger tasted both the delights and the devastation of sin, the older son stayed home and worked the land with his father. “You are always with me” was the greatest gift the father could provide. But the older son had even more. While he complained, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you,” the father rightly pointed out, “Everything I have is yours.” The older son had enjoyed his father’s fellowship, and all the work he had done had only enhanced his own inheritance. And yet when the younger son returned, and the father welcomed him, the older son became bitter and angry. That bitterness and anger, that lack of love for his brother, tell us that it was really the older son and not the younger who had lost his way. It’s not that his actions were open to criticism, but because his heart was so far out of harmony with the heart of the father. He had never strayed from the path of morality. But he had never found the highway of forgiving love. He had worked for the father. But he had never valued his brother as the father had always valued him. The younger brother is an encouragement for nonbelievers, and for Christians who are deeply aware of their sin. But the older brother is a constant challenge to you and me. As hard as we work for the Lord, and as moral a life as we may lead, unless we have God’s heart for the outcast, we have truly lost our way.
God does not call us just to be good, but to be like Him.
“Real love is the universal language—understood by all. You may have every accomplishment or give your body to be burned; but, if love is lacking, all this will profit you and the cause of Christ nothing.”—Henry Drummond