Benny Nalkara, CMI
The fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke is one of the most popular and widely read parts of the bible and is considered as a catalyst for the homecoming of many in the Church. The three parables of the lost- lost sheep (15:3-7), lost coin (15:8-10) and the lost son (15:11-32) – are like a spectrum of meanings to the readers. They reveal the unconditional love, unparalleled care and concern, extravagant mercy and compassion, and boundless forgiveness of God. Indeed together they make the “joy of the Gospel” and give us the distilled essence of the good news which Jesus came to tell. When we pay more close attention to the background in which Jesus pronounced these parables, we understand that along with the above mentioned meanings and messages these parables are strong revelations of the all-embracing and all-inclusive love of God which surpasses all barriers and boundaries of ethnicity and race.
One of the frequently revisited themes in the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of universality, is the striking and commendable openness of Jesus toward every group of people that needed His attention and power of His love to restore people. Jesus showed concern for the marginalized members of the society, like the poor, widows and orphans, those stricken with deceases, or victims of prejudice, like the Samaritans. This revolutionary stance of Jesus was a telling blow upon the fixed mind-set of the Scribes and Pharisees who believed that it was their racial and ethnic privilege that will be going to give them precedence in the saving act of God. Jesus revealed to the world that the purpose of His incarnation was to bring everyone to the everlasting life. These three “parables of the lost” can be considered as the climatic point of the totally shocking stance of Jesus that discarded the status and privileges of ethnicity and race.
Luke makes the context of Jesus’ teaching clear with the introductory words of the parables itself: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable.” Though this introductory editorial work by the evangelist seems to be point towards the first parable alone, it is a befitting introduction to all the three parables. Jesus intention, according to Luke, in telling these three “parables of the lost” was to teach the Pharisees and Scribes who prided themselves on their inheritance and legalism the lesson of God’s love that goes beyond the ethnic boundaries and the racial barriers. Through these parables Jesus gave a mind-blowing message to them that one is saved by grace of the gracious God and not by the membership in a race.
These parables are to be read and reflected upon with an understanding of the mind-set of the Pharisees and the Scribes of Jesus’ time. The Pharisees classified the people who did not keep the law as “the People of the Land” and looked at them with contempt and kept themselves away from them in every aspects of life. They looked sadistically foreword not to the saving but to the destruction of the sinners. They might have been shocked to the core when Jesus said, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7) or “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10). This statements were against their stance of writing off the sinners and the outcasts as beyond the pale and as deserving as nothing but destruction. Their belief in the racial privileges never made them to think about a God comes in search of men that too sinners! A picture of God revealed by Jesus, a God who discards the foolishness of human beings and their deliberate rebellion of heart, was unimaginable for them.
The trust of Pharisees and Scribes in the supremacy of the race than the generosity of God’s grace is more evident in the parable of “the lost son.” The elder son of the story represents the self-righteous Pharisees who kept an exclusivist mind-set and looked for the destruction of the sinner. His years-long obedience to the father made him only a legalist with narrow mindedness and prejudiced attitude. The sinned brother was no more a brother for him, but only his father’s son who is to be condemned. Compassion and forgiveness were not found in his dictionary but only contempt and destruction. His body language and words were expressions of the ghetto-minded racialist than a grace-driven loyalist of the father.
The “parables of the lost” are eye-openers for the Christians in the contemporary context too. The legalistic and orthodox views which lack openness and all-inclusive attitude forget to give witness to the “Gospel of Grace” that generates joy both on earth and in heaven. The narrow minded and self-righteous stance in life often creates hindrances to the witnessing of the reign of God where the gratuitous divine acceptance becomes the standard of operation in embracing all. By abandoning the unnecessary attachments to the racial and ethnic factors and the enslaving adherence to the traditionalism only we can experience fully this grace of God. Let us be open, inclusive and loving as the heavenly father!