This Sunday’s Gospel reading might sound familiar because we heard it on March 31. Then the Lenten setting drew our attention to the themes of personal conversion and mercy. Reading the passage now, in its original location in Luke’s Gospel narrative, reveals themes of discipleship, finding the lost and welcoming back the estranged.
‘There will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ (Lk 15:10)
Who are the “lost” in your world?
What can you do to seek them out and welcome them back?
This context highlights certain details. First, the parable of the prodigal son was not a stand-alone story told by Jesus, but rather one of three parables that described his mission of seeking out the lost. Christians rightly read it as a tale of God’s mercy to us, but we must not ignore its call for us to show such mercy to each other. Every Christian must be like the father who was ready to accept the penitent son with joy.
Second, the context accentuates the setting. Jesus spoke these parables in response to Pharisees and scribes who questioned his table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners.” One can empathize with their confusion. Pharisees lived their faith intentionally. A rigorous application of Torah to every part of life was, they believed, an offering of faith to God. Such application required determination and a lifestyle that would support their efforts. Extended contact with people who did not care about such things, they feared, would weaken their resolve. “You become like your friends,” many parents today warn their children. In Jesus’ day, those committed to God’s instruction similarly selected companions who would support their religious commitment.
Tax collectors and sinners posed another threat. Collaboration with the Romans and indifference to Israel’s traditions endangered Israel’s national identity. Tax collectors enriched themselves by plundering Israel on Rome’s behalf. Sinners, Israelites who ignored God’s commandments, brought the Torah into disrepute. Although Rome publicly respected the local laws and customs, privately they endeavored to corrode national traditions and assimilate conquered peoples into Greco-Roman culture. Living one’s faith intentionally became ever more difficult. Table fellowship, many feared, would validate the actions of collaborators and hasten Israel’s downfall.
Jesus himself probably lived Israel’s traditions rigorously. The Gospels record Pharisees inviting him to dinner, which they would not have done if he were not an observant Jew. He recognized that such rigor was meant to be an example to others. Israel was to be a beacon, drawing the rest of humanity past the temptations of self-interest to discover the truth of human existence in God. Those who followed God’s instruction but withdrew from others failed in this task. A life of true intentionality required one to seek out the lost and welcome them when they returned.
In spite of its real risks, Jesus used table fellowship for this purpose, as his disciples today must continue to do. We follow the same faith that kept him rooted even among tax collectors and sinners. Like him, our mission is to eat and drink with those who threaten to subvert everything God hopes to accomplish, and in doing so, draw them back to God, who will meet them with mercy and joy.