Luke 15:1-19:27

The gospel of Luke relates the story of the shepherd (Mt. 18:12-14) who leaves ninety-nine sheep to look for one stray in order to explain why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (to call them to repentance). Similarly, the gospel tells of a woman who has ten coins, loses one of them, and rejoices when she searches all over her house and finds it. And then Jesus relates the story of the prodigal son, who collects his inheritance and wastes it, but is forgiven by his father when he repents and returns home. The story, which only appears in the gospel of Luke, also describes the anger of the older son, who cannot forgive his younger brother.

Now Jesus teaches his disciples about living in the world. The parable about a steward who collects from his master's debtors less than they owe in order to pay off his own account seems to commend initiative, even when one has to break the rules. Jesus says, "Use your worldly wealth to win friends for yourselves, so that when money is a thing of the past you may be received into an eternal home." Then he concludes, as in the gospel of Matthew (6:24), "You cannot serve God and Money."

The Pharisees scoff at this teaching, but Jesus once again accuses them of hypocrisy. "You are the people who impress others with your righteousness," Jesus tells them, "but God sees through you." Then Jesus says, "the law and the prophets were until John," but since then "the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone forces a way in." This is like the teaching in Matthew 11:12. It implies that violence since the time of John the Baptist is playing a role in realizing the kingdom of God on earth. Perhaps this refers to the tremendous change for Christians in the Roman Empire that followed the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE.

In the gospel of Luke Jesus teaches, "It is easier for heaven and earth to come to an end than for one letter of the law to lose its force." In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a dot, will disappear from the law until all that must happen has happened." (Mt. 7:18) The teachings come from the same source, but each has a slightly different emphasis. The passage in the gospel of Matthew is about time. It implies that the law is in force, at least for Jews, until the kingdom comes. The passage in the gospel of Luke is about power. It infers that God can change the law, as God can bring heaven and earth to an end. The gospel of Luke has just affirmed that "the law and the prophets were until John." In the act of God in Jesus, the time of the law has come to an end.

Then Jesus in the gospel of Luke teaches, "A man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery." In addition, "anyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. This is a slight twist on the teaching in the gospel of Mark that says a woman who "divorces her husband and remarries" commits adultery. (Mk. 10:11-12) The gospel of Luke puts the onus on the man not on the woman. But in both gospels the teaching allows divorce, so long as there is no remarriage. Jesus in the gospel of Matthew says, that a man who "divorces his wife for any reason other than unchastity involves her in adultery," (Mt. 5:31) but a later teaching seems to indicate that this may only be true if the man remarries. (Mt. 19:3-9) Paul taught that divorce was wrong, unless it was initiated by an unbelieving partner married to a Christian. (1 Cor. 7:10-16)

Clearly, divorce was a problem in the early church. The Jewish law allowed a man to divorce his wife and remarry (Deut. 24:1), but at least one prophet wrote that God hates divorce because it is hard on women. (Mal. 2:16) In the early church divorce was discouraged if not always prohibited, and those who did divorce were encouraged to remain single. As Paul argued, the end is near so it is best to be devoted solely to the Lord, if a person is able to live without being tempted by passion. Anyone, however, who claims that the New Testament has a clear teaching about divorce has not carefully read the different teachings in the gospels and the letters of Paul.

The story of Lazarus, which completes chapter 16 of the gospel of Luke, is found nowhere else in the New Testament. It tells how a rich man ignores Lazarus, who begs for years at his gate. When Lazarus dies he goes to heaven, but when the rich man dies he is taken to Hades where he suffers in torment. Seeing Lazarus in heaven with Abraham, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water to cool his tongue. But Abraham says that each man now has his reward for the life he lived. When the rich man asks that Abraham send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham replies that they already have Moses and the prophets to warn them. The rich man then argues that his brothers will listen to someone returning from the dead, but Abraham tells him: "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets they will pay no heed even if someone should rise from the dead."

This story reminds us that the churches among the Gentiles were struggling to make sense of the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Gentile Christians as well as Jewish Christians needed to understand how a Jewish teacher in Palestine, who was rejected by most of his own people and put to death by a Roman governor, was the savior of the entire world. That was the challenge Paul faced, and the author of the gospel of Luke is addressing the same question.

In chapter 17 Jesus tells his disciples to beware of causing a brother to stumble. "If your brother does wrong, reprove him; and if he repents, forgive him." When Peter asks in the gospel of Matthew how often he is to forgive a brother, "if he goes on wronging me," Jesus replies, "I do not say seven times but seventy times seven." Jesus in the gospel of Matthew seems to demand more of his disciples than Jesus does in the gospel of Luke.

When the disciples say to Jesus, "increase our faith," he replies that if their faith is "no bigger than a mustard seed," they will be able to perform miracles. Then he tells them that, like servants, they have duties to perform and should not be seeking rewards for themselves. Near Samaria Jesus heals ten men of their leprosy but only one of them, a Samaritan, comes back to thank him. Jesus tells the man, "your faith has cured you." As the nine other lepers were also healed, we can only presume that they, too, had faith, even if they did not return to Jesus to express their gratitude. The story not only validates the faith of Samaritans, who had become members of the church before the gospel of Luke was written, but presents them favorably in comparison to the Jews.

The Pharisees then ask, "When will the kingdom of God come?" Surely this question was also asked in the time of the author of the gospel of Luke. The answer Jesus gives in the gospel of Luke is enigmatic: "the kingdom of God is among you." Then he compares the kingdom to lightning that "lights up the earth from end to end," and to the flood in the days of Noah, and to the fiery destruction of Sodom. The Son of Man "must first endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation," Jesus says, but then he will be revealed. "Remember Lot's wife," (Gen. 19:26) he tells his disciples. (She was turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed an angel's command and looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah.) And he concludes with the chilling thought: "Where the carcass is, there will the vultures gather."

To encourage his disciples to "keep on praying and never lose heart," Jesus tells them a parable about a widow who demands justice from a judge with such persistence that he finally relents and helps her. Jesus says that God hears the cries of the chosen and "will give them justice soon enough." But, Jesus asks, "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Then, to warn "those who were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everybody else," Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector. In his prayer, the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the tax collector, but the tax collector prays, "God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am." Jesus says the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, was "acquitted of his sins."

The disciples try to prevent women from bringing babies to him, but Jesus rebukes them. "Let the children come to me," he says, "for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." Then he teaches that "whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it." In response to a ruler who asks him, "What must I do to win eternal life?" Jesus answers that he is to obey the moral commandments of the Jewish law. When the man replies that he has done that, Jesus tells him to sell all his possession, give the money to the poor, and follow him.

The man turns away with a heavy heart, and Jesus says, "How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" When Peter asks about the disciples, who left everything to follow him, Jesus promises that they will be rewarded. We have encountered most of these teachings in the gospel of Matthew, but in a different place in the narrative of the life of Jesus. They emphasize faith in God, following Jesus, humility, and repentance for sins. They may refer to the moral laws of the Jewish tradition, but they clearly demand more than simply obeying the law. Faith is presented not as a set of beliefs about Jesus but as a life commitment. The good news is the same as that preached by Paul in his earlier letters to Greek-speaking churches in the Roman Empire. Salvation comes through repentance for our sins and through faith. © Robert Traer 2016