The parables of Jesus provide some of the most memorable images in the Synoptic Gospels. The parables unique to Luke are no exception. Depending on the criteria used to count them, there are some 18 parables unique to Luke’s Gospel. They not only teach us about ethics and moral behavior, but more importantly they provide a glimpse of the kingdom of God. They also provide the astute preacher with a treasure trove of ways to provoke more profound reflection upon God’s viewpoint made evident through Jesus’ teaching.
The Tradition of Parables
Before exploring some of these Lukan parables, we should remember some basic information about the parables in the New Testament. First, it is well known that Jesus spoke in parables as a way of enticing his audience to reflect more deeply on God’s perspective and, at the same time, to persuade them to making good ethical decisions in conformity to God’s commands.
A second point is to recall the diversity found in Jesus’ parables. There are two basic types of parables in the Gospel tradition, aphoristic and narrative. The aphoristic parables teach ethical perspectives that are meant to guide the audience to careful decision-making. The narrative parables, on the other hand, which are the most striking, do not necessarily invite consideration of an ethical stance as much as they invite the hearers to view reality differently than they normally would. In fact, narrative parables are sometimes jarring. They make us pause or ask ourselves questions about their meaning. The problem is that we modern, urbanized people do not always easily identify with images rooted in the more rural, agricultural context out of which Jesus came. So, some of the original “flavor” of the parables can be lost on us.
Finally, the biggest mistake modern interpreters make concerning parables is a tendency to reduce them to moral lessons. Since the basis of parables is a metaphor or simile, a way to compare usually two unrelated images, they normally should make us pause and reflect. To reduce the parables to moral lessons is to miss the point. Rather, they are meant to provoke questions in us, and they offer a glimpse of how different the kingdom of God really is in comparison to our worldview.
God’s Lost and Found Department
To illustrate some of the power of Luke’s parables, we begin with one of his favorite themes: the kingdom of God is all about seeking out the lost. I like to think of it as God’s “lost-and-found department” because there is a series of special Lukan parables that reflect this theme.
The entire chapter 15 of Luke is the prime location for this theme. It begins with the parable of the lost sheep, which in fact is also found in Matthew in a different context (18:12-14). The jarring image is of a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep at the mercy of fate to go seek out one little lost sheep! What kind of shepherd would do this? Logically, would not a shepherd “cut his losses” and save what he still has? But no, in God’s way of doing things, the one lost sheep is more important and worth seeking out.
The two remaining parables hammer away at the same theme, climaxing in the wonderful parable of the “lost (prodigal) son,” which just as rightfully could be called the parable of the overly generous (prodigal) father (15:11-32). First, however, is the parable of the lost coin (15:8-10). Here Jesus invokes the image of a woman who loses one of her 10 coins and turns the house upside down to find it. Then, out of joy at finding the lost coin (equivalent of a day’s wage), she throws a party for her friends and neighbors. How sensible is this? The punch line, however, delivers the message: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” The intertwining of joy, another favorite Lukan theme, with the finding of the lost coin gives us the orientation to understand the parable. Humans are forever losing things, including themselves, but in God’s perspective, it is essential to remember that joy will result in being found again!
The climax comes in the extended parable we call “the prodigal son.” It has inspired many artists to portray the poignant moment of the spendthrift younger son’s humiliating return to his father, and his family, after he has squandered his inheritance on dissolute living. Hyperbole fills the story. The father’s extremely generous reaction to welcoming his good-for-nothing, but repentant, son back (the running to greet, the embrace, the kiss, the ring, the sandals), the older son’s self-righteous reaction and virtual indignation over his father’s kind action, and the father’s plea to him to welcome his brother back — these all point to the generosity of God’s kingdom in dealing with wayward sinners. Of course, we might imagine the reaction of some of Jesus’ audience. The boy should have been punished, not rewarded! Where is true discipline when you need it? Being overly forgiving is only going to encourage more irresponsible behavior!
How should we treat such a series of parables in our own context? The beauty of parables is that they have virtually limitless possibilities for interpretation precisely because they are not simplistic moral lessons. We can suggest, however, that in the context of a society where many people call for vengeance, for strict punishment, and even for the death penalty in some cases, the message of God reaching out and seeking the lost is not an easy one to accept.
Note the orientation of this way of viewing the parable. It is not about changing our behavior so much as it is about seeing that God is more generous than we can imagine. We are the lost sheep; we are the lost coin; we are the prodigal son! To call for just punishment would be to condemn ourselves. God, however, sees it differently. There is a call to repentance embedded in these parables, for sure, but more striking is the insistence that God actually operates a lost-and-found department, in which the lost can be assured they will be sought out and found.
Unsavory Characters and the Kingdom
Another aspect of Luke’s parables is Jesus’ use of rather unsavory characters to get his message across. One example is the dishonest steward (16:1-8). When his master calls him to account for squandering his master’s property, the steward sets about reducing the amounts owed to the master by certain debtors. What must be remembered is that such stewards made a living by imposing a commission — a kind of surplus fee — on debtors. His quick action, in spite of his dismissal as the steward, however, is commended by the master! Why? God’s generosity again. The steward’s prudent action expresses a Gospel attitude when confronted by a crisis. Jesus’ following explanation speaks of contrasting types of stewardship, with an emphasis on carefully taking care of true (spiritual) wealth rather than worldly resources.
Another unusual role model is the persistent (dare I say, nagging?) widow (18:1-8). She won’t let the dishonest judge off the hook and persistently nags him about making a judgment in her favor. The judge acknowledges that he respects neither God nor human beings, but he decides to render judgment in the widow’s favor because she keeps “bothering” him and he is fearful that she will attack him. Jesus uses the image to promote persistence in prayer. If such a dishonest judge will finally cave in to constant nagging, how much more will God, who is anything but an unjust judge, give in to our desires expressed through prayer.
Note that in such stories, the ultimate attention is not be drawn to the unsavory characters themselves, but to the surrounding actions. Jesus is not commending dishonesty but calling attention to deeper values. The seediness of the characters only highlights the paradoxes in these parables.
In these instances, of course, there is focus on human behavior, but the image of God is also in view. God knows we are not perfect. He knows we sometimes lack persistence in prayer or are not the best “stewards” of the gifts we have been given. We are nevertheless His creatures, and when we act prudently and persistently, He will hear and answer us.
The richness of Luke’s parables cannot be summarized in such a brief article. We can, however, prepare to listen anew to these parables, for they come up periodically in the liturgical year and offer the attentive preacher an occasion to try to hear them on their own terms. Parables are, by their nature, intended to provoke a glimpse of God’s kingdom that is far different than perhaps we imagined. TP
Sulpician Father Witherup, S.S. is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice and frequent contributor to The Priest. He recently published Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012), and Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press, 2013).