Eusebiagenics, or, The Perils of Piety: Another Look at Luke 15
I know nothing except that which everyone knows.
If I’m there when grace dances, I should dance.
Seventeen-year-old Jenna Edmonson, a feisty competitor in the “take no prisoners” world of high school soccer, was injured when she and a player on the opposing team lunged for a loose ball and arrived at precisely the same time. Jenna heard and felt a pop in her right knee, was carried off the field and, on August 31, 2001, had routine surgery to repair the torn ligaments. Her recovery, however, was hardly routine. Four months later instead of nearing the end of the rehabilitation process, Jenna was being shuffled from doctor to doctor struggling with the dual symptomology of chronic high fever and chronic pain in the knee, which should have been on its way to being healed and pain free. Finally a biopsy was ordered and it revealed the malevolent presence of an infection caused by the germ, pseudomonas aeruginosa, “a microscopic warrior that, like a demonic Pac-Man, eats away at bone and tissue.” 1
Fortunately immunization is available against eusebiagenic disorders, although it’s quite possible we won’t like the taste of the medicine
We have long had a proverb in our language, “the cure is worse than the disease.” For Jenna, who picked up the “bug” while in a weakened state at the hospital, and for thousands of others, this is not a saying as much as it is a fact of their lives—or even their deaths. “Each year hospital acquired infections kill an estimated 100,000 Americans making them the fifth most common cause of death in this country . . .” 2 The technical term for this phenomenon is eatra (healing), genics (origin, birth). An eatragenic disorder is a disease that is contracted in a healing environment, such as a hospital or clinic, during the very process of getting treatment for another disease or injury.
Eugene Peterson, himself a survivor of an almost fatal staph infection contracted during routine knee surgery, sees a parallel between this phenomenon and a spiritual phenomenon which, he believes, occurs with startling regularity and efficiency in Christian circles. 3 In the course of getting “saved” and finding healing and forgiveness for sin, our choices, and their consequences, we open ourselves up to a “bug” which would otherwise not be a danger. As Peterson ironically notes, “Some sins are only possible in the life of faith” 4 (things like religious self-righteousness, smugness, prideful controlling of grace). He coins the word eusebiagenic (from the Greek eusebeia = “godly,” “piousness,” or “devout behavior”) 5 to describe the process. In the course of doing evangelism, in the course of studying our Bibles, attending church, attending youth groups, in the course of mentoring or counseling or giving spiritual care, in short, in the course of being the light of the world, we sometimes produce, or at least enable, symptoms and disorders which would not have occurred otherwise. In context, the allusion is particularly to sins of self-righteousness, religious pride, a “holier than thou” mentality and, in the worst scenario, a legalism which believes that even though salvation may be by grace alone through faith alone, living out that salvation (“sanctification”) is by dint of either sheer effort, scrupulous rule-keeping, or both. It is, ironically enough, possible to lose a sense of our own lostness and our own need for a Savior to the point where perhaps the only thing worse than being “lost” is developing the secondary disorder of assuming ourselves to be “too found” and, consequently, ahead of or above others—especially when those others fall into sin. As the Apostle Paul put it, we develop “a form of godliness but denying its power.” 6
We have another proverb in our language which tells us that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Fortunately immunization is available against eusebiagenic disorders, although it’s quite possible we won’t like the taste of the medicine.
THE ORIGINAL DISCIPLESHIP TRAINING TRIP
Scholars have long noted that the central section of Luke (from 9:51–19:27) is a unit consisting of material which is not arranged chronologically as much as it is thematically, the overarching theme of the unit being discipleship. 7 In his lecture series, Tell It Slant: The Parables as Spiritual Direction, Eugene Peterson describes this middle third of Luke’s Gospel as “St. Luke’s Spirituality Seminar.” Even a cursory glance at this “seminar” reveals that few details are given regarding the specific chronology or geography of a given pericope or event, unless they are specifically germane to the story as they are, for example in Luke 17:11 and the incident with the lepers that follows this clear notation. Otherwise we are given only vague notations such as “one day,” “on one occasion,” or “one Sabbath” and so on. We know from 9:31 and 9:51 that Jesus, who is in Galilee, is heading towards Jerusalem. Further, we know from 9:52–56 that the original foray into Samaria, which would be the most direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem, is denied specifically due to the Jewish/Samaritan animosity. From this point forward, the “travel narrative” is presented as sort of a wilderness wandering through the DMZ around the border between Galilee and Samaria, finally on through Jericho to Jerusalem, the city he approaches with weeping (19:41).
In Luke’s “travel narrative,” then, Jesus is training his followers how to live after he has departed and how to live in the face of mounting opposition as they head towards tēs exodon autou, ēn ēmellen plēroun ēn Ierousalēm (9:31; “the exodus of his which was about to reach its fulfillment/completion in Jerusalem”). 8 One of the most striking features of this section is how much of the very familiar material (both parables and incidents) are unique to this section of Luke. Consider, for example, the Ten Healed of Leprosy, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Friend at Midnight, the parables of the Rich Fool, the Shrewd Manager, the Persistent Widow, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and, of course, the parable that always seems to be at the top of the charts, the (unfortunately named) Parable of the Prodigal Son.
What exactly is meant by this word “parable” which, in Christian circles, gets tossed around so easily (and often carelessly)? Literally, parabole carries the idea of “to lay alongside” or “throw down alongside.” 9 What is “thrown down,” according to David Hansen, is “a comparison in which something well known is compared to, and contrasted with, something less known for the purpose of permanently altering our understanding of the lesser known thing.” 10 We must be mindful, however, that we are dealing with texts written in another time and another culture.
What Hansen fails to mention is that the genre of “parable” is a sub-set of the teaching methods formed in the Israelite wisdom tradition. The Hebrew masal is an umbrella term under which a number of wisdom forms (riddles, similitudes, aphorisms, proverbs, taunts, bywords, allegories and parable) huddle. A parable, therefore, would be a riddle-like story which contained a lesson about living a life of wisdom—a life under the Lordship of God. Masal in general and parable in particular were common teaching methods in Judaism, and over 4,000 parables have survived in the Rabbinic literature outside of those in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. 11 Accordingly, N.T. Wright insists that the way Jesus uses parabole and the form they take in the gospels, places him squarely in the center of Jewish prophetic tradition. 12
Further, it’s important that we understand that the parables do not merely contain information about the Kingdom—they themselves are a subversive means of bringing the Kingdom to bear. In other words, exegesis must pay attention to form and structure, the way a story/parable works, not merely the content of the story (much less, the “moral” or “application” thereof). They don’t illustrate a truth to make it “easier”; more often than not they obfuscate and make things harder. They “force attention which in turn forces participation.” 13 Developing this idea, I have written in another context that “the parables in the center section of Luke can be described as verbal time bombs told not to bludgeon people with ‘the truth’ but set to detonate—and keep detonating—in a deeply subversive way, so that they can expose the suffocating self-righteousness which interferes with Kingdom work. We’d best be careful of how and where we toss these things around, given that lifestyles, worldviews, and values are in play.” 14
Jesus is not content with mere changes in our behavior, much less having us goose-stepping in conformity like a flock of pious geese. He’s after bigger game—notably our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Further, as C.S. Lewis so famously pointed out, he is neither safe nor particularly scrupulous. “There are traps everywhere.” 15 If we examine these stories too long or too closely, we might just find out that they aren’t cute and cuddly like the flannel graphs and picture Bibles tell us. In fact, they just might detonate and explode revolution all over, and into, our nice comfortable lives, because logic dictates that when a new Kingdom comes the old kingdoms must go. Better yet (or worse—perspective is everything), they just might release their potent truth which will catch us oblivious and proceed to smother and choke our self-righteousness and, finally, “tear us out of ourselves alive.” 16
THE EUSEBIAGENIC BROTHER (LUKE 15) 17
As the pericope begins, the issue at hand is the hospitality Jesus is showing to the riff-raff and, in turn, prompts an unsavory response by the Pharisees and Scribes who hurl the accusation, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 18 The accusation of the Pharisees is both accurate and correct. Jesus is doing exactly that. He’s deliberately going around showing hospitality to “tax collectors and sinners.” To understand the sting of this, we have to realize a few things. First, “an invitation to share a meal at someone’s table was a sign of friendship (Ps. 128:3; Luke 14:10), welcome and honor, as well as required hospitality to strangers.” 19 By having table fellowship with sinners, Jesus is unquestionably, given the customs of the time, implying acceptance of people who were deemed unworthy of such by the Pharisees, Scribes, and other religious leaders. These meals are, in the true sense of the word, revolutionary and are also a picture of the eschatological kingdom in which the “last shall be first.”
Second, the term “sinners” expresses not a personal opinion about someone’s occupation, manners, or lifestyle; it is a technical term used in those days by religious professionals and insiders to refer to people far beyond the pale, the lost and written off ones, the riff-raff. N.T. Wright believes that “the pejorative tone of ‘sinners’ in a passage like Luke 15:2 may have been that it carried the sense of ‘not quite real Jews’—which would mean, in effect, ‘like those who were in the land when the exiles returned from Babylon’.” 20
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a subtext here which often goes unnoticed but which would have provided much of the tension, not only in the original incident but also in the ears of Luke’s first hearers. The current text, of course, echoes earlier passages of Luke—notably 5:27–32 and 7:34. The theme of sharing table fellowship with such reviled outsiders along with the language of “eating and drinking” would have been particularly poignant in the original culture and language due to the textual backdrop of Deuteronomy 21:18–21. On the basis of similar charges and accusations, and on the basis of very similar terminology, 21 it is very likely that the religious leaders and teachers are leveling their accusations in such a way as to deliberately imply that Jesus is the rebellious son of Deuteronomy 21.
SYMPATHY FOR THE PHARISEES
The common caricature of the Pharisee in evangelical circles is that they are joyless religious hypocrites who enjoy their prestige and notoriety and who, in their attempt to stamp out sin in any form, also stamp out any vestige of grace or compassion, not to mention joy. The Pharisees have often been used as literary props, “straw men” used in lessons teaching our children how not to be or, even worse, used as imprecatory labels when we need a way to write-off those who disagree with us on any given church debate. When many evangelicals read the gospels, the Pharisees are stereotypes of the self-righteous hypocrite.
I believe it’s essential for us to realize that these Pharisees and teachers of the Law are not bad people. In the teeming religious and political pool of first century Palestine, and certainly of Second Temple Judaism, there were religious ideas, would-be religious movements and would-be messiahs abounding, conflating, and morphing. Add to this the fact that all of this was occurring in the context of occupation by a despised foreign and pagan power and you have adherents to these movements “living in a powder-keg and giving off sparks.” 22 The role of the grammateis (scribes, teachers of the Law), nomikoi (lawyers, interpreters of religious law), and the Pharisees was to “test” new movements, new personalities, and new teachings to ensure orthodoxy, prevent idolatry, and prevent another exile or, worse, annihilation by the occupying army.
The Pharisees weren’t just long faced religious legalists. Nor were they a kind of official thought police, snooping on all Jews and trying to make them keep the Law more thoroughly. They were a self-appointed pressure group most of whom had what we would call right wing political intentions: keep Israel as holy as possible in order to fuel the revolution of the Kingdom of God. 23
Brad Young takes this one step further and points out that “Jesus never criticized Pharisaism as a religious movement. He did, however, sharply rebuke the behavior of some Pharisees.” 24 It is simply bad exegesis (if not outright eisegesis) to assume hostility and ill intent on the part of Pharisees unless the context and/or specific details within the text give us sufficient reason for doing so.
Most Pharisees, like most of us, wanted their children to grow up in a godly and just society. They wanted to protect their families and friends from crime and spiritual degeneracy so it would be safe to walk the streets at night. And they wanted to prevent the “set-apart” people of God from assimilating with the surrounding pagan culture. They wanted to set a “fence around the Torah” to ensure God’s word was kept and, thus, that exile would not be repeated. These desires grow more acute as society is perceived to be slipping further and further away from God or godliness. (Jesus’s call for humility is, in my opinion, particularly needed in conversations and debates on issues like this.) The more acute the desire for certainty (“a fence around God’s word”) and for godliness, the greater the danger for the snotty nose of self-righteousness, the hacking cough of judgmentalism, and even full blown eusebiagenic disorders.
It seems to me that there are two ways we can go about this. One is to be on the defensive and draw clear boundary lines to keep the bad and lost people out as you withdraw and keep holiness as a distinct society. Avoid contact with anything that defiles or is suspicious. That’s the reason why the Pharisees insisted on boundary markers like circumcision, food laws, holy days, and Sabbath keeping. That’s often the reason churches in our generation have insisted on boundary markers like no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, and so on. These outward things might not be the best of measures, but they are a measure of sorts—a way to determine what is holy and what is worldly, who’s in and who’s out. The intent behind this approach is understandable. In the end, however, as both history and personal experience shows, the cure very often ends up being a lot worse than the disease. Eusebiagenic disorders develop quickly and are highly contagious.
The other approach is to go on the offensive and redraw the boundaries and risk defilement so that the outsiders can become insiders. The Pharisees have chosen the defensive approach but in Jesus the Kingdom is on the march, and its power is shown by seeking contact with the lost and defiled: he’s busy going out there redrawing and eliminating the boundary lines enjoying the company of “sinners” without being assimilated. While he’s “out there,” Jesus never once condones the sinful acts of these people nor wink at their patterns. He certainly doesn’t change or lower his expectations, He doesn’t stoop to their level; it’s more a case of lifting them up to his. He expects them to respond to his message by placing God at the center of their lives and then living accordingly. Anything less would be idolatry. After all, this is the same Jesus who says in Matthew, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Because of Jesus’ approach, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law begin to “mutter” (NIV) or “grumble” (NASB). 25 Here in Luke we read this story and just assume that these Pharisees are grumbling because they are swishing their religious skirts and exhibiting hostility to Jesus. Peterson suggests that something a little more subtle and threatening is going on. 26 The Pharisees are not “grumbling” because they are bad people, but because they are good people who are scared because this whole “grace thing” seems to be getting out of hand. He suggests that this group was not originally hostile to Jesus, and might, in fact, have included followers—at least from a distance. And by hanging around with people like this, Jesus is lowering standards and erasing or at least blurring familiar guidelines and boundaries. The problem is not Pharisaic teaching which also magnified the grace of God; 27 the problem is the actual practice of this particular group of Pharisees who wanted some kind of limit set on just how far this grace should go. In their “zeal for the law” (a rallying cry since the beginning of the Maccabean movement), they are developing the eusebiagenic disorders of self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
JUST A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR . . .
To treat the grumbling and concomitant eusebiagenic symptoms which are threatening the Pharisees’ spiritual well-being (and which still often threatens yours and mine), Jesus drops a time release capsule in the form of a cluster of parables with a common theme tied together so closely that Bailey claims that Luke understood them to be three parts of a single parable. 28
It’s almost as if Luke is a photographer starting off with a wide angle lens, taking in an entire scene (the lifestyle of Jesus and the accusation of the Pharisees and Scribes), and then focusing ever more narrowly until he has the object he really wants to examine right in the center of the lens. The first parable of lostness tells about 100 sheep, of which one is lost—a ratio of 1:100 (one percent)—a very wide angle. The second tells about ten coins, of which one is lost—a ratio of 1:10 (ten percent). The focus is getting a bit more intense. The third story has only two characters, two sons, of which one is lost—a ratio of 1:2. These first three all end with syncharēte—partying together. Friends and neighbors are called, parties are thrown, there is eating, drinking, and (gulp), in the case of the third story, even dancing. Each parable ends with a partying sentence: “Celebrate, rejoice and party with me. My lost ______ has been found!” This is followed by Jesus’ narration that “In the same way, I tell you there is more rejoicing in heaven over one lost person who repents.” As a master Semitic storyteller, Jesus has told these stories with a lilt of celebration in his voice. The disciples heard all this and rejoiced. We read this and we feel good too—even if our rejoicing is blunted by over-familiarity with the text.
I have no difficulty believing (and the text certainly says nothing contrary) that the Pharisees heard the first three stories and felt just as good as anybody else. The Pharisees also had a theology of grace and a view of God derived largely, but not exclusively, from God’s self-definition in Exodus 34:6–7: “I am the Lord, I am the Lord, the merciful and gracious God. I am slow to anger and rich in unfailing love and faithfulness. I show this unfailing love to many thousands by forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion” (NIV). So there is no reason to believe that the Pharisees were either angry or without emotion after the first three stories and many reasons to believe that they, too, were celebrating and applauding. Jesus has gripped their imaginations, thereby slipping past their defenses, and has them in a mood to celebrate.
. . . HELPS THE MEDICINE GO DOWN
Then, just when all their defenses are down, Jesus administers the potent medicine of the fourth story. This fourth story has narrowed the focus even further so that now we are seeing only the one character, the elder brother, 29 the one who (apparently) never was lost. The words of the elder brother betray that he always assumed that he was among the found but did not seem to take any joy in his foundness. He describes himself as one who has never done anything conspicuously wrong. He’s a good rule-keeper. He’s moral and upright, always has been. He’s certainly much better than this “other son.” He tells us so himself in verse 29! These are the words of someone with pronounced eusebiagenic symptoms.
The irony of this story is that the cure is worse than the disease. The one who is so obviously found is the only one of the lot not enjoying the party. In fact, he outright refuses to go in—a very serious public shaming of his father in that culture which is, in effect, a breaking of relationship with his father. 30 He stands outside in a sulk that his brother should be treated this way upon his repentance. The sulk is simply truculent seeing as his brother’s return did not affect his standing or his financial situation in any way. 31 He had nothing to lose by joining the celebration and welcoming his brother. The one who is so obviously found turns out to be more lost than any of them. He’s doubly lost—he’s lost to his father whom he resents and he’s lost to the brother whom he resents. Does that sound familiar? In his very attempt to grasp and cling to his goodness and his status, this good religious boy here is in very real danger of losing relationship with both father and brother. Jesus is using this character as an illustration or testimony of one living outside the two greatest commandments explicated earlier in Luke (10:27).
“In Jesus’ story, the compassionate Father is the key player. . . . He loves the rebel who plays the role of a sinner despised by all. But the Father also loves the saintly son who is every bit as much a sinner as his rebellious brother.” 32 Religious pride is a deadly symptom. So is self-sufficiency. So is the tendency to draw nice neat boundaries to separate the unclean from the clean and respectable. In the beginning these are all symptoms of an incipient eusebiagenic disorder and the reason we so often fail to recognize them is because we often pick up the virus in such good places—our families, our churches, our pulpits, our Christian radio programs, our Christian colleges—the very places we go to in order to find healing for our primary sin sickness. Left alone, these secondary eusebiagenic symptoms will eventually develop into full blown illnesses themselves, illnesses which may well be worse than those we had to begin with.
The illness will be tragic for three reasons. First, people are going to get hurt. Second, the illness will spread and this gap between the so-called “lost riff-raff” out there and the so-called “righteous ones” inside the circle will grow wider and wider. History and personal experience have proven that once the door is closed against outsiders, it isn’t long before the people inside the circle start to examine each other with a fine tooth comb of suspicion and resentment. Third, and this is equally tragic, if we don’t return to the ground zero of our lostness we miss out on the party. We may in fact end up shutting ourselves out, isolated from Father, brother, sister and friends. We need a Savior at all times, not just to get saved but also to live in and live out that very salvation. At any age and at any stage of discipleship, if we resist recognizing the reality and the seriousness of our own lostness, we are prevented from entering into the celebration of being found.
- Patrick Rogers et al., “Deadly Medicine: Killer Microbes that Threaten Tens of Thousands of Lives Lurk in the Unlikeliest of Places: The Hospital,” People, 30 August 2002, 65–70.
- Ibid., 66; emphasis mine.
- Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant: The Parables as Spiritual Direction, Regent Audio Series, Tape 2609C, Part 2. Peterson specifies that the “carriers” of the secondary disorders are usually those in leadership. For our purposes, however, I do not wish to focus in as narrowly.
- Ibid.; emphasis his.
- James A. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997).
- As Gordon Fee states it, “They liked the visible expressions, the ascetic practices and the endless discussions of religious trivia, thinking themselves to be obviously righteous because they were obviously religious.” 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, New International Biblical Commentary, v. 13 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 270.
- Darrell Bock, Luke, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 25.
- Translation mine. The thematic connections between the exodon journey of Luke’s Gospel with the journey narrative of the book of Deuteronomy are well worth noting. Willard Swartley’s study, Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), is a tour de force in helping us to see and understand these links.
- Bradley J. Chance and Milton Horne, Rereading the Bible: An Introduction to the Biblical Story (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 279–82.
- David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 130.
- See the development of this concept in Gus Konkel, “Wisdom as the Way to Knowing God,” Didaskalia 4, no.1 (October 1992): 15–25 and David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2005).
- N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 176–82. Italics are his.
- Peterson, Tell It Slant, Tape 2609A. N.T. Wright goes further, connecting the parables of Jesus and the subversive world of Jewish apocalyptic literature. See Wright, Victory, 177–78 and his The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 280–99. The similarities of this motif to a text such as Mark 4:30–34 are noteworthy.
- Corey Herlevsen, Life and Teachings of Jesus Course Notes. Steinbach Bible College, 2007.
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1955), 191.
- Corey Herlevsen, Life and Teachings of Jesus Course Notes. Steinbach Bible College, 2006. The phrase “tear us out of ourselves alive” is adapted from a line in Bruce Cockburn’s song “Fascist Architecture” originally on the album Humans (True North Records, 1980).
- The familiar title, “The Prodigal Son,” has not only long since lost its edge, it is not particularly accurate. “Prodigal” does not mean “lost”; it means something like “wasteful,” “profligate,” or “reckless.” Kenneth Bailey’s article, “The Pursuing Father,” http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/abss/abss0137.htm, is particularly helpful in wiping pre-conceived scales from our eyes with regard to this parable.
- Prosdechetai (welcomes) and synesthiei (eats with) are present tense verbs indicating ongoing habit or lifestyle. As Eugene Peterson puts it in Tell It Slant, “He’s always hanging out with these losers.” Prosdechetai is occasionally used in LXX (e.g. Mic. 6:7 and Zech. 3:10) to indicate “take pleasure from” or “have goodwill towards.” It is that sense which is likely present here.
- Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, electronic ed., ed. Leland Ryken et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), s.v. “Table.”
- Wright, Victory, 265.
- Compare, for example, Deuteronomy 21:18–21 and Luke 7:34 (NASB). The words “glutton” and “drunkard” appear together in Deuteronomy 21:18–21 (LXX) and they appear together in Luke 7:34 along with the accusation of “being a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners’ ” (note the quotation marks). Matthew 11:19 and the parallel in Luke 7:34 is the only place in the entire New Testament where phagos (glutton) and oinopotes (drunkard) appear together. I’m convinced that Luke 15, while much less polemical than the Luke 7 reference, has Deuteronomy 21:18–21 as a subtext.
- This phrase is taken from Jim Steinman’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as recorded on Bonnie Tyler’s album, Faster Than the Speed of Night (New York: Columbia Records, p1983).
- N.T. Wright, “Startling Surprises,” in his Jesus: The New Way, Complete Video Curriculum (Worcester, PA: Gateway Films/Vision Video, 1998), Program 2.
- Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 184.
- The word is diegongyzon, a rare word which in the NT appears only here and Luke 19:7. Its usage here is intended to remind us of Exodus 16:2 (LXX), where a prophet/leader is leading God’s people through the wilderness into freedom. In both cases the people are taken beyond what is safe and comfortable and, longing for the familiar old boundaries, they grumble.
- Peterson, Tell It Slant, tape 5.
- A Rabbinic saying puts these words into God’s mouth: “Open for Me a gateway of repentance as big as a needle’s eye, and I will open for you gates wide enough for horses and chariots.” Shir R. on v. 2. Cited in C. G. Montefiore, “Rabbinic Conceptions of Repentance,” Jewish Quarterly Review 16, no. 2 (1904): 230.
- Bailey, “Pursuing Father,” 2. It seems peculiar that Luke would use the singular parabolēn when there are actually more than one parable. This is, however, a Lukan characteristic. In 5:36, the singular introduces two; in 14:7 it introduces three. That the parables are linked together under the singular does, as Bailey stresses, indicate that there is a strong unity of theme and intent between the parables. Although Bailey (along with most commentators) counts three parables, I (following Peterson) suggest there are four.
- Due to the structure of this particular cluster of parables, and due to the rule of end stress in the interpretation of parables, I believe we would be closer to the mark by entitling this parable something like “The Parable of the Elder Brother,” which would indicate where the focus should be without needlessly divulging the ironic ending.
- Bailey and Keener both correctly point out that the public attack on his brother, the refusal to go in when the father called everyone to do so, and the failure to properly address his father should have resulted in a public beating of the elder brother. The father, however, in keeping with the father described in Exodus 34:6, is long-suffering (Hebrew = chesed). He goes out looking for this rebellious son—like the shepherd looking for his sheep or the woman looking for her coin. Bailey, in “Pursuing Father,” refers to this as an act of painful public humiliation.
- In The Gospel According to Luke (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), J.A. Fitzmyer makes the case (partially on the basis of Deuteronomy 21:17) that the elder brother’s inheritance would have been two thirds, the younger brother’s, one third. Further, Fitzmyer stresses on the basis of Luke 15:12 that this division has already been made. Craig Keener makes the same point in the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993): “Because the inheritance had been divided, the elder brother was already assured of his share, effective on the father’s death (15:12); he had nothing to lose by his brother’s return” (234).
- Young, Jesus, 153.