The Mission of God in the Gospel of Luke: Part 3 – The Parables

Last month [here] we discussed how Luke focuses on the mission of God in his accounts of John the Baptist. At the annunciation of John’s birth, the angel declares the foundation of John’s mission. God is beginning in Israel the work of saving all the nations, and John will be the one who will call Israel back to God, back to God’s promises, and back to their mission. Zechariah, his father, prophesies over his son, and the prophecy closes with the promise that God plans to give light to all those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. At the beginning of John’s public ministry, Luke explains his mission by quoting the prophet Isaiah’s bold proclamation that “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Not just Jewish people, but all flesh. The mission of the Messiah is good news for the entire world, and the work of John is preparing the way for that mission.

Luke generally follows the structure and chronology of Mark. But Luke significantly departs from that structure in chapters 9-19. Right in the middle of Luke’s Gospel, he includes a lengthy “travel narrative,” a collection of narratives, parables, and teachings of Jesus as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It is no accident that nearly all the parables in Luke are in chapters 9-19, Luke’s travelogue. More than half of those parables are unique to Luke: the Good Samaritan (10.30–35), the Friend at Midnight (11.5–8), the Rich Fool (12.16–21), the Barren Fig Tree (13.6–9), the Closed Door (13.24–30), the Places at the Table (14.7–11), the Tower Builder and Warrior (14.28–32), the Unjust Steward (16.1–8), Lazarus and the Rich Man (16.19–31), the Servant’s Reward (17.7–10), the Unjust Judge (18.1–8), and the Pharisee and Tax Collector (18.9–14). Many of these parables highlight Luke’s missional purpose. Of all the stories about Jesus that Luke had to tell, he selected and arranged this particular collection for Theophilus and us to tell us about the mission of God. A few clear examples of this are below.

Luke 10 – The Good Samaritan:

The parable of the Good Samaritan follows a similar pattern to many of the stories that Luke tells about Jesus. Luke focuses on stories that feature women, outcasts, and foreigners who have the right response to Jesus as a way of communicating to Theophilus that anyone can follow Jesus, because the good news is for all the nations.

Jesus tells the parable, because he’s being questioned by one of the Jewish religious experts about eternal life. The man rightly articulates the Old Testament summary of righteousness: “Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus tell him to “do this and you will live,” the man hesitates. “But who is my neighbor?” the man asks. In other words, the man knows that he is supposed to love everyone the way that God loves everyone, but surely “everyone” doesn’t really mean everyone. Surely there are some people that it is okay to hate. Surely God doesn’t love all the nations in the same way.

Jesus, in response, tells the parable, and in it he makes a Samaritan—the national, political, racial, and religious enemy of the Jews—the hero of the story. The Samaritan does the right thing when all the Jewish religious experts in the story do the wrong thing. Jesus wants this religious expert (and Theophilus, and us) to see that God loves like the Samaritan in the story. He loves all people and treats all people, even Samaritans, like his neighbor.

Luke 15 – The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Two Lost Sons

“Tax collectors and sinners” (Luke’s catch-all phrase for outcasts, sinners, and people marginalized by society by the way they live) are flocking to Jesus, and he is spending time with them, talking to them about God, his love and forgiveness, and the kingdom. This makes the religious experts very upset. In their estimation Jesus should not be spending time with people like this. To answer them, Jesus tells them a trio of connected parables: the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Two Lost Sons.

The structure of the first two parables is virtually identical. Something of value is lost—a sheep and a coin. The person who lost it turns their world upside down trying to find it. When the person finds what was lost, the finder holds a great celebration, because what was lost was found again. Jesus concludes both parables by explaining to the religious experts that this is what God is like. When those who are far from God (sinners, outcasts, non-Jews) come to faith in Christ, heaven doesn’t begrudgingly accept them into the fold. There is a wild celebration in heaven over all the lost who are found by God.

The final parable, the Parable off the Two Lost Sons, repeats this pattern for its first cycle. A son is lost this time, but in the end, he too is found. The father throws a great celebration: “My son who was dead is alive again. My son who was lost is found.” The second cycle of the parable tells us what God thinks about the religious experts who begrudge God for loving and seeking after the lost from all parts of humanity. The son refuses to go into the party for his formerly wayward brother, and the father rebukes him. “My son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” the father says. How could the older son be so long with the father and yet know him so little? When the older son is surprised at the father’s behavior, it shows that he hardly knows his dad at all. That’s Jesus’ point to the religious experts. If they are upset and surprised that God is seeking after outcasts, sinners, and non-Jews, they hardly know what God is like at all.

Luke 18 – Pharisee and Tax Collector

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in many ways, is a repeat of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus takes someone who was entirely estranged from Jewish society and makes them the “hero” of the story. But this parable has an additional layer of theological sophistication that is worth paying attention to.

Luke makes clear the immediate circumstances of the parable—“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” In the parable a Pharisee prays in the temple to thank God that he is more righteous than all the “bad people,” and he offers to God his obedience to religious rules (fasting and tithes) as proof of his goodness. Then a tax collector prays to beg God for mercy (literally “propitiation”). Jesus makes it clear that only one of these men left the temple righteous. The Pharisee, Jesus argues, missed God’s righteousness because he exalted himself.

Several elements of this parable would have been striking to Jesus’ audience. First, the presentation of a tax collector as a person who is righteous before God would have surprised everyone. Tax collectors were seen as traitors to their nation, their heritage, and to their religion, and they were notoriously dishonest. All those things were probably true of this tax collector as well, but note his language. This tax collector’s hope is not in his own good deeds. He doesn’t have any. His hope is in the mercy of God, that God would provide for him the needed satisfaction so that he might be made right before God. In other words, this tax collector found righteousness, because he found a righteousness outside of himself.

The second striking element is that Jesus calls the Pharisees’ religious achievements “self-righteousness and self-exaltation” in which there is no righteousness to be found. The tax collector could be made right before God simply by trusting that God had done everything required for him to be saved. This would, indeed, be good news to a man like Theophilus and every other gentile who grew up outside of and entirely apart from Jewish religious practices. The tax collector found good news that is good for the whole world.

These are just a few of the many parables that highlight Luke’s missional purpose. The parables in particular show God’s love for all people, even the people that Jewish society had forgotten to love. It is, therefore, fitting for us to spend some time contemplating Jesus’ parables to see the mission of God clearly and to find ourselves in it right beside Jesus.

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