Luke Week 7
“Jesus Taught in Parables”: Luke 13–15
By Mark Abbott
Seattle Pacific University Adjunct Instructor
Read this week’s Scripture: Luke 13–15
Some people thrive on data. Maybe you don’t! Here’s just enough data to launch us into a parable-rich section of Luke.
- 35 percent of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic gospels is in parables.
- There are between 37 and 65 parables, depending on how we define “parable.”
- Two-thirds of all parables are in Luke — 18 of them unique to this gospel.
Parables are a high priority in the Gospel of Luke!
But what’s a parable, anyway?
A modern poet observes, “Parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them. They create an imaginary world that reflects reality.” [Author’s Note 1] Parables are indirect communications, slipping under our defenses, designed to interest, convince, and persuade. They may be stories or extended analogies. All are relatively brief, leaving out details we wish were included. All come out of the everyday life experiences of Jesus and those who heard him speak.
Jesus’ parables are also told into a context from his ministry rather than, as in the case of Aesop’s Fables, being general stories with universal truths. Most, if not all, of Jesus’ parables present a reversal of values, challenging listeners to response — that is, to decisions and change in the lives of hearers.
In this section of parables and their linking narrative, watch for two themes: (1) radical and amazing grace, and (2) human responses to this grace.
Luke 13:1–9: What’s Pilate Got to Do With a Fig Tree?
Remember that this large section of Luke (9:51–19:44) is in the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Jesus has spoken of danger for him in Jerusalem from religious leaders (9:21–22). Then, along the road, someone tells a story about atrocities committed by Pilate against Galileans in Jerusalem. [Author’s Note 2] The point? It isn’t safe for Jesus and his Galilean followers to continue to Jerusalem. Another point of the story is the question of what such tragedy means. Was the Galilean disaster punishment for victims’ sins?
Jesus responds by citing another tragedy involving the collapse of the Jerusalem tower of Siloam. Were those killed in this disaster “worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem?” (13:4). When bad things happen, does it mean that victims deserve such adversities? Jesus applies both of these disaster stories to the need for repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (13:5). Thus, the issue is not whether victims of disaster deserve it, but whether we turn away from futile and unfruitful ways of living.
In that context, Jesus tells the parable of an unfruitful fig tree. A fig tree planted within a vineyard provides a double symbol of Israel as both fig tree and vineyard. (See also Isaiah 5:1–10.) When the vineyard owner wants an unfruitful fig tree cut down, the gardener begs for another year of effort to foster fruit-bearing. Gracious opportunity to repent is offered, a second chance given, but it will not be open-ended. While Jerusalem and Israel are given opportunity to repent, that opportunity to respond to grace and thus be fruitful will not last forever.
Luke 13:10–21: Sabbath-keeping and Seeds
In a synagogue one Sabbath, Jesus encounters a woman in deep need and a leader who cares more for rules and his own power than for needy people like her. This woman was, says The Message, “so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up.” Laying hands on her, Jesus liberates her from her ailment, enabling her to stand up straight.
By doing this, however, Jesus infuriates the synagogue leader, who keeps telling people they should come on some other day than the Sabbath to be healed. Jesus responds by accusing him of hypocrisy or double standards. If you take care of your animal on the Sabbath, why object to this woman being liberated from bondage on the Sabbath?
Luke then begins Jesus’ short parables of mustard seed and yeast with these words: “He said therefore” (13:18, emphasis mine), linking those parables through the word “therefore” to what happened in the synagogue. Can one woman’s healing accomplish something beyond that time and place? Will opposition, such as was incurred from the synagogue leader, stop the impact and growth of God’s kingdom?
No, because God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed, which grows into a large bush that provides shelter and nesting for birds. God’s kingdom is also like yeast, whose quiet impact is felt throughout the bread dough. Nobody knows what will happen when the seed of the kingdom is sown. And nobody knows what will be the repercussions when just one person is liberated from bondage.
Luke 13:22–30: The Narrow Door
After Luke reminds us of the ongoing journey to Jerusalem (13:22), he turns our eyes to another parable, this time triggered by the question, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” Instead of giving a straight answer with numbers or percentages, Jesus offers a warning: The kingdom’s narrow gate is now being held open, but one day the narrow door will be shut and it will be too late.
Furthermore, the very people Jesus’ contemporaries felt superior to and wanted to fight — Gentiles “from east and west, from north and south” — “will eat in the kingdom of God” (13:29). Therefore, Jesus implores listeners to “strive,” or “make every effort,” as the CEB renders it (13:24), to enter this narrow door that continues to remain open.
Both warning and promise combine in Jesus’ parable. As N.T. Wright observes, “It really is possible to stroll past the open gate to the kingdom of God, only to discover later the depth of our mistake.” [Author’s Note 3]
Luke 13:31–35: Jesus Grieves Over Jerusalem
“Danger ahead!” This warning is offered to Jesus, this time by Pharisees. It involves Herod’s desire to eliminate Jesus. Maybe Herod, who has already gotten rid of one troublesome preacher, John the Baptizer, is using Pharisees to pass along a death threat to Jesus. Here is Jesus’ unusually contemptuous response:
Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (13:32).
What follows is Jesus’ heartrending cry over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (13:34). Taking on a mother-hen role, Jesus longs to protect those he loves, the “children” of Jerusalem, from harm. What a beautiful and grace-filled image. But “you were not willing!” Jesus cries out over them.
Luke 14:1–11: A Wedding Party
Luke includes more mealtime scenes than any of the other gospels. When I think of Jesus at banquet I remember the character Tevye joyfully celebrating his daughter’s marriage in Fiddler on the Roof. When Jesus pictures God throwing a party, he draws on Old Testament images. Isaiah’s picture is of a mountain where “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow” (Isaiah 25:6). In a familiar psalm, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5).
Two of Jesus’ most intense and complex parables are set in the context of feasts. The first parable is introduced by the real-life story of a Sabbath meal at a Pharisee leader’s house. In that setting, Jesus heals “a man who had dropsy” (14:2). Legal experts and Pharisees present at the meal watch Jesus closely to see what he will do. “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (14:3) Jesus asks them. When the question is greeted with silence, Jesus does what we have come to expect of him. He heals the sick man, and then says to the onlookers,
If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day? (14:5)
Then we are told, “And they could not reply to this” (14:6).
Watching how guests at this dinner party scramble for the best places [Author’s Note 4], Jesus launches into a parable about a wedding banquet. The parable’s most basic level of meaning speaks to humility, to not jockeying for the best places at a social event, since those places of honor may be reserved for someone else, and you may be embarrassed by having to move when the designated honoree shows up. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11).
There may also be a deeper meaning about not pushing oneself forward in God’s eyes. Do people with an education in the Law of Moses, with affluence, and with position think they are superior to the poor and to those who have not had the advantage of studying the law? By the time Luke came to write down his “orderly account” (1:1), there were many non-Jewish believers in Jesus. The issue later in the first century, when Luke wrote this gospel, would be the question of whether Jewish believers were superior to Gentile converts. At its deepest level, then, this parable speaks against a pecking order in God’s kingdom and opens up God’s gracious, generous-hearted love for all, regardless of who they are.
Luke 14:12–24: The Great Banquet
The second banquet parable is introduced by Jesus’ advice to his Pharisee host not to invite friends, relatives, or rich neighbors. Instead, invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13), who cannot repay you. Your reward, says Jesus, will be not in social standing, but ”at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:14). Hearing this, someone at the dinner piously interjects: “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God” (14:15).
Invitations to “a great dinner” (14:16) are issued, says Jesus, beginning his “Great Banquet” parable. Based on preliminary RSVP’s, the host prepares food for the feast. Typical of the time, when everything is ready the host sends a second message, “Come; for everything is ready now” (14:17). But invitees snub the host by declining to follow through on their RSVP’s and making excuses that in that culture would not hold water.
Angry at being snubbed, the host is determined that his party will go ahead. So he invites “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” who were never invited to respectable people’s parties. There’s still room at the party? Well then, go out to the roads and lanes outside the town and “compel” even strangers to come in (14:23). In the ancient Middle East, unexpected invitations were customarily refused, all the more if you were of a lower social rank.
Ancient Middle East expert Kenneth Bailey puts words in the mouths of these startled invitees: “How could it be true … for me? What have I ever done for him? I cannot pay it back.” Bailey continues, “The host knows that this kind of shock and unbelief will face the servant/messenger at every turn, so he instructs the same to overcome reserve and unbelief by the only method possible — with a smile grab them by the arm and pull them in.” [Author’s Note 5] When Luke writes, these last invitees were clearly Gentiles, now incorporated into the salvation party boycotted by those first invited.
Grace is unbelievable! That we should be invited to God’s great feast is amazing! But guests at the party are expected to become hosts as well, inviting others into the banquet of grace.
Luke 14:25–35: The Cost of Following Jesus
Today’s preachers or politicians don’t build clientele by telling crowds how much they will lose by following them. But Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (14:27). When there’s an urgent task ahead, we have to give up anything that stands in the way. Jesus illustrates this “cost” with a tower whose builder does not think ahead of what it will take to finish his project, and by a king who goes to war without realistically assessing the odds against him. (14:28–32) Disciples who aren’t willing to pay the cost of following Jesus are as worthless as un-salty salt.
Luke 15: Lost and Found
Because Jesus was throwing parties for the wrong kinds of people, respectable religious folks grumbled. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:2). “So,” says Luke, “he told them this parable” (15:3, emphasis mine). In response to those who are unwilling to celebrate lost people being found, Jesus tells of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and lost sons. The shepherd celebrates finding one lost sheep out of a hundred. A woman rejoices over finding one lost coin from her dowry.
The father, hero of the third story, throws a party (again, the party theme!) for the lost son who returns home. This younger son dishonored Dad by asking for his inheritance while Dad was still alive, and taking off for distant lands. Before coming to himself and returning home to the loving father, he squanders that inheritance in wild living.
I wonder, however, if the punch line for the audience of religious leaders wasn’t the “elder brother” picture. He was lost without having left home; respectable in behavior, but without sharing the father’s heart for the lost. “[T]his brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!” (15:32) is the father’s joyful word to this older son about his brother. Did the older brother join the party or not? Do we or do we not join in the “prodigal party” for others who are lost and found? It’s up to us.
Did you hear the two main themes surfacing? One is radical grace, a second chance for the unfruitful, an invitation to the undeserving, a restoration of the lost. The other is the response to grace. Do we, as recipients of grace, repent, enter the narrow gate, respond to the mother hen’s embrace, live in light of God’s great party, return to our “home” with God, and invite others to join us there?
Questions for Further Reflection
- How do you respond to truth in stories? How can you use stories to speak truth today?
- Review ways in which you see grace in these parables. How does second-chance grace or a surprise invitation to the party speak to you? How are you responding to grace?
- Do you see yourself even a little in the “older brother” of Jesus’ story? If so, why? And what will you do about what you see?
<<Previous Lectio Back to Luke Next Lectio>>
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Could it be that Jesus today, uses parables to cause us to ‘dig deeper’ into a more intimate yet broader picture of His reality in presence in so many ways we couldn’t imagine?