26 – Luke’s Audience
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
When Jesus spoke the three-fold parable, it was directed to an audience of Jewish religious leaders, with Jewish tax collectors and sinners listening in. He would have told the story in Aramaic, the language of the Jewish people of Palestine at that time. But when Luke writes the story, he writes in Greek for his gentile audience, and writes 30 to 50 years later. (The best guesses as to the date of the final edition of the Gospel of Luke is usually dated between AD 60 and 80.) It is Luke who chooses the Greek words that we read, as he relates the story to his audience. We suspect that he chooses the words he uses carefully to make immediate sense to his readers. So though Jesus is the teller of the original story, Luke is the author of our version of the story.
If the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day were concerned about Jesus eating with sinners, the issue for Luke had become the issue of Jewish Christians eating with Gentile Christians. For that issue is a matter of great concern in the early decades of the Christian church.
When Luke relays the story, this parable’s sharp edged conclusion is not to demonstrate how Jesus scored points against the Pharisees. Luke tells this story, along with all the other eating stories, to help Jewish Christians and Gentiles Christians share table fellowship with each other, as well as to fellowship with outright pagans whether Christians or not, as the church moves out into the wider world. Luke does not want two churches: one for Jews and another for Gentiles. Neither does he want a church with first class citizens and second class citizens. Nor does he want a church that is so world-denying that it cannot sit down with those who can only be reached over a bridge of friendship.
Jews and Gentiles
When Luke writes his second volume, the Book of The Acts of the Apostles, he relates several accounts that deal with the fractures between the Jewish Christians and those trying to incorporate Gentiles into the rapidly growing church. From the beginning of the church, the presumption seemed to be that Christianity was the fulfillment of the longings of Israel. These earliest apostles ask Jesus, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They presume, wrongly, that the new faith is faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and will gladly reach out to Jerusalem and Judea, and the Galilee, to tell them that their Messiah has come. Only reluctantly do they go to the Samaritans. (see Acts 8) They cannot deny what God has done in the “Samaritan’s Pentecost” so they incorporate them into the church, but probably expect them to surrender their “heretical” Samaritan theology for a truly Jewish one. So far they do not consider that God’s intentions are much wider.
But the church needed to get a wider perspective, so God pushed Peter towards opening the door wide enough to include the “God Fearing” Gentiles. (The God-Fearers were Gentiles who had adopted the God of Israel, and agreed to live by the moral values of Judaism, but had chosen not to be circumcised as Jews.) Luke the writer knows how critical this moment was, and so tells of that event in great detail, with significant repetition, to underscore the event. The account in recorded in chapters 8 and 9 of this book:
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance.He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there.While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you.Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.
The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him.The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him.But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.”And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
What a moment of victory and insight for those early leaders of the church. But the issue is not resolved. The “God Fearers” may be welcome because they are half-Jewish already, and for all we know agreed to be circumcised to become full-fledged Jewish Proselytes as well as Christians. But what about out-and-out Gentiles? Listen to how sharp that debate gets in the next few years.
In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul writes to a predominantly Gentile church that he had founded, but who were now being undermined by visiting Jewish Christians from the Jerusalem church, called “Judaizers” by recent historians, but called the “Pharisaic Party” by Luke in Acts 15. These people regarded themselves as “Christian Jews”, not “Jewish Christians”. They insisted that true Christians must live like orthodox Jews and keep all the laws of Moses. So in their minds for a Gentile to become a Christian, they must be circumcised, converted to Judaism, observe the dietary laws, and only then be considered “kosher Christians”. Paul is alarmed at this and writes to this infant congregation.
“But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
We are not sure which came first, this event described in the book of Galatians or the one described in Acts chapter fifteen. But Luke describes how the issue came to a head. The two factions of the church agreed to meet in a convention, which we call “The Jerusalem Council”, to debate the issue of Gentile inclusion. Peter, Paul and Barnabas are on one side, the Pharisaic Party on the other. The gathered church leaders listened intently to both sides.
When James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem listened to the debate, he agreed with Peter and Paul and made his decision to embrace the Gentile converts to Christ, but asks for some consideration from these Gentile Christians. He says, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)
Jews and Gentiles at the table
When the letter was composed that would be sent out to all the churches it read, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28-29)
According to most scholars, the meaning of the request that James makes had to do with eating issues. “Abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols” refers to meat that has been offered to idols and then often sold cheaply in the market. “… from blood and from what is strangled…” may refer to the way that Gentiles killed their animals, rather than in the kosher way of draining the blood from the animals before consuming them. “… and from fornication.” may well have to do with the dinners that the guilds of the gentile world participated in, that not only includes eating food and drinking wine in excess, but participating in the sexual orgies that the fertility religions of the Greco-Roman world celebrated in their festivals. (See also Acts 21:25 and I Peter 4:1-5 for such activities being connected with meals.)
But Jews and Gentiles eating together will continue to be a problem. So will the tensions caused by Gentile Christians trying to follow the Council’s restrictive prescriptions. This matter is broached in Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth:
I Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” (you say) But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
I Corinthians 10:23-33
“All things are lawful,” (you say) but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” (you say) but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.”
See also Romans 14, I Corinthians 10:6-22, Colossians 2:16-19, I Timothy 4:1-5, and Revelation 2:14-16, 20-22 too see how pervasive this problem was across the church as it tried to reach the Gentile world.
The Return to the Parable
But perhaps you are saying “very interesting. But what does this have to do with the Parable of the father and his two sons?” Much, I think. A parables may carry layers of significance in both the writer’s mind, and in its application by different audiences. Luke is telling his audience the gospel story that they have heard and loved, but he wants to tell them his version of that larger story to nudge them towards God’s ideal for his church.
So he tells us of one son, who in the beginning of the parable, went away to a “distant country” which would be in Gentile territory. Then towards the end of the story, he records that “the father saw him while he was still far off.” He tells us also about the other son who is near at hand. “Son, you are always with me” is the Father’s opening words to his elder son. These words spoken to the two sons is resonant of the Pauline language used in the Letter to the Ephesian church. (2:11-18)
“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
Luke may well be hoping that when his readership reads the parable it will encourage them to reach out to both Gentiles and Jews and make no distinction between them. Paul, in Romans 9, 10 and 11, seems to be saying to the Gentile Christians, “though you were despised by the Jews, do nor retaliate by despising them, who seem for the most part, to be rejecting Christ. God may have chosen you gentiles, but he has not un-chosen or disowned Israel.” Luke, sharing in much of Paul’s attitude, and as one of his traveling companions, may have wanted his gentile readers to keep the dividing wall down, so that both the younger brother and the elder brother may share one life together, in one church.
The great division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, that Luke was trying to heal, long ago ceased to be an issue. But that was not the only issue that tended to divide Christians into conflicting camps. May I become autobiographical again? Within weeks of my conversion, a group of us gathered on a Sunday evening to visit one of the more popular churches in town, which will remain unnamed. I will remember until my dying day the sermon that was preached that night.
The sermon was entitled, “The Four Foes of The True Faith.” The preacher was energized. He was a pulpiteer of eloquence who spoke with passionate intensity. In the four major sections of his sermon he used four “C’s.” to delineate the four great foes of the church. They were: Communism, Catholicism, Calvinism, and the Charismatic Movement. One after another he declared them to be equally demonic and the greatest evils that faced the Church of Jesus Christ.
As I sat there, I sensed a hesitancy rising within me as I listened. I left the meeting troubled in my mind. My conversion to Christ had been facilitated by people of all sorts of theological backgrounds who shared with me about my need for Christ. In those days I traveled to work on a bus, and my seat mate who worked at the same place that I did, was a devout Roman Catholic. He went to mass every morning on his way to work, and shared with me about his love for Jesus as well as the great saints of the church. At a nearby desk was a Pentecostal colleague who continually demonstrated a passion for Christ by his life and through his words. That may have increased my bewilderment with the sermon, as I reflected on the question: could it be true that all who disagreed with me theologically were the enemy?
As the next months and years went by, it seemed like I was always rubbing shoulders with people from traditions quite different than my own. These people loved God, loved the church, were concerned about the world, and cared about the very things I cared about. I soon came to reject the sermon, and in its place there grew a deepening conviction that God has only One Church, and all of its parts were equally important and equally precious to God. Later, when I had read more widely, I discovered that I was not alone in that conviction.
The early church opposed any supposition that there was more than one church. Though congregations were scattered throughout every geographic region of that ancient world, and could be called “the Church in Jerusalem”, or “the Church in Corinth”, or “the Church in Rome”, they were always considered to be extensions of the One Church into new regions. (Like some franchises, with thousands of outlets in various countries, offering the same product, with a few variations on the theme depending upon the region.)
And though Christendom in the early days looked like many churches, in fact it was One Church in Christian union connected together by God’s Spirit and apostolic endeavor. Listen to the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:3-6, “Be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call. One Lord, One faith, One baptism, One God and Father of us all, who is above all, and through all, and in all.”
For its first thousand years the church was able to maintain that unity, though it was continually threatened by dis-union. There were always forces desiring to divide the church, attempting to create a better version of the church, which they invariably defined as the “True Church”. But thankfully there were other influences in the church, that worked hard to draw these splintering groups of the church back to the center.
One of the interesting issues of the first four centuries of the Church’s history dealt with the definition of a “heretic”. A heretic was not a person who had strange ideas about any particular doctrine. Almost all Christians have some weird ideas, including you and me! But we are not heretics. We may simply be “unorthodox”. But a heretic was anyone who divided the church over their eccentric idea, by saying “Our group is the only true church!” thereby de-Christianizing the rest of the Christian family. That, by the way, is the mark of difference between a denomination and a cult. All cults claim to be the only version of the true church. Denominations simply hold to certain ideas or histories that differentiate them, at least in their own minds, from other churches. But they do not claim to be the only church. We need, however, to be careful here. Some churches consider themselves to be the “best” church, and become “cultish” and hyper-sectarian. To say my church is “best for me” is a modest statement and perhaps permissible. But to say “We are the best, period!” is arrogant and divisive.
But in the year 1054, one of the most grievous criminal accidents of history happened. It is called “The Great Divorce.” The Church split into two great halves, and each half refused to have anything to do with the other half, each one claiming to be the original church, and calling the other half “heretics.” This great division would evolve into the Orthodox East and the Catholic West. The unity of the church was split down the middle and has remained so for the past thousand years. Instead of working together, Christians went to war with words and swords and the church has never recovered from that evil event!
But if that were the only such division, perhaps we could live with it, but it was not the end of what became a bad habit. The Catholic Church within another 500 years experienced another contentious split, and Christians were compelled to side with either the Roman Catholic Church or The Protestant Church. In the 1500’s there was great concern over the spiritual health of the church, but when men and women arose to attempt the reformation of the church, there was a brittleness in both church leaders and reformers, and instead of reforming the church, the shattering of Christendom began, for within a few years the Protestants began splintering into dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of fragments.
And we have not learn our lesson. The splintering of the church of God still continues at a rapid pace with well over 32,000 denominations existing in North America today. The church has become a fractured and factional affair, (Luke’s worst fear) and has become its own worst enemy and the biggest obstacle to the healing of the nations. “Behold how thy love one another” has turned to “Why can’t they get along?” This is not what Jesus hoped for when he prayed, “May they be one, as we, father and son, are one.” (John 17:22) It is a great evil that we should lament, with no excuses offered!