15:1 We have to pay attention to this verse as it establishes the context for the parable. Jesus is eating with tad collectors and sinners, and is accused by the Pharisees of receiving them (prosdechetai) and eating with them (sunesthiei). These are verbs of social intercourse and association. The parables that follow then are going to explain why it is that Jesus is doing this. It is designed to justify the sort of constant celebration that is going on around him, as he welcomes everyone into the new age, especially those who need saving.
15:3-6 The rescue of the lost sheep — and Jesus tells the Syro-Phoenician woman that he was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel — is framed in terms that deliberately echo what Jesus is doing: He comes to his house (Jerusalem) and invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice along with him (sugcharete). Again, social unity. What would we think of a neighbor who replied to the woman’s invitation with, “Who cares about your stupid coin, you disorganized old bat?”
The image of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulders became a Christian motif in catacomb paintings and mosaics of the early church.
It is questionable whether we should take “who have no need of repentance” sarcastically. As we will see, the prodigal son parable doesn’t match a sarcastic reading of this phrase.
8-10 In the case of the woman finding the lost drachma, note again the emphasis on the pains and effort which she takes: she turns her house upside down, rummages through it, searches with care (epimelws). Then, like the shepherd, she throws a party: invites the neighbors to “rejoice with me”.
The Pharisees’ attitude, Jesus says, does not match that of the angels of God in heaven because they are holding off from the feast, and refusing to rejoice along with God who has “found” the tax collectors and sinners who were lost.
In light of these two, we should turn to look at the parable of the prodigal son as explaining the same thing, uttered in the same context, before the same disapproving audience of standoffish Pharisees. That is the main point of the parable, to indict the Pharisees’ attitude, That God forgives sinners was well known. That some people were very sinful was also not new. It is very good and proper that these two aspects have been appreciated by centuries of faithful readers. My daughter’s Doctrine teacher at school was converted by a sermon on these aspects of the parable of the Prodigal Son. But they are not what would have hit Jesus’ listeners. The striking point for them was rather about the Pharisees’ evil reaction to Jesus.
The father tells the older brother, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” How hard can we press this? Our theological agendas impel us to trample it. The Pharisees are not really “with the Father”, we protest. They are a “brood of vipers,” after all. And so the analogy must break down. Does it? Would the Pharisees’ attitude be quite so problematic if they did not really enjoy the benefits that they begrudge the forgiven Sinners who dined with Jesus?
How can we learn from this parable ourselves? I’d submit that the sin of the Pharisees is manifested in a church culture of conformity, in extra-biblical rules that become heavy burdens for others (certain patriarchal teachings, quiver-full legalism, and other things that I, to my shame, have spread), in mockery or disdain for those who have not made such wise choices as we have. This could involve scorn of those who don’t make the same educational choices, or who don’t use the superior hymnal; or whose music on Sunday morning isn’t up to the standard you’re used to. Anytime we find ourselves chafed by the difference, or supposed inferiority, of those whom God has forgiven, for whom Christ has died, we are in danger of failing to “rejoice along with” Christ. These are all sins of those who are in, not of those who are out.