This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on March 6, 2016.
The narrative of the prodigal son is certainly one of the most well-known parables in the gospels. We may be tempted to begin the reading in verse eleven, but there is good reason to commence with verse one. The passage opens by stating that tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus. According to the Pharisees and scribes, he welcomed them and even shared meals with them. Collecting taxes and tariffs was considered dishonorable work, and those employed in this profession were known to take more than the mandated fees.
The sinners described in the passage were probably apostate Jews who were regularly breaking religious laws. We do not learn the specific nature of their sins, but those tasked with religious leadership were evidently appalled by Jesus’ willingness to mix with this class of people. They grumbled about Jesus’ actions, something that they had done before (Luke 5:29-30). Pharisees and scribes worked diligently to maintain their religious and cultural status. In contrast, Jesus had a history of upending the religious system by associating with outcasts and inviting them to repent (Luke 5:31-32). Jesus’ compassion continues to raise questions today about the identities of religious outcasts and the hospitality they ought to receive.