The House of the Father: Temple Imagery in Luke 15

The narrative unity within Luke’s fifteenth chapter continues to offer insight into the ministry of Jesus, as well as the heart of God. Within the framework of Luke 15, in which the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons are coupled, Jesus sets out to reveal God’s response to the issue of why sinners and tax collectors have been receiving the attention of Jesus. Indeed, this is not the first time Jesus has been accused of socializing with sinners and religious outcasts. In fact, just a chapter before, Jesus not only eats with Pharisees, but also heals a diseased man along the way, surely calling into question the cleanliness of the Pharisee’s lunch. By Luke 15, the Pharisees have had their fill of this strange rabbi who cannot stop touching the unclean and eating with them, and their grumbling catches the attention of Jesus.

The three parables narrated in Luke 15 combine to form a single answer to the question of why Jesus dines with sinners and tax collectors, and is told to a crowd of both sinners and Pharisees. While much can be said about the theological framework Jesus uses to answer this question, bringing both Pharisees and sinners into the Kingdom of God, it is the intent of this essay to use Elliot’s dichotomy of the Temple versus the household in Luke-Acts to show that, not only is Jesus offering the Kingdom of God to sinners and Pharisees alike, but he is also using Temple imagery to reimagine this Kingdom of God as a household economy. Before jumping into the imagery used by Jesus in his Luke 15 parables, it is helpful to start with ancient near eastern conceptions of the city and temple before narrowing the conversation to Jerusalem’s understanding of its Temple. From there the essay will apply the temple imagery to the three parables in Luke.

Jerusalem is not unique as a capital city in the ancient near east. Most major cities in this region were not only the economic centers, but also boasted impressive temples that served as religious centers for local spiritual practices. Harmansah notes a spiritual relationship between cities, temples, and political leaders in ancient Mesopotamia, stating, “Situated in the center of the cosmos, the city and its temples constitute the civilized social space where people congregate for benevolent festivals and take refuge in times of disorder.”[1] Furthermore, he notes a dominant theme in religious writings from Mesopotamia in which cities and temples are described as cattlepens and sheepfolds with the king or religious leader as the shepherd. This effectively “characterizes the Mesopotamian city in between economies of pasturage and agriculture, between movement and settlement, between regimes of care and exercise of power, and, perhaps most significantly, between the local political discourse and an idealized pan-Mesopotamian past.”[2] Harmansah claims that cities were viewed as intersections, bridging society’s past reliance on agriculture and animal husbandry with development and growing economies based on trade and crafts.

If the city is often understood as a cattlepen, the city’s temple is the focal point of that imagery; the sacred space is a miniature representation of the cosmic order and the divinely ordained protection for the people, representing in a very real way the presence of the city’s deity and their care for the people. In fact, this concentrated “sheepfold” is nearly always referred to as the house of that deity. Harmansah notes, “the gods took residence at particular cities, they also brought their divine decorum, their divine essences…for the architectural shaping of their earthly domains.”[3] The gods dwelt in the temples, amongst their people, and the beauty of the temple served as a daily reminder of the power of the god, just as the temple economy and rituals served to bring the city people into constant contact with the god’s essence.

Logically, the urban centers of Mesopotamia also housed the major economic institutions of the region, with the temples often at the center of these institutions. The temples were viewed as “wealthy neighbors,” according to Harmansah, “a redistributive institution that initiated extensive agricultural production, animal husbandry, long-distance trade, and craft production.”[4] As such, temple architecture was often opulent, boasting the economic successes of the city, and the god protecting the city. However, temples often had obvious building materials that served as reminders of the society’s link to traditions of animal husbandry, such as reeds and stonework depicting fields and pastoral animals. The mythology of combining reed construction with precious materials in the design of the temples often signaled a strong link with the past and a future-oriented goal of continued prosperity.

In this way, temples were often described as sheepfolds where people could come and find safety and resources, with the king or religious leader pastoring them and guiding their lives. Likewise, as the dwelling place of the local deity, these temples were often constructed in ways that linked society’s past reliance on agriculture and animal husbandry with the growing success of urban economics. The temple itself often sat in the middle of these urban economics, and were viewed as redistributive centers for wealth and resources, the Wall Street of each city. Thus, according to Harmansah, temples carried sheepfold imagery as well as wealth imagery, all while residing as the home of the local god.

With this understanding of temple imagery in ancient Mesopotamia, our focus now narrows to the Temple cult of Israel surrounding the holy city of Jerusalem and its Temple. Jerusalem functioned as the religious, economic, and political capital of Israel, with a sprawling Temple complex that made up nearly 25% of the city. According to Wright, “the Temple combined in itself the functions of all three—religion, national figurehead and government—and also included what we think of as the City, the financial and economic world. It also included, for that matter, the main slaughterhouse and butcher’s guild.”[5] Not only was the Temple intimately connected to the sacrifice and butchering of ritual animals, it was also regarded as the place where Israel’s God lived and ruled from, namely through the sacrificial system. Myers states that the Temple, “was where God dwelt, and in it the whole ideological order was anchored and legitimated. It was the one holy place universal to all Jews, toward which all pilgrimages and contributions were directed.”[6] According to Wright, for Israel, the Temple stood as the focal point of God’s grace and as a beacon of where individuals and communities could become clean again, seeking forgiveness and “reintegration into the community of Israel.”[7] This idea of the Temple representing the house of God is also found in pre-exilic writings, in Jeremiah 12 and Isaiah 56, among other sources. This is why the destruction of the Temple during the Babylonian siege was so devastating to Israel’s spiritual health, they viewed it as the abandonment of God and the destruction of his house.[8]

The imagery of the Temple as the house of God and the sacred place from which the forgiveness and reconciliation of God flows was so pervasive that Paul was able to reappropriate the imagery for the new community of believers. In his letter to the Ephesian churches, Paul claims that the new community acts as the Temple once did (Ephesians 2:21), a “place of reconciliation in the world, carrying on the process begun by the death of Jesus. Those who were once ‘without God and hope in the world’ are no longer ‘sojourners and strangers’ but ‘fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.’”[9]

The Temple in Jerusalem was not just the religious center of the city, but also the dominate economic force for the whole region of Judea. Myers notes that it was originally intended to operate as a “central storehouse” where goods could be bought, sold, and distributed as was needed. However, the Temple cult quickly amassed significant capital and came to represent financial accumulation, “surplus wealth flowed into, and piled up in, Jerusalem…some of the wealth was used on luxury goods or simply stored in the Temple treasury.”[10]

However, because the Temple in Jerusalem occupied such a large space in the religious, political, and economic lives of the nation, it is not surprising that the Temple and its practices were often at the center of controversy which divided Judaism into various sects. Differences in how the purity codes should be applied to the temple cult, issues involving the economics of the Temple, and the management of the sacred space itself often divided Jews sharply, with the only common ground being that, though the Temple cult was fundamentally flawed, that did not negate the power and sacredness of the Temple as the dwelling place of God.

In his study of Luke-Acts, Elliot notes the dichotomy of Temple and household throughout the double book. He states that, “in the Lucan narrative the Temple gradually emerges as an institution whose managers, interests, and ideology stood diametrically opposed to the ministry and mission of Jesus and his community.”[11] Although Luke begins his narrative with Jesus in the Temple, he slowly begins to oppose the Temple cult throughout the gospel, until he is ultimately betrayed and killed by it. For the author of Luke-Acts, the Temple stands as a systematic adversary to what the new Kingdom of God is trying to do. Even in the book of Acts we see the first believers trying to maintain Temple practices, however they are soon driven from the sacred space over their beliefs.

Directly opposed to the Temple cult, however, stands the household. The author of Luke-Acts shifts the spiritual focus from Temple and into the common household, showing that this is the place, “bound by an ethos of mercy and justice and a vision of universal salvation.”[12] Unlike the other gospels, the private household takes center stage in Luke-Acts, with variations of the word occurring ninety-six times throughout the two books. Whereas the Temple seeks to oppress people with taxes and purity codes weighted down with the sacrificial system, the household becomes the place where the Kingdom of God can thrive. Luke-Acts often portrays Jesus healing, teaching, and being received in private households, and later in Acts the first church carries on this tradition, forming house churches far out of sight of the oppressive Temple system.

With this dichotomy in mind, we turn our attention to the three parables found in Luke 15. It is worth remembering that these three stories are told in response to the grumblings of the Pharisees, upset that Jesus has been spending time among, and eating with, sinners and tax collectors. The main issue the Pharisees took with Jesus’ actions are due to the purity code that the Pharisees strictly adhered to. Under this code, it was not permissible to touch or otherwise come into contact with those people who were ritually unclean (sinners, the diseased, the dead, non-Jews). By maintaining their ritual cleanliness, Pharisees enjoyed unrestricted access to the Temple grounds in Jerusalem, the house of God, and were able to move in and out without going through the necessary purity practices to do so. Coming into contact with unclean persons or things, however, made one unclean. This not only restricted the unclean person’s religious availability, but also restricted them from access to the Temple without first going through the rituals of cleanliness. And some people, such as the perpetually diseased or deformed, were unable to become ritually clean, and were excluded from Temple activities their whole lives.

Barr notes the Temple’s symbolism in Luke-Acts as a place where God reaches out for his people. In Luke, when Jesus first arrives at the Temple (19:45), he cleanses it and prepares it for prayer and teaching. After that, he spends a significant amount of time there, and Luke-Acts records that everyone would come out to listen to him. The gospel also makes it obvious that, “Jesus’ natural home is the Temple, conducting his father’s business.”[13] Elliot, on the other hand, has shown that Jesus was unsatisfied with the Temple cult in Luke-Acts, and instead chose to focus his ministry and the work of the Kingdom of God inside the household. Therefore, when the Pharisees bring up the issue of contact with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus takes the opportunity to reappropriate Temple imagery into household imagery, weaving a new understanding of where the Kingdom of God is located, how it operates, and what cleanliness has to do with the whole program.

Jesus’ first parable revolves around a lost sheep. The shepherd, realizing that he is missing a sheep, concludes that it must have wandered off into the wilderness, and immediately goes out searching for it. He leaves the ninety-nine sheep where they are, obviously with the confidence that they are secure enough to go without a shepherd for a while. This would suggest that they are not abandoned in the wilderness (after all, this is the very problem with the original lost sheep), but kept safe in a sheepfold somewhere. The shepherd goes into the wilderness, tracks down his lost sheep, and carries it back to the sheepfold, where he returns it to his completed flock, calls his friends, and celebrates the foundness of his property.

This first parable is laden with spiritual imagery revolving around sheep and shepherds. It recalls an ancient Jewish tradition recorded in Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23 of the priests and religious leaders being the shepherds of the people. In both of these accounts, however, the shepherds do not shepherd the people well, but divide the flock and even eat the sheep they are supposed to be protecting. Because of this, the prophets envision God taking over shepherd duties for his people, becoming the good shepherd who cares for his people. Likewise, Jesus himself takes up this mantle in his ministry, claiming himself to be the good shepherd that guards the sheep and leads them to pasture (John 10).

In this first parable, we again see the shepherd/sheep imagery appear. The Jewish tradition of shepherd imagery comes up against the Mesopotamian understanding of the Temple as the sheepfold, the place the people can flock to and find resources and security. Under normal circumstances then, the meaning of this parable would be that the good shepherd (the priests) bring the lost people back to the sheepfold (the Temple) to find pasture. However, this parable, taken as a response to the purity question and in light of Ezekiel 34 and Israel’s false shepherds, seems to suggest that Jesus is claiming to pasture the sheep in a new place, under a new shepherd. The place of security for the lost sheep, the sinners and tax collectors in the crowd, is not with the priests in the Temple, who devour and scatter the sheep “over all the mountains and on every high hill…with no one to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34:6), but with Jesus the good shepherd. Jesus claims the Temple imagery of the sheepfold and reforms it outside Jerusalem, far from those false shepherds. Here he keeps the lost sheep safe, in a new pen where they can prosper.

Because the Temple was not only viewed as the sheepfold, but also as the house of God, it becomes obvious that as Jesus moves the security of the sheepfold away from the Temple, he necessarily must move the “house of God” with it. Therefore, Jesus is claiming that the house of God, the place where God dwells and centralizes his work, is no longer the inaccessible Temple with its purity codes, but rather outside with him, the good shepherd, among the sinner and tax collectors. By coming into contact with Jesus, these unclean people, who were restricted from Temple practices, have access to the very ministry and heart of God, right in their own homes. There is no need to go through purification rituals to access God, indeed he is already dwelling among the commoners.

Jesus moves on from this first story by telling a second story of a woman who loses a coin inside her house. She quickly realizes the loss, sweeps the house and discovers her coin. Once she has returned it to the other coins, she calls her friends together and celebrates the return of the coin to her purse (obviously spending money in order to celebrate properly). This parable deals with money inside the woman’s house, and stands as another stark contrast to the Temple in Jerusalem. As has been noted before, the Temple in Jerusalem was the major component in Jerusalem economics, and had a thriving buying, selling, and retaining system in place. All Jews were supposed to go to Temple and purchase sacrifices as well as other religious artifacts. And while the Temple was originally intended to collect and redistribute finances and goods evenly, the system quickly devolved so that the Temple treasury took in money, but rarely redistributed it anywhere. While this was a thriving aspect of the Temple cult, we know that Jesus himself was critical of the system. In Luke 19:45, upon arriving in Jerusalem, his first act was to go into the Temple and drive out the money changers, claiming that the economic system of the Temple cult was in fact a “den of robbers.”

As Jesus views the financial situation in Jerusalem as corrupt, he tells a parable of a coin lost inside the house. Of course, the coin is inside the house in this parable, just as the vast wealth of Judea lies inside the Temple treasury. The coin, representing the Pharisees, finds itself lost inside the house of the woman, another image of God in Luke 15. Therefore, the Pharisees, just like the lost coin, are lost inside God’s house. The Temple was supposed to be a beacon of economic equality, not a place that stores mass wealth and distances itself from the crowds. Yet behind the heavy doors of the Temple the Pharisees and religious elite store up their treasures.

Yet Jesus offers good news for the Pharisees in his second parable. Even though the economics of the Temple are corrupt and it is possible to be lost inside God’s house, the economics of the good woman’s home operate quite differently. When a coin is lost in her hose, she searches for it, finds it, and restores it to her purse. However, instead of simply accumulating her wealth for her own gain, the woman immediately spends her money to invite her friends to a celebration. Her money turns itself into celebration materials and is shared in her community, a redistributive act that points to a new Kingdom of God, where the poor and oppressed are cared for and not shut out of the house. The house of God is not like the oppressive Temple that hoards its money. Instead it is like the good woman’s house, where every coin is accounted for and distributed among community members as celebratory resources.

The Pharisees, who are arguably represented by the lost coin in this parable, are encouraged to take part in the household of God, allowing themselves to be found by God and used by God to bless the community, the crowds of sinners and those who are unclean. They no longer have to hid behind purity laws and Temple practices, but can freely interact with God and their neighbors. They simply have to allow themselves to be found and spent by the good woman.

As if these two parables are not enough, Jesus tells a third story, combining elements from the previous two in order to drive his point home. In this story, he explicitly brings the lost sheep into the house of God, and invites the lost coin to be found inside the house of God. This parable is the story of the two lost sons. One son finds himself lost in a far country, just as the sheep is lost in the wilderness. Likewise, the older son finds himself lost inside the house of the father, unable to celebrate and dine with his unclean brother.  Jesus marks the story in relationship to the father’s house, here and overt image of God. In the beginning of the story the younger son sins against his father and leaves the house, becoming unclean in his travels and in his work. He is, ostensibly, the lost sheep, the sinners and tax collectors in the crowd listening to Jesus. At this point in the story, the younger son feels the need to return to the father’s house, but knows he cannot simply walk in through the front doors in his current state. He has to make reparations, express his guilt, and hope to perform the tasks necessary to make himself clean again.

This tough process makes sense to those in the crowd. The younger son is unclean, and cannot simply walk into the ritually clean father’s house. The house of God cannot be defiled in that way. Instead, the younger son must go through the rigorous purification process before coming into contact with the father, his house, and his possessions. However, this is not how the story unfolds. Imagine the sinner’s surprise, and the Pharisee’s scandal, when the father, seeing his unclean son coming down the road, runs out to him, and without hesitation, throws his arms around his unclean son. The cleanliness of the father is immediately sacrificed by touching his son, the one who fed pigs. And here is the Pharisee’s paradox: either the father becomes unclean by touching the sinner, implying that God can become unclean, or the sinner becomes clean by contact with the father, implying that the purification rituals do not protect God, but simply prohibit the poor from the house of God.

Not only is the younger son made clean by contact with the father, but he is immediately clothed in clean clothes, perhaps a symbol of new life, new identity, and purity, and brought inside the father’s house. Here a calf is slain and a great celebration begins. It is worth noting here that in the Temple cult, the chief priests could bring the Sin Offering, which involved sacrificing a bull in order to restore the relationship between God and his people. Likewise, cows were also sacrificed for the Fellowship Offering, which was associated with feasting and celebration, in which the organs of the cow were burned on the altar, but the meat of the cow was shared and eaten by the priests and the people making the sacrifice.[14] These sacrifices could only be made in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, in the parable of Jesus, the father brings the sacrifice into his household, and the meat is shared between him, the son, and the community in a massive celebration. Again, Jesus moves the work of redemption and festive sacrifice from the Temple into the household.

Finally, the father leaves his house again in order to find the sulking older son, the Pharisees. He asks him to join the party inside the household. This party is different from Temple parties. In the Temple, the Pharisees would have to be concerned with purity laws, cleanliness, and not associating with, or touching the unclean sinners. However, in the new household of God, the sinners are welcomed in and made pure simply by their proximity to the father, and the Pharisees are encouraged to join the feast alongside them, unafraid of purity issues. The sacrifice has been made on their behalf as well, and in the new household, they can leave the Temple cult behind and enjoy full fellowship with God and his ministry of reconciliation.

The three parables in Luke 15 tell the story of humanity’s lostness and foundness because of the good shepherd, the good woman, and the good father. At the same time, Jesus reappropriates Temple imagery as the sheepfold, the center of wealth, and the house of God, by applying it instead to the concept of household. He shows that the new Kingdom of God being established by his ministry is not centered in Jerusalem and flowing from the Temple, but rather is being established in the households of common people, sinners and Pharisees alike. No longer do people have to feel enslaved to the oppressive purity rituals of a Temple that does not distribute resources fairly, they can freely interact with God in their own homes, practicing community economics by looking out and celebrating with the lost, poor, and outcast. The author of Luke-Acts once again shows the reader through these parables that Jesus does not eat with sinners out of some duty or obligation, but because he sincerely enjoys their company, and wants them to feel at home in the father’s house, the Kingdom of God.

[1] Omur Harmanansah, “The Cattlepen and the Sheepfold: Cities, Temples, and Pastoral Power in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Heaven on Earth: Temples, Ritual, and Cosmic Symbolism in the Ancient World (Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2012), 373.

[2] Ibid, 376.

[3] Ibid, 379.

[4] Ibid, 382.

[5] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Volume 1 (London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 225.

[6] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 79.

[7] Wright, 225.

[8] Gregory A. Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 878.

[9] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 367.

[10] Myers, 79.

[11] J. H. Elliot, “Temple versus Household in Luke-Acts: A Contrast in Social Institutions,” in The World of Luke-Acts: A Handbook of Social Science Models for Biblical Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 101.

[12] Ibid, 102.

[13] David L. Barr, New Testament Story: An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2001), 357.

[14] William K. Gilders, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel,” Bible Odyssey, retrieved from


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