The Text in Context
After the scene at a Pharisee’s table in 14:1–24 (cf. 7:36–50; 11:37–54), the focus turns to the much less conventional meals that Jesus enjoyed with social and religious outsiders. This theme was earlier raised by the meal in Levi’s house (5:27–39) and by the “sinful woman” who disrupted another more conventional meal (7:36–50), and it has been reflected in Jesus’s subversive ideas about who should be at the messianic banquet (13:28–29; 14:15–24). The issue for Jesus is not simply a matter of table etiquette, but rather of God’s plan of salvation, which will be gloriously summed up at the table of an arch-sinner in 19:10. So a trio of parables here challenges the reader to rethink who is ultimately acceptable to God. They not only justify Jesus’s unconventional practice but also, in the person of the unbending older brother, draw attention to the danger of opposing and, ultimately, missing out on God’s grace.
Historical and Cultural Background
Kenneth Bailey offers a wealth of cultural insights on these three parables, some of which will be picked up in the following comments.
Key Themes of Luke 15:1–32
■ Jesus’s practice of sharing meals with those outside respectable society is at the heart of his mission.
■ God cares for the individual, not just for the community as a whole.
■ Those who seem lost can still be restored.
■ God’s love will go to extraordinary lengths to welcome back the lost, and their return gives him great joy.
■ God’s people should share that joy rather than standing aloof and parading their own merits.
15:1 tax collectors and sinners. On tax collectors, see “Historical and Cultural Background” on 5:27–39, and for the standard pairing of “tax collectors” with “sinners,” see 5:30; 7:34.
15:2 the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. See “Scribes and Pharisees” at 5:12–26. These two groups (who for Luke effectively form a single body of religious purists) have been responsible for most of the expressed opposition to Jesus in the Gospel, even though we have noted a degree of (guarded?) openness to Jesus on the part of some Pharisees (7:36; 11:37; 13:31; 14:1). Here, as usual, they are concerned with following the rules of purity, for which they themselves were responsible, rather than with helping people. For the same group set over against tax collectors, see also 5:29–30; 7:29–30.
15:4 Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep. This would be quite a large flock, indicating a relatively prosperous owner. A hundred sheep would probably be too many for one man to look after, so the owner may have had an employee or a family member with whom he could leave the rest of the flock while he went in search of the lost one. But the owner cared enough to go himself rather than sending his assistant to search. In light of the way the scene was set in 15:1–2, it is probably right to see the shepherd’s action as representing the rescuing mission of Jesus himself, but the shepherd is also the owner, who corresponds to the father in the third parable as representing God. There is no need to press the distinction: in the mission of Jesus God himself is seeking the lost, and the shepherd’s joy over the rescue becomes the joy of “heaven.”
15:6 Rejoice with me. The overwhelming note is one of joy, first at finding the sheep (15:5) and then at the homecoming.
15:7 rejoicing in heaven. The parallel in 15:10 speaks of “rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God.” It is God’s joy that is primary, but the summoning of the friends and neighbors in the parable points to a sharing of that joy: the whole angelic community has shared God’s concern for the lost sinner and now rejoices at the happy outcome.
“And when he finds [his lost sheep], he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (15:5–6). This scene was captured in early Christian art as a portrayal of Jesus.
Repentance is at the heart of the message of John (3:3), of Jesus (5:32), and of the church (24:47). Jesus’s favorable attitude toward “sinners” (15:2) did not mean that they had no need to change. It is only when repentance takes place that the kingdom of God has triumphed.
ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. Compare 5:32, where the term “righteous” was similarly ironical. No one is exempt from the need to repent (13:3, 5), but with some it is more obvious than with others.
15:8 Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins. Here a female scenario balances the story of the male shepherd (as in 13:18–21). The coins are drachmas, each of which would be roughly a day’s wage, so that the loss of one was a matter of real concern in a peasant household. The story is making essentially the same point as that of the shepherd, though since the loss of the coin need not be as public as that of the sheep, the extravagant public celebration is more striking in this case.
The lost coin was a Greek drachma and, like a Roman denarius, was worth about one day’s wage. The drachma pictured is from ancient Larissa in Thessaly, Greece (435–400 BC).
15:11 There was a man who had two sons. In the third “lost and found” parable the stakes are much higher: the shepherd lost one sheep out of a hundred, the woman one coin out of ten, but this man one son out of only two. The story is much more fully developed, and in particular the son who stayed at home features strongly alongside his delinquent brother; in the end it is the former who is the loser. Indeed, this might be ironically called “the parable of the two lost sons”: one was lost and found, the other kept and lost.
15:12 Father, give me my share of the estate. Culturally, this was a deeply insensitive demand to make while the father was still in good health: he cannot wait for his father to die! That the father complies is even more remarkable. The younger son’s share would be one third of the estate (Deut. 21:17).
15:13–16 he began to be in need. In order to travel, the son had to convert his property into cash. His subsequent wastefulness and humiliation are graphically described; note especially the ultimate degradation for a Jew: feeding pigs. Bailey fills out the picture especially with details about the carob “pods” that the pigs were given.
15:17–19 he came to his senses. These verses portray the “repentance” that was the subject of the first two parables (15:7, 10), even though that term is not used here. His motive was primarily a self-centered need to survive, but his decision still represents a total reversal of his previous attitude and an acceptance of his father’s authority, which previously he had flouted. The inclusion of “against heaven” even suggests a genuine sense of wrongdoing.
15:19 make me like one of your hired servants. He cannot reclaim his privileges as a son, and he has no inheritance to go back to, but he still hopes for an independent and productive life as an employee (not one of the slaves [15:22]), which may eventually enable him to make some financial reparation to his father.
15:20 while he was still a long way off. This suggests that the father is on the lookout (Helmut Thielicke famously dubbed this parable “the waiting father”). Like the shepherd and the woman, he is searching. His undignified run down the road risks social humiliation, and his public embrace of the disgraced son declares to a potentially hostile village that the son is restored to the family. The son’s rehearsed speech is interrupted before he can make his proposition of employment; he is “this son of mine” (15:24) again. Grace has ruled out the need for earning his way back to favor.
15:23 Bring the fattened calf. To kill so large an animal indicates that this is not merely a family celebration: the whole village is invited, as in the other parables (15:6, 9). The son’s public rehabilitation is therefore complete.
15:25–30 Meanwhile, the older son. The older son’s alienation is shown by the fact that he stays away from the house and only inquires from a distance. He has no intention of joining in the celebration. By refusing to take his expected place at the feast, he publicly snubs his father, and by speaking of “this son of yours” he refuses to acknowledge that he belongs to the same family as his brother. He represents a self-centered negativity that submerges the good news under his own sense of personal grievance. His father’s “favoritism” leaves him full of self-pity: he has been nothing but a slave, and an unrewarded one at that.
15:31–32 “My son,” the father said. Rather than stand on his dignity, the father has left the house (15:28) for a second time (15:20), and remarkably he overlooks his son’s insolent rant. He appeals to his son’s sense of fairness (“everything I have is yours”—his part of the inheritance is still intact) and his family loyalty (“this brother of yours”). His repetition of the declaration of 15:24 focuses the reader’s attention on the key feature of the story, the recovery of the lost one rather than the “righteousness” of the ninety-nine, here represented by the older son. We are not told how the older son responded, but the signs are not encouraging. The listening Pharisees are left to reflect on which son represents them and which represents the sinners with whom Jesus ate.
God loves sinners and calls them to repentance. His grace goes to extraordinary lengths to bring them back, and his joy is unbounded when the lost are found. So much is clear from all three parables.
The older brother adds a further dimension. God’s “faithful” people are called on to share his outgoing love and his willingness to accept the repentant. If they fail to do so, it is they, rather than those whom they look down on, who will miss out on the blessings of salvation.
The parable of the prodigal son has often been called “the gospel in a nutshell.” Yes and no. The shepherd’s search and the father’s run down the road speak eloquently of the hardship and humiliation that Jesus accepted in his mission to seek and save the lost, but the means of salvation through the cross are at best hinted at. The necessary correlative to repentance is atonement, and that must be sought elsewhere in Jesus’s message.
Teaching the Text
In teaching the three parables it is important to set them first of all in the context of Jesus’s ministry and its narrative progression in Luke. While all three parables describe God’s great love for the lost and his joy when they return to him, the third represents a natural climax by containing additional allegorical elements: the father representing God, the younger son representing the sinners and tax collectors to whom Jesus is ministering, and the older son representing the self-righteous religious leaders who are rejecting Jesus’s ministry to the lost. Only when this original context is understood can the parable be appropriately contextualized today.
In terms of application, it is helpful to point out in your teaching that each of us at times plays the role of each character: (1) wandering away from God or rejecting his authority, (2) joyfully seeking out and welcoming sinners, (3) arrogantly looking down on others as “too lost” to be reconciled to God.
There are other issues that could be taken up in a lesson or sermon:
Taking the three parables together, consider how far true repentance and restoration depends on (a) the sinner, (b) God, (c) the believing community.
- Should Jesus’s practice of associating with sinners be taken as a model for our own discipleship and mission? If so, how should it be applied in practice in our own social setting?
- Are the other ninety-nine sheep just a minor element in the story, or whom might they represent? Their characterization as “not needing to repent” is intriguing. Is God not interested in the respectably religious? How do they relate to the older son?
- Encourage listeners to consider how far the term “the gospel in a nutshell” fits the parable of the two sons (see “Theological Insights” above).
- Kenneth Bailey lists the following five words as summing up the message of the parable of the two sons: sin, repentance, grace, joy, sonship. Do these accurately represent the content of the parable? Is there anything missing? (E.g., might “compassion” [15:20] be added?). In your teaching or study group, spell out the implications of each word.
R. T. France, Luke, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton