Luke 15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:3 So he told them this parable:
Luke 15:11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
Luke 15:25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
For brevity’s sake, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin have been omitted. The parable of the lost sheep is also in Mt 18:12-14. The Lost Coin and the Lost Son are unique to Luke.
Kind of writing
Our reading is a parable. As such, it is meant to destabilise the hearers and put them “in crisis”, literally in the “critical” position of having to make a judgement (= krisis in Greek). In its context here, it is also incipiently allegorical – the father could be God, the faithful son, the Pharisees, the prodigal son, the tax-collectors and sinners and so forth).
Old Testament background
(i) The big background here is in the book of Genesis. If you look at the stories of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Manasseh and Ephraim, in each case, the second child is preferred by God to the first. Israelites told themselves such stories because they felt themselves to be the “second sons” within the social and political world of the ancient Near East, unexpectedly elevated to the status of first-born by God’s gracious election. (ii) Many OT texts reflect on God’s gracious compassion, for example: Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. (Micah 7:18)
New Testament Foreground
(i) Within Luke, there is a tendency to use disreputable people to illustrate the Good News, to the discomfort of the officially religious: Zacchaeus, the unjust steward, the good thief, the shepherd (proverbially unable to keep the Law) and the (mean?) woman of the lost coin, the prodigal son. All these stories are unique to Luke. God writes straight with crooked lines! (ii) God’s choosing of the Israelites/Jews and the extension of his election to Gentiles are the issues in the parable. Paul reflects on these issues in Romans 9-11.
And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:6–7)
Verses 1-3 God’s compassion to all without discrimination is the Good News, then and now. This context helps greatly in reading the parable. Verses 11-12 We are told of two sons at the start; both are sons. The younger son tactfully omits the rest of his sentence, “when you flake out”! Heirs were entitled to use the family capital to make money, but not to alienate it. The young son is, as a result, no longer legally a son. Verse 13 The younger son’s decline is briefly told, without detail. (The older brother’s “prostitutes” are his problem.) Verse 14 Famine is frequent in this period; it speeds up the degradation of the son. However, the son does not turn to the network of Jewish charity in the diaspora available to fellow Israelites in need. He has cut himself off ethnically. Verses 15-16 Pigs are unclean and forbidden in Judaism. Finally, the younger son has cut himself off religiously. His isolation is complete. In need, he loses even the capacity to take basic initiatives. Verses 17-18 Literally in Greek: he came to himself, a favourite line of St Augustine of Hippo. The Greek of v. 17b is different: “on account of this famine, I am lost.” The son prepares his speech carefully—thus betraying his anxiety. Verse 19 He has indeed lost his rights as a son, both religiously and legally. Verse 20 The father has been looking out for him, all along! One of the shocks of the parable is this authority figure—the paterfamilias—setting aside his dignity and running. Compassion: this unusual, feminine word is used elsewhere twelve times in the NT: eight times of Jesus (Matt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34; Mk 1:41, 6:34, 8:2, 9:22; Lk 7:13) and twice of God (18:27; 15:20) in parables, and once of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33). Verse 21 The prepared speech is interrupted (a careful reader should register this in the proclamation). Verses 22-23 The robe, ring and sandals symbolise full restoration (the ring is a signet ring, slaves do not wear sandals). The fatted calf was being kept for some special occasion. What could be more special? Verse 24 Legally the son had absolved the father of all responsibility towards his son and in that sense the son really was dead to the father. The lost and found language links the parable to the lost sheep and lost coin. Verse 25 At last, the older son comes on scene. We travel with him and hear the noise from a distance. The Greek word is symphōnia, that is, some kind of music making, a band or orchestra. Verses 26-27 It is revealing that this son calls on a slave to enquire – does he feel more at home with the slaves in the household? The slave echoes the father’s words. Verse 28 The reaction is a natural one. Again, the father’s coming out to him is culturally a shock. Verses 29-30 Fidelity or servility?Rather nastily, the older sibling presumes details unknown to him. Notice the avoidance of the word “brother.” Verse 31 From what we know of the father, this is true. In the context in Luke, the Scribes and the Pharisees are being invited not to limit God’s generosity to the expected “locations” of grace! Cf. the book of Jonah. Verse 32 The father, however, uses the word brother. The next step is not to be found within the parable but in life itself.
Pointers for prayer
1. Like many a parable, this story makes its point in what seems to be unfair: the spendthrift son is rewarded and the elder son is hurt and angry. Jesus is telling us that love is a free gift, not something we earn by our goodness. This is true of human love, and is also true of God’s love. When have you experienced this truth in the love you have received from others? When has the experience of human love prompted you to reflect on God’s love for you? 2. After some time the younger son “came to himself” and returned home. Where and when have you experienced a homecoming after a time of exile and alienation? What helped you to come to yourself and make that journey home? 3. The older son resented the welcome given to the younger son after his wandering and dissolute life. This contrasts with the welcome the father gave the younger son. Perhaps you have experienced these differing attitudes in yourself. What were they like for you? Where was there life for you or for
God of compassion, you await the sinner’s return and spread a feast to welcome home the lost. Save us from the temptations that lead us away from you, and draw us back by the constancy of your love, that we may take our place in your household and gladly share our inheritance with others. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
Both sons have misconstrued the relationship with their father. The older son wants to relate on a basis of servile loyalty (allegorically, the Law). The younger son, on his return, wishes to relate on the basis of confession of sin and desires to be treated as a slave. The father rejects both projections. Servile loyalty and guilt are not unknown in the Christian tradition! Prayer Abba, Father, show us your compassion and let us know your love. Amen