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15 September 2019
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: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Luke 15:8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
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.’”
The second two parables are unique to this Gospel, reflecting Lucan themes and responses to the Christ event.
Kind of writing
These are all parables. As such, they are meant to destabilise the hearers and put them “in crisis,” literally in the “critical” position of having to make judgement (= krisis in Greek). In its context here, the third parable is furthermore incipiently allegorical—the father could be God, the faithful son, the Jewish people, the prodigal son, the tax-collectors and sinners.
Old Testament background
(i) The big background 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) 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. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old. (Mic 7:18–20)
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 can write straight with crooked lines!
(ii) God’s choosing of the Israelites/Jews and the extension of his election to Gentiles are reflected upon in Romans 9-11. The allegory of the natural and wild olive trees is very helpful: Rom 11:13-24.
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 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. (Gal 4:1–7)
Verses 1-2 God’s compassion to all without discrimination is the Good News, then and now.
Verse 11 We are told of two sons at the start; both are sons.
Verse 12 The younger son tactfully omits the rest of the sentence, “when you die”!
Verse 13 Briefly told, without detail. Dissolute is lit. in Greek “without salvation.” Heirs were entitled to use the family capital to make money, but were not free to alienate it. The young son is no longer legally a son and is cut off from family. Later, the older brother guesses about the women, without any evidence.
Verse 14 Famine is frequent in this period. The son does not turn to the network of Jewish charity available to fellow Israelites in need. He has cut himself off ethnically.
Verses 15-16 Pigs are unclean and forbidden. He has cut himself off religiously. He loses the capacity to take initiatives.
Verse 17 Literally in Greek: and here am I being lost, sustaining the metaphor.
Verses 18-19 He prepares his speech carefully—always a little suspicious! Religiously and legally he is no longer a son.
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 and 15:20 in parables, and once of the Good Samaritan Lk 10:33).
Verse 21 The prepared speech is interrupted (a careful reader should take note!).
Verse 22 The robe, ring and sandals symbolise full restoration (the ring was a signet ring, slaves did not wear sandals).
Verse 23 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 (symphonia) from a distance.
Verse 26 It is revealing that this son calls on a slave to enquire – does he feel more at home with the slaves in the household?
Verse 27 The slave echoes the father’s words.
Verse 28 A natural reaction. Again, the father’s coming out to him is a shock.
Verse 29 Fidelity or servility?
Verse 30 Rather nastily, the older sibling presumes unknown (to him) details. 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!
Both sons have misconstrued the relationship with their father. The older son actually relates 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. Both are false bases.
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 others?
Undaunted you seek the lost, O God, exultant you bring home the found. Touch our hearts with grateful wonder at the tenderness of your forbearing love. Grant us delight in the mercy that has found us and bring all to rejoice at the feast of forgiveness.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
Happiness in believing is possibly out of fashion and even out of sync with the times. And yet, engagement with the Good News should surely lead to a profound happiness, even exuberance. Just because we don’t feel it all the time doesn’t mean it isn’t real! The joy of the Gospel is part of who we are.
As we place our trust in you, as we are loved by you and love you in return, unlock our hearts that we may know true and lasting joy in believing.