I’m going to borrow from Arthur Just’s excellent commentary on Luke for the introduction to chapter 15:1
Luke 15 is a high point in the travel narrative and in the entire gospel. Called “The Gospel of the Outcast”2 and the “The Gospel for the Outcast,” Luke 15 “is so distinctive of the Lucan portrait of Jesus” as to be called “The Heart of the Third Gospel.” It is closely connected to the table talk and discourse on discipleship in Luke 14; Jesus is looking for those who have ears to hear his catechesis (14:35). The entirety of chapter 15 both is directed at the Pharisees and is also a fundamental part of the catechesis for the disciples and the crowds (and the tax collectors and sinners). The structure of the chapter is simple: an introduction (15:1–3) and three parables, one about a lost sheep (15:4–7), one about a lost coin (15:8–10), and one about a lost son (15:11–32).Arthur A. Just Jr., Luke 9:51–24:53, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 586.
Time simply doesn’t permit a comprehensive treatment of this chapter. Of course, that’s true of every chapter in this series, but there is so much depth in this one in particular that it’s difficult to leave so much of it out. But in the time we do have, let’s consider parables in general, and then we’ll point out a few notes about these three while leaving many details to Dr. Just for those who would like to dive deeper.
The Parables of Jesus
There is also much to write about Jesus’ parables, but let’s consider three main things:
- Parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. These are simple stories that use ordinary situations of the time, but they point to something much more timeless: the kingdom of God. The parables are not like Aesop’s fables, which are imaginary stories that teach a moral lesson. No, parables aren’t intended to be moral lessons; they’re about God and life in His kingdom. Most often the “main character” of a parable is introduced in the first phrase, and this character is always God. So when Jesus says, “a certain man” or “a certain woman…” that’s not intended to place us people in those positions, but describes God’s actions.
- The parables often contain “maps”, where the characters and/or elements of the stories are “mapped” to real-life people or elements. So, as above, the main character is God, not us. The key to interpreting parables is “finding ourselves in the story” in the proper place. In Luke 15, for example, we ought not find ourselves in the main characters (the shepherd, the woman, the father). If we look for ourselves there, we’ll wrongly interpret them.
- The parables almost always come from a situation or a conversation Jesus is having. They don’t come from Jesus just sitting down somewhere and telling stories that people come to hear, like some sort of guru. They’re responses to questions, challenges, and situations. So the context is important, and always helps us to understand what Jesus is teaching. With Luke 15 as an example, verses 1-2 frame all three parables. We can’t understand the main point without understanding that they are an answer to self-righteous people who are upset that Jesus is welcoming and showing fellowship with “sinners” (read: extra-bad people).
Because these three are related, we’ll deal with some common themes and point out a few specifics.
- Lost-ness All three parables deal with something/someone that was part of a group, then became lost. That starting point is important. It’s not something being lost from the beginning, but it becomes lost.
- Searching & Finding In the first two, there is an active search that results in finding. In the third, there is a sense of “soul searching” on the part of the younger son, but as we see, the “finding” is truly only partial. There is searching in one sense, as the father is watching actively for for the son’s return.
- Restoration The thing (person) that was lost is restored to the group. This is not an individual thing in that it (he) is simply restored to the owner (father). It (he) is restored to the whole community.
- Communal Joy The joy of the restoration isn’t individual, either. It’s based in the community. The community celebrates together, expressed most clearly in table fellowship, which is a theme of Luke in general and a picture of the eternal feast that awaits. Again, remember the “inciting incident”: the accusation that Jesus welcomes and eats with “capital-S” Sinners.
- Open Endings Though less pronounced in the second parable because coins are inanimate, the endings of all three are left open. What of the 99 sheep that remained in the pen? What of the older son? We long for resolution but need to remember that these aren't movies; they're stories told with a specific purpose. What is the ultimate purpose of these three? Dr. Just sums it up brilliantly:
The Pharisees know that these parables are directed against them. They know that, in Jesus’ view, all need to repent, so that there is no such thing as people who have no need for repentance. The Pharisees know that they have rejected John’s call for repentance and so have also rejected God’s plan of salvation in John and Jesus (cf. 7:29–35). As they listen carefully to the parable, they are never told whether the ninety-nine are still in the wilderness or have returned to the village. Jesus leaves it up in the air because these parables are his call to them to repentance.Arthur A. Just Jr., Luke 9:51–24:53, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 590–591.
Some Specific Notes
Once again I’ll refer you to Dr. Just’s commentary if you would like to dive deeper, because there is just so much to cover. Another resource to consider for more in-depth understanding of the original context is Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes by Dr. Kenneth Bailey, which does a wonderful job of describing the original context of many of the parables and unlocking much of the power of them that would have been perceived by the original hearers and which is easily lost in us because we’re culturally removed from the first-century middle east. (Dr. Just borrows heavily from Dr. Bailey in this section.) And, one more resource to point out is Chad Bird’s video in his series “Reading the Gospels Through Hebrew Eyes” on the third parable, which also describes much of the original context.
With all that in mind, a few notes on the specific context and application for us:
- Notice that the tax collectors and sinners were "drawing near to hear [Jesus]" (15:1). This is the same word used when Jesus proclaims, "The kingdom of God/heaven is drawing near" (Matt. 3:2), which suggests that what Jesus was doing and preaching among them was drawing them near, and that they were serious about being "hearers of the Word"/disciples.
- "Tax collectors and sinners" is a way of saying, "bad people, as opposed to us good people". I tend to describe them as "capital-S" Sinners. Notice in 15:2, "sinners" is used by those who are grumbling against them, those who are acting in a self-righteous way. The implication, of course, is "we may be sinners, but we're not Sinners".
- 15:4 To leave the 99 sheep behind did not mean abandoning them to wolves and other dangers. One shepherd would never be handling 99 sheep; there would be a team.
- 15:8 Notice the two shorter parables have a pairing of a man and a woman as main characters. Luke makes a point of Jesus' welcoming of women and their participation in His life and ministry (e.g. 8:1-3); in that culture especially, that would be a startling thing to hear and/or read.
- 15:7 and 10 Notice the explicit connection to the heavenly meaning in these two parables.
- 15:7 and 10 It's also important to note that repentance is not a one-time thing; some Christians use these parables to emphasize the moment of conversion using something like the so-called "sinner's prayer" for someone to become a Christian. Though conversion is a one-time thing (and in that, it's important to note that someone who is able to sincerely pray the sinner's prayer already has faith), the life of a Christian is full of repentance.
- 15:11 Though the title of the parable is often given as "the prodigal son", the main character is the father, and it is his love that is truly prodigal (which means "reckless"). Remember that the first person Jesus mentions in almost all the parables is that main character.
- 15:12 This demand of the son is effectively saying to his father, "I wish you were dead".
- 15:12b The father actually granting this request would be scandalous (dare we say, reckless) to the Pharisees. No self-respecting Hebrew father would ever do this. This is the first of three hugely scandalous acts on the part of the father.
- 15:13-15 Not only the wasting of the inheritance is bad, but for a Jewish man to be hired out to a Gentile is a scandal in itself (the evidence of being a Gentile is the owning of pigs which were an unclean animal for the Jews). Then to be the one working among pigs and wanting to eat their food—this is rock bottom!
- 15:19 Though this sounds like repentance, it's not really. To be a hired hand is really to be someone who has some dignity and respect. This is a plan to "work off" his sin and still save some face. Yes it would be difficult, but it could be done. He's still mostly self-righteous at this point!
- 15:20-24 The second huge scandal on the father's part. To not only be watching, but to run to his disgraced son instead of waiting for his son to come grovel before him is again something no self-respecting father would have done in that culture. And then, to not even hear his full plan but simply welcome him back and throw a party with the best food! The scandal can't get much bigger!
- 15:28 Oh, but it does. For the father to go to his older son as well, and to endure the insults his son heaps on him is again scandalous on the part of the father. Those self-righteous people listening would be likely more than ready to condemn the father's actions and take the side of the older son; that's the whole point Jesus is making.
- 15:31 The father's love extends even to this insubordinate, hugely disrespectful son: he still calls him son, he still extends his property to him, he says the younger son is still "your brother". The grace is given recklessly; will the older son finally receive it?
1There is so much depth to these parables, and particularly the third, that I will also commend Dr. Just’s commentary to anyone who would like to read the comments on this 15th chapter of Luke. I have a copy of it in my office and am happy to lend it to anyone in the area who would like to borrow it for a time. The specific notes on the text get a bit technical, but the comments after those notes will be insightful and helpful to many people even without a technical background in Greek.