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Luke 15:11-32

H. Pappas

Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." 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. 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.' 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound. Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him. Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'"

Luke 15:1-2: To his contemporary fellow Jews, Jesus Christ often attracted a strange crowd - government conspirators who overcharged fellow citizens for their own benefit (tax collectors), immoral people and unobservant believers (sinners). Moreover, he openly shared meals with them, leaving himself open to charges of ritual uncleanness.

The religious leadership of the day (Pharisees and scribes), often depicted in the four gospels as hardened in self-righteousness, complained about Jesus' behaviour and actions.1 In particular, they accused Jesus of grossly violating the rules for table fellowship, carefully regulated by Jewish tradition.

In Luke 15, Jesus responds by telling three parables that illustrate saving truths about the radical nature of the kingdom of God. All three involve "lost and found" themes. All three reveal God's abundant joy and gracious acceptance of any sinner who repents (15:7). The third, and longest, is about one lost son out of two - though the other, it turns out, is in peril even though he never physically left the father (15:11-32).

The lost son, the loving father and the elder brother

Stories about families are deeply embedded in the Bible, beginning with the first book, Genesis. In the ancient world, the first born son was normally entitled to receive a double portion of inheritance from the father, and was considered most important of all the children. However, the stories in Genesis reveal that a younger son often is the one through whom God works, overturning what is expected in human society: Cain slays Abel, Jacob bests Esau, Joseph saves his family.

In this parable, Jesus begins by saying that there are two sons of one father (v. 11). The younger asks for and receives his full inheritance from the father (v. 12). Such a request expresses the attitude that the parent is as good as dead, since the child cannot wait for the parent to die. Indeed, in cultures that still practice such customs, it is absolutely unthinkable that any child would ever do this.2 Thus, Jesus is describing a family scene that is shocking and without precedent. Even the behaviour of the father is unlike any human parent: immediate compliance, with no questions asked and no conditions stipulated.3

Soon afterwards, the younger brother, loaded with money, leaves for a distant place (no doubt gentile territory) where he squanders everything in reckless, immoral living (v. 13). When all has been spent, he finds himself afflicted not only by poverty but by famine (v. 14). This was something that everyone feared in the ancient world where the ability to grow crops and maintain livestock was not as regulated or protected as in developed countries today. Famine in the Bible often involves a spiritual crisis. Abraham, and later Jacob and his sons, had to abandon the land of God's promise and risk everything by traveling to a foreign place (Egypt) just to stay alive. Much later, Ruth and Naomi were forced to do the same in going to Moab. In this story, the younger son has become destitute not just physically but spiritually.

Once he realizes his own need, out of desperation, the younger son hires himself out to a wealthy citizen who assigns him the task of tending pigs (v. 15). The humiliation of working for a gentile is made worse since pigs were "unclean" animals in the eyes of Jewish dietary law. The younger son could easily have come to loathe himself in such a degraded and shameful job. He even yearns for the pig food itself, but tragically there is no one to help him (v. 16).

Finally, though, the younger brother "came to himself,"4 and remembered his father's house (v. 17). This is the turning point in the first part of the story, reflecting both authentic self-awareness and memory. Next he resolves to get up,5 go back home to his father,6 confess his sin and unworthiness, and ask to be received as a hired laborer (vv. 17-19). Even if self-interest is involved, he is clearly willing to acknowledge his sin and has the humility to admit that he has forfeited his sonship.

The younger son starts his journey home. But before he is even close, his father sees him, is moved by compassion, and runs to welcome him with open arms and a kiss (v. 20). Unlike the first two "lost and found" stories in Luke 15, there is no active, outward searching for the lost in this story. Yet the father is anything but passive, for he surely has not been idling away his time, scorning his rebellious son or just "moving on with life". In fact, Jesus describes a father who never forgets a lost child, never loses hope, never hardens his heart, no matter how badly the child has behaved. And the homecoming is stunning: the father interrupts the son's confession (v. 22), orders the slaves to brings the symbols of honor (the best robe), inheritance (the ring and the sandals), and commands that the community (the extended household) gather in festive celebration with the choicest food (the fatted calf; v. 23). In conclusion, the father exclaims his motive: for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (v. 24)! Once again Jesus makes clear the joy and celebration of heaven over one person who repents and turns towards God (15:7,10).

It would seem much happier if the story ended here, but it does not. The elder son never had left the father's house and remained obedient and hard-working. Now, after yet another long day in the fields, he comes home only to hear the music and dancing. Instead of approaching his father directly (whose side he claims never to have left!), he demands an explanation from a slave (v. 25-26). Upon learning what is really happening (v. 27), the elder son becomes angry and refuses to come home and join in the community's celebration (v. 28a). He prefers self-isolation, and his physical distance from both the father and the community is explicit. Once again the father takes the initiative (he does not wait for this son, either!), comes out and pleads7 with him (v. 28b). However, this son's reaction is direct and strident. Disrespectfully ("Listen!"), he focuses only on himself (working as a slave for years) and attacks both the father (who is accused of ingratitude and injustice) and the younger brother (vv. 29-30). The elder son is not only estranged from his younger brother ("this son of yours"), he is also alienated from his father's love.

The final word, though, belongs to the father. In full freedom and integrity, he responds in loving-kindness to these harsh words, confirming both the elder son's identity as a son, along with his status as heir (v. 31). Then the father reasserts his fundamental motive, the common theme of all three parables in Luke 15: celebration and joy is fitting since your brother "was dead and has come to life... was lost and has been found" (v. 32). God's generosity is not always pleasing to us, nor does it always appear just. We hear nothing further of this story: what will the elder brother finally do?

Reflection and application

  1. A teenage daughter, unlike her respectful and compliant siblings, gradually becomes more and more the "black sheep" of the family through cigarette smoking by age 13, illegal drug use by age 15, engaging in casual sex by age 17. Eventually, after one more disastrous screaming match with mother, she is kicked out of the house and the locks on all doors are changed. Are parents ever justified in disowning their children? How can the church community respond to fractured families?
  2. Reflect on the ways you, and your community of faith, have lived like the younger son - outwardly rebellious, leaving for "distant lands". How have you acted like the elder son - outwardly compliant and obedient, yet given to self-righteousness and judging others? Have you ever acted like the loving father - unconditionally loving, never forgetting, patient towards all?
  3. How much is our identity (as individuals and as communities) based more upon our own achievements and self-worth than on God's gracious and unmerited forgiveness, grace and love? How important is it for us to recognize the shattering truth of God's gift of forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ?
  4. How can Christian communities exhibit the reconciling and healing love and mercy of God as revealed in this parable - with pregnant teenagers, drug addicts, those with sexually transmitted diseases, and so on? How can we love those caught in sin while holding them accountable for repentance? Note that the awesome joy and acceptance of God for the repenting son far exceeded anything that he had expected.
  5. When we admit our own foolishness, and call to mind our true home in heaven (through any authentic turning toward God), we are re-connected (re-membered) to God's love that includes the community of God. Ultimately, God is community in God's own self - in the Trinity of three persons in perfect communion - as well as in God's own reaching out to us, the church. Can families and church communities build positive and healthy memories with young and old alike so that, when human beings stray and get lost spiritually, they may remember the love and unconditional acceptance of God offered through the people of God?

1 This recalls the Hebrew people who complained bitterly, and unfairly, against Moses in the wilderness, when they preferred the security of slavery back in Egypt to the uncertainty of freedom (Ex. 16:2). The word in the Septuagint (the Old Testament in ancient Greek) is the same as the New Testament Greek word in Luke - diagogguzw.

2 Noted by Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son.

3 Completely against traditional, pious advice as illustrated in Sirach 33:20-21,24.

4 Some scholars point out that this is a Semitic idiom (also reflected in ancient Greek and Latin) that means "when he realized how foolish he had been".

5 The Greek word is anastaj, the same word used for resurrection (anastasij).

6 Repentance in the Old Testament is often termed "turning" or "return" in Hebrew (shub).