by Ed Gallagher
I’ve been lost before—literally, a few times, and then many, many times metaphorically. First, literally. I was 10 or 11 years old, at church camp, Western Kentucky Youth Camp, outside Marion, KY (population in 2010: 3039). On Thursday evenings every year at WKYC we would go on the hike to Mad Myrtle’s house, back in the woods, where this old shack was. The counselors would tell us scary stories, especially about Mad Myrtle, the legendary former occupant of said shack. We’d spend 30-45 minutes there around the campfire, then head back through the woods to the main part of the camp. One year when we had started the hike back to camp, my friend and I decided to take one of the side trails, just to be rebellious, or adventurous, or whatever. It was pitch black, and even though we had flashlights, we had no idea where we were going, and after losing site of the big caravan of campers on the main trail, we were utterly lost. Apparently once everybody else got back to camp, the counselors took roll call and discovered that we were missing, so they organized a search party. We ended up lost in the woods—and it was raining!—for probably 30 minutes. I was scared. Finally, we saw the lights of a pickup truck coming at us, and some men jumped out of the truck, including my cabin counselor. The first thing he did when he saw me was yell, “What were you thinking?!,” and then without waiting for an answer, he just hugged me, relieved. He had left the ninety-nine campers (or thereabouts) to look for the one (or two) who were lost.
We may have eventually found our way back to camp, I don’t know. Maybe only once it got light. Really, I had no idea where to go. It was like a maze in those woods, in the dark. I needed someone to look for me.
Now, metaphorically. Much more recently, I was in Oxford, England, at an academic conference. Just a refresher: whenever we Americans meet someone from another country, we expect them to speak English to us. And more often than not that is what happens. Well, I met this lady, a professor originally from Italy now teaching in Switzerland, delivering her lectures in French. She spoke to me in English, but she was not very confident in her English. The session began, and she read her paper in English, and I read a paper (in English, of course), and after our papers, there was time for question and answer. The audience asked a few questions. But then, it happened: this Italian professor who regularly lectures in French started talking in French, and looking at me … and I was thinking, “I hope she’s not asking me a question.” She was—she was asking me a question, in front of everybody, in French. Of course, most of the people there could understand French, but I’m the fool who only speaks one language. Why do they let such ignorant people attend international conferences? That’s how I felt. So she speaks for about a minute in French and then stops, and looks at me, waiting for me to respond. And my necessary response was, “I don’t know what you just said.” I was lost. Then she started speaking Italian to this Italian guy right next to her, and they were both trying to figure out how to ask her question in English. And I just hung my head in shame.
That’s just a recent example of how I have been lost. I’m sure you’ve got your stories as well. In those situations, it is such a relief—so joyful—to find your way, or to get found.
Jesus tells three consecutive parables about something that is lost in Luke 15: first, a sheep (vv. 3–7); second, a coin (vv. 8–10); third, a son (vv. 11–32).1 The first two parables, helpfully, come with their own interpretation.
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 15:7
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.Luke 15:10
The point of the parables is about how much God loves it when sinners repent. Now, the third parable, the one about the lost son, does not have an explicit interpretation attached to the parable like the first two do, but it does show the father in the parable throwing a party once the lost son has been found (vv. 22–24). “And they began to celebrate” (v. 24). The point of this third parable is the same as in the first two, though there is also a complication at the end of the parable that we will have to address in a little bit.
There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. That gives the lie to the old idea that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Okay, yes, there is some truth even in that characterization of God, but not as much truth as there is in this:
As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.Ezekiel 33:11; cf. 18:23, 32
What gives God joy is not punishing sinners but repentant sinners.
Why is Jesus telling parables about how much God loves it when sinners repent? Because Jesus had been hanging out with some sinners, and some people who were supposed to represent the interests of God—the Pharisees and the scribes—were grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1–2). So Jesus tells these parables to justify his decision to hang out with sinners. Why is Jesus hanging out with sinners? Because he’s trying to get them to repent! And there’s nothing God loves more than when a sinner repents.
Notice, again, that Jesus is not hanging out with sinners because sinners are the cool crowd. It’s not that sinners know better how to have a good time, and not those stuffy ole Pharisees. No, Jesus is hanging with sinners because those are the people that need to repent. He wants the sinners to stop being sinners.
Between two evils I pick the one I haven’t tried before.Mae West
When Mae West said that line, it was funny. But that is not Jesus’ motto. He has no interest in trying a new evil. He wants to be with sinners because he wanted them to change their lives. I’m sure he was relatively nice to them, gentle, patient—but he wasn’t affirming them in their lifestyle. He was telling them to abandon their lifestyle and to adopt a more godly lifestyle. Remember his response on a prior occasion when the Pharisees were grumbling about his decision to “eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners” (5:30).
I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.Luke 5:32
He was after repentance. That was the goal.
But he told these parables not so much for the sake of the sinners as for the sake of the Pharisees who didn’t understand the goal. If the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus because of the company he kept, I suppose that means they had completely written off these people to whom Jesus was reaching out. These particular Pharisees doing the grumbling presumably didn’t want to be associated with sinners, wanted to maintain their own purity which would be compromised by association with sinners, and didn’t want to give the impression that they approved of sin. I guess these particular Pharisees assumed that what made God happy was when his people maintained purity. And—let’s be honest—there are good reasons to think such a thing, because the Bible is filled with passages where God pleads with his people to maintain their purity, and not just in the Old Testament (2 Cor 6:14–7:1)! But what Jesus wanted to show was that the most joyful thing of all is when something lost has been found. After all, “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (19:10).
Stories of Desperation
These are stories of desperation.
First, we have a shepherd who is desperate to find his sheep. Then we have a woman who is desperate to find her coin. I understand completely their desperation.
I’ve never lost a sheep or helped someone look for a sheep, but I have helped someone look for a lost dog. In our neighborhood, a few times a year we’ll run into someone looking for their dog. They’re usually in a hurry; they quickly ask if we’ve seen a dog wandering around, and when we say know, they quickly move on. I myself wouldn’t be too upset if our dog ran away, but my oldest daughter would be frantic, and that means I’d be out looking, driving around, frantic, too.
What would I do if I lost a silver coin? The lady in Jesus’ parable had ten silver coins, so she lost a tenth of her holdings. What would you do in that situation? The scene that pops into my head is Uncle Billy losing the $8000 when he accidentally folded it up in Potter’s newspaper. (Of course, I’m talking about It’s a Wonderful Life.) You remember how frantic they were, how desperate?
Where’s that money you silly, stupid old fool?! Where’s that money?! You realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That’s what it means. One of us is going to jail! Well, it’s not gonna be me!
In these stories told by Jesus, it is the character representing God that is desperate. God is like a shepherd hunting for his sheep. God is like a woman turning her house upside down in search of her coin. And in both situations, when what was lost has been found, God is like someone calling up his friends, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found what I had lost!”
And God is like a father missing his son, hoping—desperately—for his son to come back.
The Prodigal Son
Dividing the Estate
My sister has already called dibs on some of our parents’ possessions. Really, I think she’s called dibs on everything; I’m definitely getting the leftovers. But what my sister hasn’t done is asked for my parents—who are in fine health in their late sixties—to go ahead and give her the inheritance. She has declared some of the things she wants once it’s time to settle their estate, but she hasn’t demanded to settle their estate now, while they’re still alive. She knows—everyone knows—that to do so would be incredibly disrespectful, heartless, callous.
That’s what the younger son does.2 “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me” (v. 12). Yeah, it’s not really a surprise that if one of the two sons was going to do such a thing, it would be the younger son. The first child tends to be more obedient, more responsible; the second child tends to be more rebellious. That’s not always the case, but it fits a lot of the families I know. It certainly fits the family that Jesus describes in Luke 15:11–32.
We might wonder what kind of parent would raise a child who would end up saying something like this to his father. How does the opening of this parable cohere with Prov 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”? Does the opening of Jesus’ parable show that parenting is really just a crap shoot; if even God can’t parent very well (since the father of the prodigal son represents God), what hope is there for us? There are a few responses to this line of thinking. First, we shouldn’t press the details of these opening verses too far. This is all part of the set-up, not the main point. Jesus wants to tell a story about a rebellious son who repented, and a heart-broken father rejoicing over the repentance of this son. To tell such a story, the son has to rebel. Second, one could argue very easily that Proverbs 22:6 turns out to be exactly on point in the life of this prodigal son: he was trained up in the way he should go, and when he was old, he did not depart from it. The proverb does not mean that there will be no bumps along the road. The prodigal son, in the pig pen, remembers his training, and directs his life accordingly. This story might be interesting to think about in terms of parenting, but Jesus did not design it to go in that direction. (Except for the joy that a parent feels when reuniting with a child—that is the main point of the parable.)
We could say the same thing about the father’s response to the son’s demand. The father actually acquiesces and gives the younger son what he requested. One might look at that action and say, since the father represents God, then it provides an example to human fathers. I don’t think so. Again, v. 12 is all set-up, not main point, so we shouldn’t press these details. I, for one, think it would be unwise (to say the least) to give in to such a request from such a son. What the son ended up doing with the money demonstrates how unwise it would be.3
Let’s imagine for a moment that the father here is not a picture of our God, that the only correspondence between our God and this father is at the end, when he welcomes his son back joyfully, and not at the beginning, when the father acts sort of foolishly. In other words, for a moment, those details I said we should not press—let’s press them. (These thoughts are inspired by Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 48.)
I’ll say it again: it’s foolish for this father to divide his estate and give so much to his son. Such an action suggests a father who spoils his child. Here we might think of Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph, and how Joseph was a bit of a brat early on (Gen 39). When you’ve got a father who so readily gives a son anything he asks for, you’ll get a son who nearly ruins his life.
What the son ended up doing with the money was taking it to a far country and burning through it with riotous living (v. 13). Later, the elder brother accuses his sibling of wasting the money on prostitutes (v. 30), and he might be right. Rembrandt thought so, anyway. Here’s his 1637 painting called The Prodigal Son in the Brothel.
We’ve seen this story many times, the fool who comes in to some money and pretty soon has no money and nothing to show for it. Back to Proverbs:
Precious treasure remains in the house of the wise, but the fool devours it.Proverbs 21:20
Anyone who tills the land will have plenty of bread, but one who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.Proverbs 28:19
When we hear that a lottery-winner later declared bankruptcy, we are not surprised. We might wonder what they spent it all on, but, really, we already know: some combination of cars and houses and clothes and vacations and exotic pets and whatever else popped into their heads. Apparently, sixty percent of NBA players go broke within five years of exiting the league, and seventy-eight percent of former NFL players experience financial hardship within a couple years of leaving the league (according to this article). We know what the riotous living is. We see it on TV all the time.
Of course the prodigal went to the Far Country to engage in his riotous living. That’s where the riotous living happens, far away from everyone that knows you, around whom you’d be ashamed to live riotously. That’s why Paul calls that lifestyle “the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Eph 5:11), because they’re the types of things you do in the dark where no one can see (“secretly”; Eph 5:12). “Those who are drunk get drunk at night” (1 Thess 5:7). They want the cover of darkness to hide their sin. But the nighttime isn’t good enough for the prodigal, so he goes to the Far Country, where he can do anything he wants without any prying eyes.
The problem with the Far Country, though, is that it’s real far away. When something bad happens, who’s there to offer a helping hand? You’ve cut yourself off from your network, from the people that care about you, so you’re going to end up in the pig pen.
Things go south for the prodigal pretty quickly. He blows through his inheritance, and then there’s a famine, and he ends up feeding pigs—not owning pigs, but just feeding them. Of course, for a Jew, that would be pretty low, but, really, there’s no society on earth that would consider pig farming a particularly glamorous profession. But it gets worse: the prodigal—who just moments before had been living high on the hog (sorry for that)—now wants to eat the pig food. Have you ever wanted to eat dog food? Me neither.
I guess we could call that rock bottom.
That’s when the prodigal gets an idea. He decides to go back home and ask his father for a job (vv. 17–19). There are different ways of interpreting this plan from the prodigal. If you’re the skeptical type, you might see in here a wonderful awful idea, a scheme by which to get his father to give him even more money, knowing that his father will do anything he asks. David Buttrick (p. 43) summarizes the prodigal’s idea this way: “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.” And I must say that way of reading the prodigal is attractive, not least because we see that exact scenario play out so frequently, if not in our own communities, at least in the movies.
But that is not how I interpret the prodigal’s intentions. If you just took this parable by itself—if you just read Luke 15:11–32—I guess you could get that meaning out of it, since we don’t ever really hear whether the prodigal ended up being a good and faithful son, or whether he once again took advantage of his old man’s soft heart. But this parable does not come to us as a stand-alone but as part of a Gospel that emphasizes repentance (as saw earlier in this lesson). Luke presents these three parables as illustrations of God’s joy at seeing sinners repent. So I think we have to understand, in the context of Luke’s Gospel, that the prodigal son genuinely, sincerely repented.
And taking it in that way, as a sincere act of remorse, means that the speech by the prodigal is an excellent example of what repentance should look like. We need such examples. That’s why Luke offers so many to us, whether in the encounter of John the Baptist with the tax collectors and soldiers (3:10–14), or the sinful woman at the Pharisee’s house (7:36–50), or the tax collector who prays in the temple (18:9–14), or Zacchaeus (19:1–10). Whenever my kids do wrong, especially the younger ones, I have to feed them all the words they need to say in order to make it right, to reconcile with the person they’ve offended. They don’t come by it naturally. It doesn’t occur to them to say sorry. They have to be trained. The speech that the prodigal plans to say (vv. 18–19), if it is sincere, is what repentance ought to look like.
Amy Winehouse sang a song about how people were trying to get her to go to rehab. In the song, she resists, in part because she hates the idea that “everyone [will] think I’m on the mend.” I think I know what she means. She hates the idea of people condescendingly telling her, “Oh, you’re doing really well. You look so good.” She hates that going to rehab would represent a public admission that she had problems that she couldn’t solve, that the life she had been living was out of control. It’s an insightful lyric. Some people who are in a bad situation stay away from the people who could help them because they don’t want to hear, “We’re so proud of you!” I imagine the prodigal son had to get over that exact fear. He knew if he went home, he would have to deal with whatever his father would say. Maybe he could deal with that because he had treated his father carelessly. But then there are the servants. What would they think? What would they say? And, of course, there’s brother. What comes with repentance is sucking it up and recognizing—and accepting—that people are going to say what they’re going to say. And they might hold your past transgressions against you, or forever judge you by your worst faults, or constantly wonder when you’re going to fall off the wagon again. If the prodigal had such fears, they do not stop him from returning home in repentance.
But even more than repentance, this parable is about the reaction of the father. Jesus says that “while [the prodigal] was still far off, his father saw him” (v. 20). I don’t know what this could mean other than that the father was looking for him. The father didn’t leave and search in the Far Country the way the shepherd left the ninety-nine to look for the lost sheep, or the way the woman scoured her house in search of her coin, but the father was on the lookout. The apocryphal story of Tobit tells a similar story, though it doesn’t involve a rebellious son. Instead, an obedient son leaves home on a mission, but that boy’s mama “would rush out every day and watch the road her son had taken” (Tobit 10:7); she “sat looking intently down the road” (11:5). I imagine this father doing something like that.
The father “ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The scene is reminiscent of Esau’s reconciliation with his brother Jacob (Gen 33:4). The prodigal can’t get his whole speech out before his father interrupts him. The father orders a robe and a ring and sandals and a feast (Luke 15:22–23), “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24).
Notice what is absent. All those years ago, the first thing out of my camp counselor’s mouth were words of rebuke—followed quickly, to be sure, by the very gestures performed by the father toward the prodigal in verse 20. The father manages to suppress even the hint of rebuke. No doubt the father had thought about this scene over the past weeks or months or years, considering what he would do. No doubt the father had thoughts—perhaps fleeting, perhaps regular—that if he ever saw his son again, he would tell him what for, or tell him how thoughtlessly he had acted, or tell him about all the nights the father had stayed up worrying, or tell him how he had broken his father’s heart. But in the moment of reconciliation, we see no anger or resentment or sadness or frustration. We see only joy.
And that’s the point of the parable.
Except that Jesus keeps talking.
The Elder Brother
There’s another brother, and he’s not happy. Unlike with the younger brother, we never really question whether this elder brother is sincere in what he says to his father. He doesn’t try to flatter his father like the younger brother does. It sounds like this stuff has been boiling inside him for a while and now it’s time to let it out. But, man, what a warped view of his life this boy has! Unfortunately this view of life, too, is very common, very familiar to us. We know people like this.
In verse 7, Jesus mentions “righteous persons who need no repentance.” Here we meet an example of someone who is righteous and needs no repentance, and it becomes clear that there is no one who is righteous and without need of repentance.
The main problem here is that the elder brother has misinterpreted his relationship to his father. Here’s what he says: “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” (v. 29). He thinks he’s a slave, receiving and executing commands, able to enjoy the bounty of the estate only when given explicit permission. But the father interprets their relationship completely differently. He addresses him as “son,” not “slave.” “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31).
The elder brother needn’t have waited for a written invitation to throw a party for his friends. He was son of the owner. Everything belonged to him already. If he wanted a goat, he should have just taken a goat. That means also that the younger brother could equally have enjoyed the estate and stayed home; there was no need to ask for his share of the inheritance early (except, of course, that the younger son wanted to be prodigal with the money; he wanted to do things he didn’t want his dad to know about).
Just like his younger brother, this elder brother needed to change. He needed to recognize his own role as son and heir rather than slave. Most of all, rather than harboring anger and hatred, he needed to share in the joy of the moment, because it was necessary to celebrate (v. 32).
It’s a story about loss and redemption and more. Like a lot of Jesus’ parables, it ends without a neat conclusion, leaving us wondering whether the elder brother recognized his own folly, whether he accepted the younger brother, whether the younger brother was genuine in his repentance, whether the father’s joy lasted. The parable is open-ended, and life is open-ended. As we reflect on these characters, and what we wish each of them would do, we form our own character, preparing ourselves to offer a proper response to God and others. And the proper response is twofold: repentance and joy.
What do you think you would do if one of your children said to you what the prodigal son says to his father in Luke 15:12? What do you think about the father’s response in this parable?
This son becomes “prodigal” (= “wasteful,” “reckless”) when he goes to the Far Country (Luke 15:13). What do you think are the attractions of the Far Country? What are the dangers?
What does the prodigal son teach us about repentance (Luke 15:17–21)?
What is the false idea about his role within the family that the older brother has (Luke 15:25–30)?
What do you think about the father’s response to both brothers? What do those responses tell us about the father?
(1) The only one of these parables that finds a near parallel in the other Gospels is the Lost Sheep (cf. Matt 18:10–14). There is also a version of this parable in the Gospel of Thomas (saying 107).
(2) Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper, 2014), 47, takes a softer view of this request by the younger son, but the sources she cites do not exactly support her interpretation (“It was not particularly unusual then, nor is it even now.”). But I do agree with her argument that this request is not equivalent to telling the father, “I wish you were dead.”
(3) See also the apocryphal book of Sirach 33:24, “At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.” See also the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metziah 75b, near the end, which criticizes those who distribute their property to their children during their lifetime.