The Gospel of Luke: Three Parables of the Lost

An edited excerpt from Leon Morris's Commentary on Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) 



This is one of the best-known and best-loved chapters in the whole Bible. Three parables bring out the joy of God when the lost sinner is found. The fact that the first two depict people who actively seek what is lost may well put emphasis on the truth that God does not wait passively for sinners to come to him, but actively seeks them out.

1. Sinners gather (15:1-2)

The tax collectors were not highly regarded, for they both helped the hated Romans in their administration of conquered territory and enriched themselves at the expense of their fellow-countrymen. countrymen. They were ostracized by many and regarded as outcasts by the religious. The sinners were the immoral or those who followed occupations that the religious regarded as incompatible patible with the Law. The Pharisees and the scribes 'kept grumbling' (Fitzmyer) because Jesus received such people. SB cite an old rule, 'One must not associate with an ungodly man', and point out that this was taken so seriously that the rabbis would not associate with such a person even to teach him the Law (cf. Acts 10:28). Eating with these people was regarded as worse than mere association: it implied welcome and recognition. tion. This man is contemptuous ('strongly derisory', Marshall). Jesus did not let the Pharisaic censure interfere with his ministry. try. He had come to help sinners, which he could scarcely do if he did not meet them. We should not let the modern chapter division make us miss an important point. Jesus has just made an uncompromising demand for whole-heartedness as he showed what following him meant. He finished with 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear'. Luke's very next words tell us that these sinners came near to hear him. Whatever the case with the Pharisees and their like, these sinners had been challenged. They knew what discipleship meant. They were called on to hear. And they heard.

2. The lost sheep (15:3-7)

A great Jewish scholar, C. G. Montefiore, saw here a distinctive and revolutionary note: God actively seeks out sinners and brings them home. The rabbis agreed that God would welcome the penitent sinner. But it is a new idea that God is a seeking God, a God who takes the initiative.

3-4. Jesus appeals to custom. Should one sheep stray, any shepherd would leave the ninety-nine who were safe and look for the missing one. The ninety-nine are in no danger; they are found. But the safe possession of ninety-nine is no substitute for the loss of one. So the shepherd keeps looking until he finds it. He makes more than a token search. He wants his sheep so he looks till he finds it.

5-6. Finding the lost is a joyful experience. The shepherd happily brings the sheep home on his shoulders. There is no grumbling about carrying the animal: the shepherd is rejoicing. The joy of finding his lost one overshadows all else. In his overflowing happiness he calls in others to share his joy.

7. The application brings out the joy in heaven over one repentant sinner. Edersheim quotes a Jewish saying, 'There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world. But Jesus has a very different concept of God. He rejoices over the returning penitent more than over many safely in the fold. There is joy over these, but more joy over the repenting ing sinner.

3. The lost coin (15:8-10)

Again we have twin parables. In this second story Jesus speaks of a woman having ten silver coins. The coin is the Greek drachma (only here in the New Testament), which was the wage paid to a labourer for a day's work. The ten coins may represent a poor woman's savings, or, as some think, they may have been strung together as an ornament. The point is evidently not significant. Either way the loss of a coin would be a serious matter for a poor woman. So she searched for it determinedly. An Eastern house would have no windows, or very small ones, so the lighting of a lamp was necessary for a close search even in the daytime. The woman sweeps and seeks till she finds it. And, like the shepherd, herd, she shares her joy when she is successful. This time Jesus speaks of joy before the angels of God (previously 'in heaven'), but the meaning is much the same. Among the rabbinic writings there is the lost coin motif, but it is used very differently. If a man keeps seeking for a lost coin much more should he seek for the Law, said the rabbis (Canticles Rabbah I.i.9). There is no rabbinic equivalent to God's seeking of sinners.

4. The lost son (15:11-32)

Many regard this superb story as the finest of all the parables. It is certainly among the best-loved of them all. The human heart responds to the message of God's forgiving love for sinners so plainly set forth. This does not mean that they are right who say that since the parable does not speak of an atoning sacrifice no atonement is necessary. That would be a precarious conclusion, for Jesus is not dealing here with the whole gospel message but with the one great fact of the Father's pardoning love. The story is not, in T. W. Manson 's words, 'a complete compendium of theology' and further, 'If the carrying out of the purpose of God leads, as in fact it did, to the Cross, then it becomes the business of Christians to include the Cross in the purpose of God and to think out, as best they can, how the death of Christ is involved in God's purpose of saving sinners. This is not to diminish the importance of the parable, but to see it as powerfully setting forth the love of God for sinners, the mainspring of the gospel.

It has sometimes been argued that the concluding section (25ff.) should be deleted as no part of the original parable. No good reason is put forward and there is much against it. There is not the slightest evidence that the parable ever existed without it, and the point it makes is important. Indeed it is quite possible to hold that the main aim of the parable is to contrast the reactions of the father and the elder son to the prodigal. And in the situation in which Jesus found himself, while it was important to make the point that God welcomes sinners, it was also important to emphasize that those who reject repentant sinners are out of line with the Father's will. The parable says something to 'the tax collectors and sinners'. But it also has a message for'the Pharisees and the scribes'.

11-12. We should not overlook the opening reference to two sons. The elder brother is in the story from the beginning. The younger son asked for the share of property that falls to me. Deissmann mann notes this as a technical formula, used in the papyri of 'the paternal inheritance. A man might leave his goods to his heirs by last will and testament (cf. Heb. 9:16f.), in which case he was bound by the provisions of the Law. This meant that the first-born born received two thirds of the whole (Dt. 21:17). But he could make gifts before he died and this gave him a freer hand (SB). The rules for disposing of property are given in the Mishnah (Baba Bathra 8). If a man decided to make gifts he normally gave the capital but retained the income. He could then no longer dispose of the capital, only of his interest in the income. But the recipient could get nothing until the death of the giver, unless he chose to sell the capital, in which case the buyer could not gain possession until the death of the donor. We see this in the elder brother. The father clearly retained the managership of the property and the use of the proceeds. But he can say, 'all that is mine is yours' (31). The son of Sirach thought it unwise to give property away too early and he warns against it (Ecclus. 33:19-21). But his warning shows that the practice existed. What is unusual about the son's request is that he sought the use of the capital immediately. This could be given and it was given in this case. But it was far from common.

13. The younger son gave no reason for his request, but when the father consented it quickly became apparent. Once he had control of his inheritance he soon set out to see the world. He gathered all he had: he left nothing that would serve as an anchor and bring him back in due course. With ample funds at first and with much to see and do he squandered his property. Rsv says this was in loose living, but the adjective rendered loose should probably be understood as 'reckless'. Phillips gives the sense of it with 'he squandered his wealth in the wildest extravagance'.

14. Two disasters struck him simultaneously - he ran out of money and he ran into a famine. The first was entirely his own fault. It does not need vast experience to know that when capital is expended without return it must eventually be dissipated. sipated. The famine was not his fault but it increased his difficulties. culties. People who might have helped him would find their own circumstances more straitened. Food was short and consequently quently would be high priced. It gave people the perfect excuse for refusing to help. So the young man began to be in want. He lacked even the necessities of life.

15. He had to get a job; but in a time of famine employment was not easy to come by. Only this explains why he attached himself to a local citizen who sent him into his fields to feed swine. For a Jew no occupation could have been more distasteful. A rabbinic saying runs, 'Cursed be the man who would breed swine' (Baba Kamma 82b). The pig was unclean (Lv. 11:7) and the Jew under normal circumstances would have nothing to do with it at all. The young man must have been in desperate straits even to consider this job.

16. It is not clear what he ate. Jesus says that he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate (these pods being the seeds of the carob tree). But did he? No one gave him anything seems to indicate that he did not, especially if we understand it to mean that no-one gave him any of the pods (so GNB). Some conjecture ture that since no-one gave him anything, he must have stolen in order to keep alive. If so he was sunk in moral as well as physical degradation. But it does not follow. His master may well have provided his rations. It would be strange if he did not. That no-one helped him shows the low esteem into which he had fallen. Pigs were more valuable than he.

17. Disillusionment set in. The young man 'came to his senses' (NEB). Hardship has a wonderful way of bringing people to face facts. The prodigal reflected on the contrast between the starvation he was experiencing and the full and plenty enjoyed not by his father and brother alone but by his father's hired servants. Even for them there was bread enough and to spare.

18-19. The young man resolved to go home. If his initial motive was not particularly lofty (the desire to be better fed, 17), the confession he planned to make is a classic. He expressed sorrow not for what he had lost but for what he had done: he had sinned. He recognized that his sin was first against God, heaven being a reverent periphrasis for the divine name (unless we take eis ton ouranon to mean that he saw his sins piling up on high till they reached heaven, cf. Ezr. 9:6). Sin is always sin against God before anyone else. But this young man had also sinned against his father and he saw this, though he did not specify in exactly what way. It may be that he saw it as wrong to spend everything without leaving something to provide for his father in his old age. Or perhaps he saw that his whole attitude had been wrong: he had failed to honour his parent according to the commandment. He recognized that he had forfeited all claim to be treated as a son and he looked only for the possibility of being made like one of the paid servants, i.e. he would ask for a job. At least then he would get a living wage in congenial surroundings.

20. So he went back. Significantly Jesus does not say to his own village or even to his home, but to his father. Plainly the old man had hoped and watched for such a return. Jesus emphasizes the welcome the father gave his unworthy son. He saw him while he was still at a distance, he had compassion, he ran (which was striking in an elderly Oriental) and he kissed him (cf. David's forgiving kiss of Absalom, 2 Sa. 14:33). This last verb, katephilesen, may mean 'kissed him many times' or 'kissed him tenderly'. Even if no special significance is attached to the compound form, at least the verb points to a sincere greeting and not to perfunctory politeness.

21. It is not clear whether when the time came the son could not bring himself to utter the words about being like a hired servant (ig), or whether his father was so intent on his welcome that he did not give him time to finish. Probably it was the latter. But at any rate the son got out the words that expressed his sense of sin and unworthiness.

22-24. The father sent his slaves scurrying. The best robe was a sign of position and the ring also, especially if, as many hold, a signet ring is meant (cf. Gn. 41:42; Est. 3:10; 8:2); such a ring conveyed authority. In his destitution the son went barefoot. But this was fitting only for a slave and the shoes marked him out as a freeman. The fatted calf was clearly an animal carefully looked after for some special occasion. Its use now shows that the father felt that there could scarcely be a more special occasion than this. The old man's overflowing joy finds expression sion in his memorable opposition of dead to alive again and of lost to found. In the feast where they began to make merry perhaps the son found some of the solid pleasure he had looked for in vain in the far country.

25-26. There can be no doubt that in the father's welcome of the younger son Jesus is teaching that the heavenly Father welcomes returning sinners. When Jesus turns to the elder brother we should see his concern for the Pharisees and people like them. The nation's religious leaders had not so far shown any of the divine compassion to penitent sinners. This section is needed for the full lesson that Jesus is teaching. He pictures the elder son as in the field, evidently at work, while all this was going on. The sound of celebrations he heard as he neared home puzzled him and he sought information from one of the servants. vants. The music and dancing would have been performed by entertainers, not the banqueters.

27. The servant gave a concise report of the state of affairs, confining himself to the return of the younger brother and the killing of the fatted calf. He adds that the reason for this latter is that the father has received him safe and sound.

28-30. The elder son's reaction was anger. He would have no part in all this and he refused to go in. The likeness to the Pharisees is unmistakable. We can easily imagine the elder brother saying of his father, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them' (2). But there was no false pride about the father. He had already gone out to meet one son and he now went out to plead with the other. But he was met by a torrent of words as the pent-up feelings of years came tumbling out. The elder son was conscious of his own rectitude. He was completely self-righteous. righteous. He saw himself as the model son, but his use of the verb douleuo, 'to serve as a slave' (Cf. NEB, 'I have slaved for you all these years'), gives him away. He did not really understand what being a son means. That is perhaps why he did not understand what being a father means. He could not see why his father should be so full of joy at the return of the prodigal. He complains that the father has never given him a kid (of much less value than the fatted calf) for a feast with his friends (who would have been respectable people and not like the other boy's associates). The proud and the self-righteous always feel that they are not treated as well as they deserve. He cannot even refer to the prodigal as his brother but as this son of yours. Let the father welcome him if he wants to: he disowns him. He speaks of the younger man as having spent the father's money on harlots, which goes beyond anything said previously and may be his own invention. He comes to his climax that it was for him that the father killed the fatted calf.

31-32. To this son as to the other the father's words are tender. They are both sons and he loves them both. He makes it clear that he appreciates this son's constant attendance. He says plainly that the property settlement stands: all that is mine is yours. He does not propose to interfere in any way with the rights and possessions of the faithful elder son. We may perhaps haps infer that that son was in error in saying that he had never had a kid wherewith to entertain his friends. He had it all. But he, like the Pharisees, did not realize the extent of his privileges. But when all this is said the father does not back down in the slightest in his welcome of the younger brother. It was fitting is not strong enough for his word edei, which means 'It was necessary'. sary'. The welcome to the younger son was not simply a good thing which might or might not have occurred. It was the right thing. The father had to do it. Joy was the only proper reaction in such a situation. Notice that he does not speak of 'my son' but of your brother. The older boy might try to overlook the relationship, ship, but it was still there. The father will not let him forget it. And he finishes by repeating the wonderful thing that has happened: the dead has come to life, the lost is found.

Jesus does not go on to tell us whether the elder son responded sponded or not. Nor does he say how the younger son lived in response to his father's welcoming love. In leaving these points unresolved he throws out a challenge to all his hearers, be they like the elder brother or like the younger. We tend to see ourselves selves as the prodigal and rejoice in the welcoming love of God. This is good, and it is even better if we go on to make the appropriate response to that love. But we might also profitably reflect that, unless we are very unusual, we can also see ourselves selves in the elder brother. It is a common human failing to think that we are not appreciated as we ought to be, that people do not give us credit for what we have done. And whether we be religious or irreligious, we are usually somewhat censorious towards those we see as having failed to live up to our standards, dards, even if our standards are not theirs. That Jesus leaves the elder son's reaction open is encouraging. We can still do the right thing. God's love is a continuing challenge to all our self-seeking.

Leon Morris. Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 3130-3143). Kindle Edition. 

Phillip Santillan