It is clear that the Lukan author provides an editorial framework for the three parables. That framework begins in Luke 15:1-3. The editorial work is not as ham-fisted as the lectionary selection makes it out to be. A helpful reading would probably omit the “Then Jesus said” of verse eleven, since verse three makes that phrase redundant.
In addition, if I kept that phrase I would translate it as, “But he [Jesus] said…” The first two parables do not begin with any sort of conjunction. Instead, there was a certain man who owned a hundred sheep. There was a certain woman who possessed ten drachmas. “But,” the Lukan author continues, “there was a certain man who had two sons.” From the first phrase, the author tells us that this parable is going to be somewhat different from the first two.
That may be of some importance to our interpretation. I think it would have been an obvious change for those who listened to the three parables told in sequence.
Levine and Witherington observe that the first parable “has set up an outline to be repeated in the next two stories: something lost, a search, something found, a celebration. Because the story began with a full complement of one hundred sheep from which one was lost,” they continue, “readers should also expect one out of a full complement to be lost in the second and third stories” (page 414).
If the stories simply behave as expected, however, then the stories are really not very interesting. “Based on the folkloric ‘rule of three,’ Levine and Witherington argue, the first parable “should prime listeners to expect a similar pattern in the second story, and a reversal of the pattern in the third. The parables,” they conclude,” do not disappoint” (ibid). The twist that leaves us hanging on the edges of our seats at the end of the three stories is the (unknown) final response of the older son. That’s what breaks the pattern, challenges us to think, and provides the “punchline” for the series.
The Lukan editorial framework begins with the complaint that Jesus welcomes (receives to himself) sinners and eats together with them. The question may be whether the “insiders” in the Lukan community will accept their role as full partners in the “family business” of following Jesus to do the same. Those insiders have encountered newcomers (latecomers) to the movement. Perhaps some of these newbies brought with them questionable histories and pedigrees. Would they be given a seat at the table or expected to sleep in the bunkhouse?
This is, of course, the perennial question for congregations. But let’s attend to the details for a moment here. The “insider” has become the “outsider” who refuses to come in to the party. We who are church “insiders” – are we in that position now? “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God,” Jesus said in Luke 13:29-30, “Indeed,” he continued, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
To what degree are those verses an interpretive key to Luke’s presentation of the parables of counting?
In each of the three parables in Luke 15, the “finder” takes the initiative. That seems quite straightforward in the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. The owner of the sheep leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the lost one. The woman is the only one in the second parable who can take any initiative. After all, coins do not call out to be located.
This perspective may be harder to support in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the younger son, after all, who has some sort of personal epiphany and heads for home. That being said, it is the father who sees him coming at a distance, who runs to greet him, who embraces him, restores his stuff, and throws a party. In addition, it is the father who comes out of the house during the party to encourage the older son to come in and join the festivities.
The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Sheep is the sheep owner. The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Coin is the woman householder. The pattern remains consistent, I think, and the protagonist in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the father. Whether that was the case in Jesus’ original telling may be difficult to discern. But the structure and sequence of the Lukan narrative makes it clear, I believe, that the primary actor in the third parable is the father.
The Lukan author also has no problem with overturning social conventions and structures under the impact of the Good News of Jesus. The Lukan account, after all, is at its heart the story of the Great Reversal. Burke quotes Brendan Byrne’s assertion that the Gospel’s essential purpose is to bring home to people a sense of the extravagance of God’s love. And the Gospel account is filled with characters who perform extravagant gestures in response to God’s salvation (pages 228-229).
Who are these other “prodigals” in the Lukan account? Burke points to the massive and unconditional generosity of the “Good Samaritan” as one example. In addition, there is the extravagant love of the woman who comes to Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. She does not stop expressing her devotion even when she is rebuked. Instead, she is the one who has offered prodigal hospitality to Jesus – precisely what Simon should have done as the host. Her actions demonstrate extravagant gratitude.
Those who accompany Jesus to Jerusalem put their most expensive and valued articles of clothing on the road as he passes. “Such a generous and unexpected action appears rash, hasty and spontaneous in the circumstances,” Burke observes, “but it is a no less appropriate response and expression of devotion to Jesus the Messiah who had come to deliver his people” (page 233).
The clincher in this argument, of course, is Zacchaeus in Luke 19. His promises of reparation are the definition of extravagant and prodigal. Most important, in my estimation, is the conclusion that Jesus brings to this interaction. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The connection to the parables in Luke 15 is obvious.
Burke offers this summary. “When the father’s behavior in Luke 15 is viewed against this portrayal of the magnanimous actions of others (cf. Luke 9:17) in Luke, his actions are essentially a hermeneutical key for the rest of the Gospel since he is not the only ‘prodigal’ in Luke; rather, the author has a proclivity for portraying the conduct of a number of different people as also being ‘prodigal’ in order to get his point across” (page 234).
Richard Swanson notes that this extravagance does not “count the costs” of loving. This parable, he argues, “is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.” After all, we don’t know how anyone responds to the father’s extravagant love in the long run. We don’t even know how things might have gone at the breakfast table the morning after the party (although we might have some educated guesses).
On the one hand, it is grace that produces repentance, not the other way around. We see that in our parable. We see it as well in the story of Zacchaeus. Both the younger son and Zacchaeus may have come with mixed motives at best. The younger son may just have been hungry. Zacchaeus may just have been curious. Maybe, he just loved a parade. It was the invitation of grace that made any change of heart and mind conceivable…and worth the risk.
“Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love,” Swanson writes, “And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love,” he hopes, “might indeed re-create the world.” As we hear this parable again, the question is there for us. Will God’s indomitable love in Christ re-create us?
I wonder, however, what is the point of the party? In the first two parables, the joy seems to be over the one sinner who repents. We take that, in our individualistic cultural mindset, to be the end of the story. “I once was lost but now and found,” we sing, often with a tear in our eye and a catch in our throat. Popular American Christianity is captivated by the Evangelical assumption that it’s all about the individual sinner who is saved. But I don’t think that’s faithful to the text or helpful to our theology.
Perhaps we can allow the end of this series of parables to inform the beginning. The lost son is found. He was dead and is now alive. There’s a wild party going on to celebrate the event. But there is still a son outside. There is still a son unreconciled. One son has perhaps returned, but the family is still not whole. The story cannot come to a happy ending as long as the community remains fractured.
Celebration wasn’t required because the younger son had come to his senses and repented. Celebration was required because now the broken family could be made whole once again – if the older brother was willing to be part of the celebration. There was no question about the older son’s place in the household. “Son,” the father reminds him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). Of course, now part of the father’s “all” is the younger son.
God will not settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed at home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the women should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced. If we are thinking practically, we know that the younger son made his own bed and should be required to lie on it.
But we meet a God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. God wants all of us, and God wants us all.
If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, then neither will we Jesus followers be satisfied while lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children are still “out there.” I’m not suggesting that we should retain a colonial mindset, where we Christians have something to offer that everyone else should want. No, I think our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we blithely settle for flocks made up of people like us.
Resources and References
Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.
Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.
Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.
Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.