Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part One)

4 Lent C 2022

Once we get beyond the broad outlines of the Christmas story, what Gospel stories do most people (churched or not) know? The Parable of the Prodigal Son must be near the top of the list, although the Parable of the Good Samaritan probably edges it out. The familiarity of the story may be an asset in conversations with people who don’t regularly participate in Christian life. But it’s a liability for preaching to church people who’ve heard the story more times than they can count.

“This is a story that is so well known that it is impossible to read, impossible to hear, impossible to interpret,” Richard Swanson writes. “It is a good principle of interpretation: if everybody knows what a text means, begin with the guess that nobody knows what the text means. At the least,” Swanson observes, “any story that everybody knows will be a story that nobody has listened to closely for a long time. Stories,” he concludes, “need more attention than that” (page 129).

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Witherington and Levine concur with Swanson’s caution and amplify it. “If it is true that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least tone-deafness to the meaning of the original passage,” they write, “then the Parable of the Prodigal Son, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, has too often been a victim of overreading and misunderstanding…” (page 431). The third parable in Luke 15 has too often been used, in particular, to make Christians look good by making Jews look bad.

“One of the main keys to giving this story a fair hearing in its original settings (in the ministry of Jesus and in the Gospel of Luke),” Levine and Witherington write, “is ongoing contextual study of the parable. What did it mean,” they ask, “in its original Jewish setting, and what has it come to mean for Luke and his audience?” (page 431). Can we, as preaches and teachers, allow the text to speak on its own rather than simply to ratify what we think we already know about the story? That’s one of the ways in which we allow the text authority over us rather than the other way around.

Amy-Jill Levine offers some insights into the text in less than twelve minutes on youtube.com. This brief version is expanded in other online talks and in her excellent book, Short Stories with Jesus. Levine and Witherington walk through some of those details as well in their commentary, and I’d like to review some of those details here. I’m not suggesting that their conclusions are the be-all and end-all of the interpretive conversation. But they do encourage us to give the text a “fair hearing in its original setting.”

Regardless of the choice the lectionary committee made, Luke 15 offers three parables that interact with and depend on one another. The first two will make their lectionary appearance on Pentecost 15 and will require the same contextualization as the third parable requires this week. Whether the preacher notes the connections among the three in a sermon or not, the faithful interpreter is required to take those connections into account when offering an interpretation of the text.

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.

If that’s the way to read these parables together (and it certainly is one interesting way), the question then remains. What do we learn from this cliffhanger?

The standard Christian answer for centuries has been something like, “Younger son good, older son bad.” That is especially the case when the younger son has been identified with Gentile (or Protestant) Christians who have come to rely on God’s grace and mercy in Christ and the older son has been identified with Jews (or Roman Catholics) who have continued relying on works righteousness rather than trusting in God’s grace and mercy in Christ.

We must always be suspicious when first-century stories are used to answer sixteenth (or twenty-first or fifth) century questions. While allegorical readings of the parables are not necessarily “wrong” on their face, those that make Jews bad in order to make Christians good are likely wrong. The Lukan author begins the allegorical interpretation of the first two parables, after all, with the editorial additions in Luke 15:7 and Luke 15:10.

“The first part of the parable ends with the prodigal, newly dressed and accessorized, and likely filling his belly with fatted calf,” Levine and Witherington write. “He was dead, and is now alive, lost and now found, as far as his father is concerned. The outline established in the first two parables finds its match in the third,” they argue, “the son was lost, the father ran out to greet him and so fulfilled the convention of the search, and the celebration had begun” (page 425).

But – the man had two sons. “The parable has trapped us,” Levine and Witherington continue, “The lost one is not only the prodigal who returned home; the lost one is also the older brother in the field, as we shall see. The father,” they argue, “had failed to count” (ibid).

As Amy-Jill Levine notes in her talk, the father had time to arrange for the band, call the caterer, and invite the guests. But no one had thought about clueing in the older son. “With only two sons,” they write, “the father failed to count” (page 426). The family table had an empty spot, but no one seemed to notice. Is it any wonder that the older son is outraged and refuses to join the party? Given this reading of the text, the older son’s response makes perfect sense to me.

When the father finally realizes that the older son is missing in action, the father goes out to “comfort” or “encourage” the older son. The NRSV translates the verb in Luke 15:28 as “to plead.” But it is the Greek verb, parakaleo, which more often means something like to comfort or encourage. It could even mean to exhort the older son to action. What does the father want?

The father doesn’t exhort the older son to “forgive” the younger son. The father encourages him to come in and join the party. “All that I have is yours,” the father tells the older son in Luke 15:31. That is, the older son is a full partner with the father. He is not a slave or a hired hand. The older son is involved in welcoming the younger son home, whether the older son likes it or not. That’s part of the family business at this point.

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?

Resources and References

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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