Luke 15:11-32, The Prodigal Son

[March 10, 2013] This third parable so much exceeds the length of the previous two, of which it is obviously connected, that it probably fills up their content. In the first parable the shepherd returns home rejoicing; in the second the woman calls her friends and neighbors and rejoices; the third parable goes into detail about how the father rejoices in the return of his son.

But while the first two parables are parallel, the shepherd and the woman seeking what is lost and rejoicing in finding it, the third, for all its length, is notable in that the father does not seek out the son but only rises up—albeit when he sees his son a long way off—after the son has made most of the journey home. In this instance, the first two parables fill up the third. For the first parable, in which the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open pasture and goes after the one which is lost until he finds it, depict the Son going into the “distant country” where the prodigal has wandered, and carrying the prodigal (as it were) on his shoulders home. And the second parable, in which the woman lights a lamp and sweeps the house and searches carefully for the coin until she finds it, depicts the Holy Spirit shedding on the prodigal an interior light and troubling his soul until he comes to his senses and gets up to return to his father.

The parable of the prodigal is tilted to show us things from the perspective of the Father. Without the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit we prodigals would never have come to our senses, “remembered” our home, and picked ourselves up to go home. For we do not come to our senses on our own and we are in fact carried home, though we think otherwise. We do not reconcile ourselves to the Father until the Son and Holy Spirit have done their work, even though, as in the parable, the Father has already reconciled Himself to us (He is waiting for us). Once the prodigal is received by his father, he remains in the parable only indirectly. The remainder of the parable is about the elder son and the exchange between the father and him. The father is the constant figure throughout.

The threefold knot that these parables form is probably Luke’s theological construction, but the emphasis of each parable on rejoicing is Jesus’ response to the attitude of the Pharisees in chapter 14 (remembering that this is not a slight on all Pharisees but on the zealous brand of Pharisees that the school of Shammai represented). The exchange with the elder son also is about them. The tension in chapters 14—16 is about the attitude of these Pharisees to the way Jesus seeks out the lost. They too are lost, but they are unwilling to be found because the very thought of being lost is so frightening to them—because of their skewed ideas about God—that they refuse to see this about themselves. The God that Jesus presents to them is also a God of judgment, but in such a different construction—the God of judgment is a forgiving and merciful and compassionate God—that He would be their cure, if they would only let down their guard enough to embrace it. For the God that Jesus presents is the true God of the Torah, contrary to the way they have interpreted Him. (I say “Him” with the Father in mind, but truly the God of both the Old and New Testaments is not a male deity but manifests Himself in creaturely terms in both masculine and feminine shades and qualities, the metaphors for the Father and the Son not by any means being exclusively male).

But this third parable also shows us what the first two parables do not: the circumstances and interior experience of the one who is lost (how did the sheep or the coin get lost? and what was their experience?), and a negative reaction of an observer (his circumstance and interior experience; in the first two parables the reaction of others is all positive).

The lost son is the lost son of Adam in the Old Testament, the rebellious and wayward pagan, but also Israel as son and bride of YHWH as depicted in the literary prophets, as deeply fallen into rebellion and sin. The distant country is the exile in which Israel finds itself. Jesus draws directly from this tradition. The Pharisaic reaction to YHWH’s profligate love for Israel is ironic, for they believe they are the upholders of the tradition when in fact they betray it by their attitude.

The church has always embodied all three: there are those who are full of compassion like Jesus who seek out the lost; there are those who have been found and know how deeply they have been lost; and there are the self-righteous who scorn whoever is not as righteous or correct as themselves. In all of us the categories overlap, for few of us are possessed of such genuine humility that we are not at least self-righteous toward the self-righteous. It is a useful exercise to not only identify with the Savior who seeks out the lost, and with the prodigal himself, but also to see ourselves in the elder brother.

I cannot do much better this morning in delving into the details and some of the depth of the parable than I did in 2009 when I wrote The Gospel of Grace, part 2, to which I refer you now.

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