Chapter 15 - Commentary on Luke's Gospel

In our day some think the church's job is to perform rituals correctly - baptisms, weddings, funerals, Sunday services according to the book. Others think the church's task is to get people to be good, and make the bad feel guilty about not being up to standard. But this is nothing to do with God's agenda. This chapter is the very heart of the good news about God. It gives us parables about three lost things: a sheep that has lost its way, a coin that has lost its usefulness, and a son who has lost himself in a far country and ruined his life. Here lostness includes the sense of being isolated, alone, in danger, uselessness, guilt, having no joy or hope or courage to live. And being found means being back in the flock, back in a place of usefulness, and back in the family. The Pharisees thought sinners were lost because they were bad, and they hoped they themselves were saved because they tried very hard to be good.

There is also an elder brother who is lost though he has never left home. With God being away is not measured by kilometers but by distance from the heart of God. Referring to the Pharisees, Jesus quoted Isaiah "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8, Mark 7:6). And these parables were spoken to answer the grumbling of the Pharisees and theologians (15:2). So it seems the elder brother illustrates the unfeeling self-righteousness of the Pharisees, and the return of the prodigal points to the welcome Jesus is giving to the outcastes of society (see comment on 14:13, 21). All four of these parables point to the loving, longing heart of God and his joy when people are found (15:5-7, 9-10, 20-24, 32). The Pharisees did not share in God's joy: their concern was for their rules and respectability.

15:1 The tax collectors were viewed as doubly sinful because they had sold out to the Roman occupying power and extorted more than was just from ordinary people. Sinners were people who did not conform to the usual standards of the Pharisee religious people (these included drunks, prostitutes, and drop outs from respectable society).

15:2 This is still a common objection in respectable congregations. "The minister is friendly with the wrong class of people - he is bringing in people who are not our type and don't know how to behave."

15:3-4 Jesus' parables often have an unexpected twist in them. There is no way a responsible shepherd will leave a flock of 99 sheep unattended in the wilderness to spend hours looking for a stray. But that is exactly what God seems to do in his concern for someone who is lost. The rabbis knew that God can be found if humans seek him, but here we have a seeking God who takes the initiative in our salvation.

15:5-7 We can picture the great emotion in God's joy when someone is found and brought home. In all three parables there is the note of joyful celebration (as in 15:9, 23-24). This is very different from the idea, still common among some Jews and Arabs, that "there is joy before God when those who provoke him perish from the world."

15:7 "Just so." God cares more about the person who is lost than those safely in the fold. Here repentance does not mean feeling particularly bad about one sinfulness. Nor does it mean making strong resolutions, "I will never lose my temper again, I will never say mean words, I will never have dirty thoughts." An experience of deep contrition often grips us after some time as a Christian, but it is not a prerequisite to beginning the Christian life. And after learning what is required we may decide to engage in dangerous service and take up our cross (as in 14:26-28). But putting these at the point of baptism and beginning to learn is not at all what Jesus had in mind. Repentance is as simple as turning a satellite dish in the right direction to receive a rich choice of channels we want to enjoy. In repentance we turn from our own failure, and the pursuit of the goodies that this world offers us, to look to God the Creator who is our loving Father. And in that direction we have all the channels of unbounded grace and forgiveness.

15:8 God can be pictured equally as a male shepherd or a female householder because God is neither male nor female. Gender is only an accident of grammar, as in French where "un oeil, le nez, le menton, le cou" are masculine but "la joue, la bouche, les levres, les oreilles" happen to be feminine. Here God is like a woman who has a necklace made up from ten silver drachmas (a day's wage). The woman is not rich, or she would have had a gold necklace, but the coins would provide some security for a rainy day, and they also have sentimental value as being part of her wedding dowry. When one of them has fallen off and got lost, she is desperate to find it. The words "search carefully" (diligently) suggest a long protracted search before God finally finds us. Like this woman, God tries every which way to find us. But we should add that God finds us as soon as we turn in the right direction.. "Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and it will be opened for you" (Matthew 7:7). We might compare a game of hide and seek where a person is only found when he or she wants to be found.

15:10 For the meaning of repentance see 15:7. Here Jesus changes "joy in heaven" (15:7) to "joy in the presence of the angels of God" (for the interest of the angels of God see 1 Peter 1:12, Hebrews 1:5, 6, 14).

15:11, 12 As in the parable of the shepherd (15:4), Jesus throws in an unlikely twist. Normally a farmer does not divide his property, and give his sons the freedom to do what they like with their share of the farm. But here there is no haggling, no lecturing, no criticism, and when the young man eventually comes back the Father doesn't say "I told you so." The point is that God respects our freedom, and gives us the ability to turn against him. If we think that selfishness, greed, lust, partying will give us what we want, God says "I will give you the freedom to try that. I want you to find out what really satisfies in life."

15:13-16 We could picture the son as selling his share of the farm to a developer, and moving away (without even greeting his parents) to a bachelor apartment in the big city. While the money lasted, there was no lack of fun and friends. But just as his credit ran out, there was a severe famine, and the only work he could get was minding a herd of pigs in the field. Pigs were viewed as unclean animals by Jews, and this work would have been totally distasteful. He was so hungry he wished he could eat the cabob pods that the pigs fed on. The translation should be "and no one used to give (a Greek imperfect) him enough to fill his stomach" (he was slowly "dying of hunger", 15:17).

15:17 That finally brought him face to face the reality of his situation (literally "having come into himself, he said to himself"). He pictured the family home, and the farm hands sitting down to a good meal after the day's work. He had lost everything except his father.

15:18-19 So he began rehearsing what he could say if he went back home. He imagined his father might conceivably give him work as a hired servant if he was sufficiently repentant and groveled before him.

15:20 So he set off on the long journey home, and to his astonishment his father had been watching out for him, and the old man ran out on the road to hug and kiss him (in spite of his ragged, smelly clothes). This is how the parable pictures the Father's passionate welcome to us as soon as we turn to him.

15:21 The young man tried to admit that he had sinned, and was not worthy to be his father's son, but the father was not listening. The son was not even allowed to make the proposal that he could revert to being a slave on the farm (15:19).

15:22 The robe (the very best one kept for important occasions), and the ring, and the sandals distinguish a son of the house from a slave. By doing this the father made it impossible for the community to humiliate the son who had come home. They would have advised keeping the boy as a second class citizen for a few years to see if he was fit to be invited back in as a son. But the father covered for him, and accepted the shame on himself. And the young man was given the message "my son, I am thrilled to have you home, you are in, and there is nothing to pay or earn."

15:23 A calf that has been fattened was kept in case an important guest might come unannounced (15:27, as in Genesis 18:7-8).

15:23-24 The word "celebrate" comes twice in these verses, but the idea has already been pictured in 15:6, 9. The father did not say "my son has turned over a new leaf and promised to behave himself." Like him, our heavenly Father thinks in terms of being dead and made alive again. "In the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Genesis 2:17). Obviously this is not physical dying but spiritual death, as Paul says "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:1-2). This coming alive by the Spirit is what Jesus longs for, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). As the story goes on it become clear that the elder brother was physically alive, but spiritually dead (a common theme in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30:19). The image of being lost and then found has already come in the two previous parables (15:6, 9).

15:25-28 Tony Campolo captured the implications of the "music and dancing" in his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party. Jesus wants us to know that God is not a disapproving, stuffy old spoil-sport. When the older son expressed his anger and refused to join the celebration the father came out in person to plead with him.

15:29-30 In his explanation of why he is so angry the elder brother pictures himself as a slave rather than a son. By contrast Paul wrote "You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry 'Abba! Father' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with the Messiah" (Romans 8:15-17, Galatians 4:22-5:1). There is also a huge amount of self-righteousness ("I never once disobeyed your commandment"), which misses the fact that the elder brother was not in tune with the Father's heart. The hurt and jealousy is expressed by suggesting that the father would not even give him a young goat to celebrate with his friends. But now "this son of yours" (obviously he did not want to call him his brother) gets a hug and a barbecue to welcome him homes.

15:31-32 When the father made the division, each son had the title to half the property (15:12), so the older son could have had anything he wanted including a party for his friends whenever he chose. The words "was dead and has come to life" repeat the reasons the father had given for the great party (15:23). The parable is open-ended. We are not told if the elder brother decided to come in to the party. But we imagine the younger son was changed by this overwhelming experience of the love of his father. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

Chapter 16  .....