Luke 15 (winter, AD 29)
Jesus’ parables were simple stories, addressed to a specific audience about a specific issue. Though simple, they were also at times deliberately opaque to those who were setting out to oppose him (see Matthew 13:10-17).
So to understand a parable, we need to bear in mind a.) why did Jesus give the parable? And b.) what’s the main, straightforward lesson(s) that come out of that? So we don’t study a parable like we would study, say, Paul’s letter to the Romans where we parse phrases, pulling them apart and analysing individual words at great and enormously useful depth, as was intended. This is more like go find the key, unlock the door, open the door, walk through the door.
They key to the Parable of the Lost Son, which is the most famous of this little trio of parables, isn’t to closely scrutinise the text but compare it to the Parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin that precede it. Also and moost importantly, go back to the beginning of the chapter, for the ‘Why?’ of Jesus giving these parables.
Q: Who was with Jesus?
A: A lot of obviously sinful, rebellious people like tax collectors (who used to demand WAY more than the required taxes, in order to enrich themselves).
Q: Who are the parables addressed to?
A: The crowd of ‘sinners’ and the grumbling religious leaders
Q: What is the primary goal of the parables?
A: To comfort and reassure the ‘sinners’ who knew they needed Jesus, strengthening them against the opposition of the religious leaders who wanted to keep them away from God.
Remember that the opposition of the Pharisees et al came from a bastardisation of God’s Law in which unrepentant sinners were to be shunned. What the Pharisees missed was that God’s goal is always the restoration of unrepentant people, the bringing back of the wanderers (see also 1 Cor 5:5 & 2 Cor 2:5-12). The Pharisees were more concerned with looking guilty by association, than in trying to redeem the people.
So how did Jesus bring comfort to the sinful seekers? By telling them that:
- God’s not playing the averages – every single person is important to him (v.4-5)…
- …especially the one who got away
- God rejoices to see them with Him, and so do the angels (v.7)
- God’s coming for them (v.8-9)
- God rejoices to see them with Him, and so do the angels (v.10)
So the primary takeaways from these two parables are that God wants to save everyone, no matter how far away from him they are. Also, that it brings God and the rest of heaven great joy when that happens.
‘The Prodigal Son’/’The Lost Son’ could be renamed something like, ‘The Forgiving Father’ (as does Darrell Bock, or more cryptically, ‘The Prodigal God’, as per Tim Keller’s book about this parable) otherwise we’re missing the second half of the story and the most important person in it.
We have the shepherd who lost a sheep, the woman who lost a coin, and finally here the father who lost a son…and then lost his other son…but loved them both unconditionally. The first two and half parables reassure people that no matter how far away they have strayed, they are always welcome if they will but come back to God in repentance. The prodigal behaviour of the younger son makes that explicit.
But it’s also true that self-righteous religiosity is just as sinful as obvious rebellion (a shocking notion in Jesus’ time, and as reassuring to the ‘sinners’ as it was scandalous to the ‘righteous’). But, lest people think that Jesus was turning against religious types and abandoning them wholesale, no. God would take them back too, even if – as the parable depicts – they seem to have no interest in it.
So whether you are a blatant rebel or a quietly self-righteous type, know this: you’re lost, and it is only God who can save you. And not only is he willing to do that, but when he does it will bring him great joy and you will become a true child of God.