mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

Studying Luke 15 11-24

We are studying Luke 15:11-24 this week. [We looked at this text about four years ago, too; some questions from that time are here.] This is the first part of what might be Jesus’ most famous parable, the story of the “prodigal son.” Since everyone knows this story very well, and since people have had plenty to say about it for centuries, my few notes here feel much more redundant than usual – but here they are, anyway:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re in the gospel of Luke, and in the portion of Luke’s gospel that tells the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his final confrontation with the powers. Luke’s gospel, we’ll recall, includes a “special section” (Luke 9:51-18:13) that differs from the way Matthew and Mark tell the story, and that includes material not found in the other synoptics. Our text for this week is a famous example of that unique material.

The immediate context for the story Jesus tells in Luke 15:11-32 are the first two verses of the chapter:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Luke 15:1-2

Jesus’ response to this situation is to tell three stories: a story about a lost sheep, a story about a lost coin, and then a story about a lost child. In other words, this “grumbling” commentary on Jesus’ table fellowship practice is the occasion for these three stories, each of which end with big parties, and one of which – our story – ends with a big party that the older brother disapproves of and doesn’t want to attend. That positions the story as a direct rebuke to the criticism in v2.

It seems even more important than usual to me to notice that we, ourselves, bring A LOT to this text as readers. We have all been someone’s children. Most of us have been someone’s brother or sister, either the younger or the older. We have all known plenty of real-life family dramas. All of that colors our reading of this story. [It probably colored the way the first audience heard this story!]

In fact, if we pay close attention, we’ll notice that almost all of the detail we are familiar with in this story … readers bring to it, add to it, from our readerly imaginations. [How rich is the father? Where does he live? What is the attitude of the younger son at the beginning of the story? Is he sincere when he returns? Etc. etc. etc.]

CLOSER READING: The story starts out as generically as possible: “A man had two sons.” At first, then, it sounds like the story is going to be about the man who has the sons.

But then, the story turns out to focus on the younger son. The father does one thing in verse 12, and then is out of the picture until verse 20. Although not exactly “out of the picture,” because the younger son mentions his father three times in vv17-18, and then he appears as the son’s destination in v20.

In v12, the word for property that the son wants to have now is the same word that shows up in the Nicene Creed as “substance” – as in, Jesus is “one substance with the Father.”

We could, if we wanted to, spend some time thinking about what the younger son’s share of that property would have been – less, presumably, than his older brother’s – and what it would have taken practically to cash it out for him. [One source points out that the first-born son is supposed to receive a “double portion” of the inheritance (see Deuteronomy 21:17), so this younger brother might have expected one-third.] We could, perhaps, notice that this implies that the property that remains is all coming to the older son/brother. So that the party at the end of the story is being financed out of Older Brother’s “share.”

[In reality, of course, it’s all still the father’s property. But when the father says “all that I have is yours,” he may mean that very literally.]

The gathering that the younger son does with his newly-vested property in v13 is evocative, because it’s the Greek word that gives us the term “synagogue” – a gathering or assembly of people.

It seems worth noting that the dissolute living in v13 is unspecified. The Greek term emphasizes that the person who lives this way is taking no care for saving; it’s literally not-saving living. [Yes, same verb, “to save,” that is what a savior does. A coincidence of language, perhaps; there are only so many words for things. But a remarkable one.]

Something that seems to matter: we don’t know what constitutes the dissoluteness of the dissolute living from the text. So whatever we have in our heads about what it includes [the gambling, the drinking, the fast cars, the sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll, whatever it is] … came from our own heads. It may be worth asking ourselves how it got there, why we attach it to this younger son, and how attaching it to him makes us feel and think about him. We might ask the same question about the older brother, when he tells us that Younger Brother spent the money on “prostitutes.” Where’d he get that from?

Since there’s a severe famine in the land in v14, wouldn’t the son have been in need in any case? Even if he hadn’t been a spendthrift?

In v15, he joins himself to a foreigner, clearly a Gentile, who keeps pigs. Gross. Just in case we’ve forgotten, every commentary we read on this text will remind us that pigs are unclean in 2nd Temple Judaism: can’t be eaten, can’t be sacrificed, shouldn’t be touched … so now Younger Son has gone about as low as he can go.

Wait, no, he CAN go lower [“Things can always get worse”]: he “desired to satisfy himself” on the pig chow. Notice that Jesus is going to use this language (“desired to satisfy himself”) again when he tells a story about a beggar named Lazarus in the next chapter. Lazarus has exactly the same desire for the scraps that the rich man feeds to the dogs. (Luke 16:21)

This might make us wonder: how often do we run in to people who have these kinds of desires, in our lives … ? Unless … are we ever these people?

Younger son formulates a plan, and a speech (v18-19).

He is not going to offer to become a slave, but rather a hired hand [different word]. This may matter. The father has slaves, we know from v22, who seem to do whatever he asks. And if we read the rest of the chapter, we’ll learn that Older Brother feels like he works like a slave (v29).

[Although in that part of the story, if he were actually acting like one of the slaves, he would be partying. So maybe he is not slaving for Dad as much as he thinks he is.]

Starting with v20, the action in the story shifts to the father. The father sees, has compassion, runs, hugs, kisses, and says – that is, practically, gives instructions – to his slaves. He cuts the Younger Son’s prepared speech short – perhaps significantly at the point where he says he is no longer worthy to be called “son.” The father does, in implicit response of this clause of the speech, call him son. Whether he’s “worthy” or not, the father embraces him and acknowledges – in fact, celebrates – the relationship.

In v24, the father’s speech identifies the contrasts that are being recognized: the son was dead and lives; was lost and is found.

[Would we be off base to recall the story of Joseph right about now?]

Our lesson doesn’t include the Older Son’s [literally, the “Presby” Son’s … which is either funny or sad, I’m not sure which] reaction. But if we do our homework, we’ll know from reading through verse 32 that Older Son is not happy with the new state of affairs. So, we can do some thinking about that … once again, remembering the “grumbling” comment that started this story in the first place back in v2.

I still think that a big thing for us to pay attention to in this story is all of our own baggage. I notice that my own (oldest child) baggage is pretty heavy, and I suspect I am not alone.

There’s a meditation on this parable in the context of a discussion of what it means for God to be Love, and to be free, at Eclectic Orthodoxy: “Finding the God Who is Love.” Well worth reading.

mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

Image: Image of a mosaic on the floor of a church in Allerton, UK, by Rodhullandemu / CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

Updated 02.28.23; originally published 03.12.19

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