11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “
Before proceeding you need to read the fuller context of the parable below:
15 1Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ 3So he told them this parable:
4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
8‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons …
Text & textual features
The text is a parable, a distinct literary form. A parable is a short story designed to convey a lesson or a religious truth through similes, metaphors or vivid imagery. It draws on images from everyday activities. It invites the audience to reflect on their behaviour. Common features of parables include repetition, contrast, reversal of expectations, the frequent use of three characters or incidents, and a climax built around the last character in the series. This parable generally has those features.
Three parables of lost and found
The three parables in Luke 15 are a tightly constructed literary unity with the same themes. In each parable there is an owner, something owned, something lost, someone searching or waiting for the lost, the lost is found, and so there is excessive rejoicing and an extravagant communal celebration. The shepherd and the woman come from the bottom of social ladder but the wealthy, landowning father is the social equal of the scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus addresses the three parables. However, irrespective of their social standing, all three celebrate the return of the lost. That is Jesus’ (and Luke’s) point.
Structure of this parable
The parable of the father and his sons, the longest in all the Gospels, has two parts with similar literary structures. In the first part there are twelve steps made up of two sets of six that match each other in inverted parallelism. The second part appears to be headed for a double set of four steps. The pivot of each part is what each son says: the younger son’s soliloquy showing his realisation of being lost and the elder son’s airing his grievances. The second part is missing the final step. The parable leaves the reader to wonder about the anticipated next action by the elder son.
Typical Lukan themes
The parable has many of the themes characteristic of the Gospel of Luke: the compassion and forgiveness of the father, the acceptance an outsider, the sense of reversal so evident in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and the Beatitudes and Woes (Lk 6: 20-26), and the joy that permeates the Gospel.
Characters & setting
Luke sets the three parables as Jesus’ responses to the grumbles of his opponents, the Pharisees and scribes who object to Jesus’ doubly offensive behaviours: he not only preaches to tax collectors and sinners, he actually eats with them. The parables justify Jesus’ behaviour: they are about recovering the lost, just as Jesus welcomes and eats with the tax collectors and sinners who count as the lost. The parables also are an invitation to Pharisees and scribes to rejoice when the lost are found and to join the celebration. For the Pharisees and scribes the lost son equates to the tax collectors and the sinner. Jesus presents the elder son as like them, obedient to their obligations but critical of those on the margin. The abrupt end of the parable asks for introspection and a change of heart by the original hearers: will you, Pharisees and scribes also come to the celebration with your ‘brothers’, the tax collectors and sinners?
The setting of the parable
The setting is the community of a village, not an isolated household on farmland. Farmers did not live on their land but lived in the close-knit village community made up of family, and other kin and neighbours. The whole village would have witnessed the story unfolding.
The actions of the father conflict with the social expectations of the head of an ancient Middle Eastern family. While not forbidden to do so, the father’s early division of his property is irregular and would have been considered as weakness. The younger son effectively has severed the relationship, but the parable suggests that the father has been continually on the watch for his return. The father not only goes out to meet him, but he runs, an action that would be considered undignified. Some suggest that his motivation was to indicate his public reacceptance of the son before the people of the village could conduct the public disgrace ceremony. The father kisses the unclean son, gives him a garment of dignity, a ring that enables him to transact family business, and sandals (as servants generally went barefoot). Next he takes his prime market produce and calls a celebration, presumably for the whole village (as a fatted calf would feed dozens of people). By giving a party for the village, the father doubly ensures that there can be no ceremony of public disgrace. He continues his irregular behaviour by leaving his place at the head of that feast to plead with his elder son and tolerates his shameful insult. Through these extravagant actions the father sacrifices his honour to bring his family together.
The younger son
The first hearers of the parable may have anticipated positive things from the younger son just as had been the case with Israel, Jacob, Joseph and David. The initial characterisation would have disgusted them. The son asks for his share of the inheritance, implying that he wishes his father were dead. He sells his share in defiance of the cultural norm. He goes to Gentile territory where he cannot practise his religious obligations. He squanders his property and suffers the ultimate indignity for a Jew, that of feeding pigs. His behaviour is utterly shameful.
He ‘comes to his senses’ out of pure self-interest, not repentance. However, he still considers himself as son and rehearses his speech and addresses his father as father. He returns seeking to be a hired hand. If he can earn enough to pay back what he has squandered, he may be able to restore some of his honour. His intended words about his unworthiness reflect the honour code. When it comes time to give his prepared speech, the text leaves out ‘treat me like one of your hired hands’. Does the father interrupt him as is often presumed? Perhaps the son deliberately leaves it out because, overwhelmed by the father’s welcome and forgiveness, he recognises his restored relationship and only then repents. He acknowledges that he has sinned, accepts his reinstatement and enters the feast.
The elder son
The listeners at first would have sided with the older brother over the younger. On the surface, he is obedient and hardworking and therefore worthy. His relationship with the father up to now is unclear; one wonders why a slave had not been sent to inform him of his brother’s return so that he could take up a first-born son’s traditional role of receiving people at the door. He shames himself and grossly insults his father by refusing to go in; he makes it worse by not addressing him as his father; he denies his brotherhood by referring to the younger as ‘this son of yours’. Furthermore, he does not even think of himself as a son but has been working ‘like a slave’. He would have inherited everything since his brother left but he is irritated that he cannot use his property at will to celebrate with his friends. In one sense he is like the younger son was originally, implying that he wishes his father were dead. He rejects his father’s words of reconciliation. In this quarrel he publicly humiliates his father.
The initial listeners may have received the parable as a story of family reunion rather than of repentance and forgiveness. The younger son does not explicitly state real sorrow; nevertheless, he returns, and the father reinstates him. However, in Luke’s design and to the ears of his Christian community, the parable is one of three that rejoice in restoration. In the first two the rejoicing in heaven is over ‘one sinner who repents’. For Luke’s audience the return of the son serves as a metaphor for ‘one sinner who repents’ and the father’s extravagant actions point to God, the forgiving father.
The distinction between a son and a hired servant/slave is a key literary device in the narrative. The younger son leaves his father’s house, becomes the hired servant of a Gentile, still considers himself as son, seeks to become a hired servant of his father, confesses unworthiness, has his sonship restored and re-enters his father’s house. On the other hand, the elder son stays at home, claims worthiness, feels like a slave, does not consider himself a son, has his sonship confirmed but refuses to enter his father’s house.
Who is lost?
The two sons are so alike. Both dishonour the father and themselves and both end up in a far country, one physically, the other spiritually. They differ only in their responses to the father’s love. One returns and responds, and so was ‘lost and found’. As far as we know, the other remains lost.