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.’ “
There are two ‘worlds’ behind the text: the world that produced it and the world of the time in which it is set.
The world of the author’s community
Scholars generally agree that the Gospel according to Luke was written in Greek some 50 years after the death of Jesus, probably in the 80s. Tradition has given the name of Luke to the author, but there is no certainty that Luke was the author’s name. Luke may have been a Syrian from Antioch. Most scholars conclude from elements in the Gospel that the author was a Gentile writing for a community predominantly made up of Gentile Christians. More details about the Gospel according to Luke can be found HERE.
The Gospel of Luke is a testimony of faith in Jesus from and for the Lukan community. While there is a specific audience for the text named in the Gospel, the evangelist is also addressing members of his faith community, instructing them on the qualities of a disciple of Jesus. The evangelist included this parable after two others with similar themes to amplify his theological intent. This does not mean that Jesus told these three parables one after the other in their original settings.
The evangelist indicates that he is not an eyewitness to the events set out (Lk1: 1-4). Therefore, the world of the author’s community is in a different cultural setting to that of Palestine and is over 50 years after the time in which the passage is set.
Jesus told this parable to Jews in Palestine. The evangelist recounts the parable for a Gentile Christian community. The change of audience from Jews to Gentile followers of Jesus outside Palestine means that it was likely to have been understood by two audiences in different ways.
This passage is only found in Luke. This means that it comes from an oral or written source to which Luke had access but that the other evangelists presumably did not.
The world at the time of the text
Property and inheritance
In Jewish inheritance practice sons shared their father’s inheritance after he died. The oldest son received a double share and succeeded as head of the family. An ageing father could distribute the assets early, but the beneficiaries could not dispose of them until after his death.
Honour and shame
Honour was a fundamental social value in first century Palestine. A person who acted in the way that was expected was considered honourable and was held in esteem in the eyes of the social group. If someone did not follow the rules and expectations of the family, village or wider culture he or she was shamed. For certain shameful acts the village might conduct a public disgrace ceremony by shattering a large pot in front of the person as a sign that the individual was now cut off from the family and the village.
Parallels in the Jewish Scriptures
There are parables in the Hebrew Scriptures and the listeners (the Pharisees and scribes) would have been familiar with them. Examples include Jotham’s parable about the trees (Judg 9:7-15), Nathan’s condemnation of David through the parable of the lamb (2 Sam 12:1-7), and Ezekiel’s parable of the two eagles and the vine (Ezek 17: 1-9) .
The story plays on the listeners’ knowledge of the Torah stories of brothers, especially of two brothers in which the younger or youngest prosper in comparison to the older one(s), including in the gaining their father’s favour and inheritance. Isaac is favoured over Ishmael; Jacob is blessed instead of the elder Esau; Joseph eventually flourishes ahead of his elder brothers; and David, the youngest of seven becomes king.
Specific geographical knowledge is not important for the comprehension of this text. The author places the text within Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. In the parable it is clear contextually that the family lives somewhere in Jewish Palestine. The younger son journeys ‘to a distant country’ to non-Jewish territory as is evident from the reference to pigs. (Jews were forbidden to raise pigs and archaeological studies verify the absence of pigs in Palestine at the time of Jesus.)