New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 18: Luke 15

Today we’re covering less territory. In fact, we can focus entirely on one chapter. What’s the setting? A stereotypical collection of tax collectors and sinners on one side, scribes and pharisees on the other.  The second group criticizes Jesus for associating with the first group. Jesus responds to them with three parables.

Since all three parables address the same situation and question, they are comparable, and identifying similarities and differences between them can be quite constructive.

For example, what’s the source or cause of the loss (or “loss”)  in each parable?

  1. Lost Coin– Apparent carelessness? Nearly everyone loses something small from time to time, whether keys or that one piece of paper with that thing written on it.
  2. Lost sheep– natural tendencies.  (The nature of sheep is not to stay together in a group, but to wander.)
  3. Prodigal son– conscious rebellion or (if you like) proactive independence.

*Pictures coming later about how little light, and what the floor was like, inside an Israelite house. Note that she has to light a lamp (imagine the amount of light you get from a candle) in order to look around inside.

Luke 15:1–10.The Lost Coin and Lost Sheep

In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus gets a little sarcastic. He clearly references the scribes and pharisees standing there when he refers to “Righteous persons who don’t need to repent” in v. 7 .

Luke 15:11–32. The Prodigal Son?

Several things about this parable. First, what should we call it? I have argued before that things like chapter divisions and chapter headings can strongly affect how we understand a passage, without us even being aware of it. How we label parables also strongly shapes our understanding. Julie Smith has a great post at Times&Seasons examining this parable and suggesting alternates.

Second, (and not unrelated), the parable naturally divides into two parts, about the younger brother’s departure, descent, and return (Part 1), but also the reaction of the older brother (part 2). Elder Holland has a fantastic article from 2002 in which he retitles this parable “The Other Prodigal.”

[B]eing caught up in this younger son’s story, we can miss, if we are not careful, the account of an elder son, for the opening line of the Savior’s account reads, “A certain man had two sons”—and He might have added, “both of whom were lost and both of whom needed to come home.”


On the older brother, Wright has this to say.

The portrait of the older brother is brilliantly drawn, with tell-tale little shifts of phrase and meaning. ‘Your brother’, says the servant, ‘has come home’; but he won’t think of him like this. ‘This son of yours,’ he says angrily to his father. ‘This your brother,’ says the father, reminding him gently of the truth of the matter. ‘I’ve been slaving for you,’ he says to his father, whereas in fact they had been working as partners, since the father had already divided his assets between them (verse 12). Everything the father has belongs to him, since the younger brother has spent his share; and that, presumably, is part of the problem, since the older brother sees all too clearly that anything now spent on his brother will be coming out of his own inheritance.
The phrase which ties the story to Jesus’ opponents comes out tellingly: ‘I’ve never disobeyed a single command of yours.’ That was the Pharisees’ boast (compare Philippians 3:6)…. This story reveals above all the sheer self-centredness of the grumbler. The older brother shows, in his bad temper, that he has had no more real respect for his father than his brother had had. He lectures him in front of his guests, and refuses his plea to come in. Once more the father is generous, this time to his self-righteous older son. At this point we sense that Jesus is not content simply to tell the grumblers that they’re out of line; he, too, wants to reason with the Pharisees and the lawyers, to point out that, though God’s generosity is indeed reaching out to people they didn’t expect, this doesn’t mean there isn’t any left for them. If they insist on staying out of the party because it isn’t the sort of thing they like, that’s up to them; but it won’t be because God doesn’t love them as well.

-Wright, Luke for Everyone

Third, on a pastoral discipleship level, President McKay said this about self-discipline, which applies to the younger brother. “Youth who start out to indulge their appetites and passions are on the downward road to apostasy as sure as the sun rises in the east.” McKay CR. April, 1945, 122-23.

Fourth, on the near eastern context of the parable itself, N.T. Wright (again, surprise) has some very good things to say, reorienting us, helping us see through Middle Eastern eyes instead of (mis)reading it through modern western eyes.

Let’s be sure we’ve understood how families like this worked. When the father divided the property between the two sons, and the younger son turned his share into cash, this must have meant that the land the father owned had been split into two, with the younger boy selling off his share to someone else. The shame that this would bring on the family would be added to the shame the son had already brought on the father by asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead’. The father bears these two blows without recrimination.

To this day, there are people in traditional cultures, like that of Jesus’ day, who find the story at this point quite incredible. Fathers just don’t behave like that; he should (they think) have beaten him, or thrown him out. There is a depth of mystery already built in to the story before the son even leaves home. Again, in modern Western culture children routinely leave homes in the country to pursue their future and their fortune in big cities, or even abroad; but in Jesus’ culture this would likewise be seen as shameful, with the younger son abandoning his obligation to care for his father in his old age. When the son reaches the foreign country, runs through the money, and finds himself in trouble, his degradation reaches a further low point. For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs is bad enough; for him to be feeding them, and hungry enough to share their food, is worse.- Luke for Everyone


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One thought on “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 18: Luke 15

  1. What are your feelings about the 2 sons representing Ephraim and Judah. The reason I ask is I have to teach a class on Isaiah and I am looking for an easy way to show the class what they should be looking for as they read, and think this cluster of parables teaches that. i.e. Israel is careless and forgetful, Israel likes to wander or be lead astray.
    The prodigal son parable seems to draw out the most themes like rebellious (a transgressor from the womb) Idolatrous, covenants, joining other nations (scattered), hunger/famine (chastening), repentance, atonement (grafting), Zion, garments, covenant feasting and possibly an explanation of the differences between salvation and exaltation.


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