October 28, 2012

Luke Looks Back 19


Study 19 - Luke 15:1-32

The Joy of Recovery

This chapter contains two marvellous double parables. The first is that of the lost sheep and the lost coin; the second that of the prodigal son, the loving father and the unhappy elder brother.

Please do read Luke 15: 1 - 10.

There is one obvious problem with the story of the lost sheep: would a shepherd really leave 99 sheep in wild country? Probably not. But a flock of that many sheep would need more than one shepherd so he would not be leaving them alone. It is important to note that the one who went searching was the owner and therefore comparatively rich.

Question 1: Sheep are smelly animals. What is suggested by the carrying on the shoulders? And by taking it home and not back to the flock?

As so often Jesus is emphasising that he is interested not just in the smug posh people who thought they alone mattered but the ordinary people, the country people, the working people. He is taking the sheep home to show that everybody is welcome in his Kingdom.

Question 2: What are the similarities and deliberate contrasts that make it reasonable to call this (v 1-10) a double parable rather than two separate parables?

Most of the verbal contrasts are obvious. But don't miss the careful balancing of a story about a man with one about a woman. This is typical Luke. All too many parts of the church world-wide have not come to terms with the way Jesus treated women on equality with men. The two parables are set in a strictly male world and a strictly female world yet they carry the same message. They go together hence I call them a double parable.

Question 3: How does the double parable answer the 'mutterings' of v 2? What was the main contrast between the world in which Jesus lived and the one he is describing? What does this contrast say to our present day situation?

It answers the mutterings by contradicting the ideas on which they were based. The posh people were not interested in the other people. They did not see everybody as their neighbour. We need to look at our own attitudes and those of our church very carefully and very honestly to make sure we are not like those people.

The second double parable is perhaps the greatest short story ever told.

Please read 15: 11 - 32.

This is where the idea of a reflection that I mentioned earlier becomes really important to understand what Jesus was saying - or rather the importance of what he did not say. Both parts of the double parable are reflections. The first goes like this:

a. son lost

b. sin - everything lost

c. rejection

d. change of mind - inadequately

e. acceptance

f. repentance - everything gained

g. son found

Question 4: Is what I have just said correct? I said it started with the son being lost and ended with the son being found. Should it rather be "the father's loss" and "the father's gain"? And I might add, if so, might that change the title of the story - a question we will leave until we have looked at all the story.

One commentator makes the following frequently overlooked points about that society and culture:

  • A man was expected to give an oral will only when dying, as Jacob did in Gen 48 so the boy was effectively asking his father to die!
  • To break with convention like that would have merited a beating.
  • It was undignified for an elderly man to run. He wouldn't! But this one did.
  • The father's kiss of welcome and greeting outside the local village stopped the villagers mocking the despised son as they would naturally have done otherwise.
  • A calf was killed. A sheep would have done.
  • The elder son would have been expected to act as the reconciler in the family dispute.

Question 5: Was the father properly even-handed to his sons?

That is as hard a question to answer as any. I think it will depend on who we are how we answer that one. I would say - doubtful. But it is only a parable.

The second part is nearly a reflection:

a. elder brother comes

b. he is told his brother has arrived

c. his father attempts reconciliation

d. he complains - how you treat me

e. He complains - how you treat him

f. his father attempts reconciliation

g. he is again told brother has arrived

h. ????

The second part of the parable is incomplete - we do not know how the elder son responded. That is made very clear by looking at the structure, the reflection. And that leaves us with some major questions to answer.

Question 6: Who is the story addressed to? Why is it left open like this? How would they have responded? How would we have responded?

At the beginning of the chapter we are told that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were muttering about Jesus and he told them these parables. It was clearly left open to make them think how they would have finished the story off and what the implications of their ending might be. How would we have responded? I think the only possible answer to that is 'with difficulty'.

Question 7: This double parable is almost always called the parable of the prodigal or lost son. But is that the right title? After all only the first half is about him. What should it be called?

The first part should surely be called something like the parable of the Forgiving Father. The second part might be the parable of the Unforgiving Brother. But then you may have other, equally good ideas.

One final question remains which I will try to answer myself. It is this: do we always hear most about the prodigal son because the message of the second part of the parable is a lot harder for established Christians to take? I think that is a distinct possibility. It is nice and comfortable for all the Christians listening to hear someone preach about the prodigal son because it does not affect them. But thinking about the elder brother, the person who is already religious but fails to show his faith in his attitude to his younger brother, is not so comfortable for them. Oh, yes, younger brother had been a bad lot and had squandered the inheritance so there were plenty of good excuses elder brother could give for his attitude. But Jesus left his story deliberately unfinished to make his listeners, including you and me, wonder about themselves.

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