It’s important to make two preambles before I begin. First, all the most interesting insights found below are taken from Amy-Jill Levine’s fantastic book Short Stories by Jesus. Second, this post is an attempt to deal with the parables as we think they were given by Jesus. In doing so, I avoid dealing with Luke’s interpretation, the way he relates them, in the voice of Christ, to repentance (more on this at the end). I want to be clear that this doesn’t imply that Luke’s interpretation and repentance are unimportant, but rather to do justice to both would require more space than a normal blog post allows.
Parables have a way of surprising us by inverting our expectations, forcing us in some cases to reconsider commonly held beliefs or to ask difficult ethical questions. Consider the parable of the “Three Little Pigs.” After two failed attempts, the wolf, in desperation, jumps down the third little pig’s chimney only to land in a cauldron of stew. Pig’s enjoying wolf stew is a surprising result (and in some ways disturbing). Similarly, when Christ told parables his aim was to provoke and disturb and it’s no coincidence that he uses parables to do so.
Luke presents a series of three parables: “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Lost Son”. All three parables follow a similar pattern: (1) a wealthy individual loses part of his or her wealth, (2) he or she finds the thing that was lost, and (3) its recovery is celebrated with a meal. These three parables follow the “rule of three” whereby the first two in the series set up the third. Again consider the parable of “The Three Little Pigs;” the first two pigs with their homes of straw and sticks set up the story of the third pig with his home of brick. Although the three parables in Luke are similar, the first two help explain the events of the third. To understand how Christ provokes his audience, than, it’s helpful not only to understand how the stories are similar but to also notice the details that make the third story unique. Below is each parable, with a consideration of the way in which Christ uses the story of “The Lost Son” to challenge expectations and ask difficult ethical questions.
The Lost Sheep
“3 So 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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:3-7)
The defining feature of this parable is found in the quantity of sheep. Having a hundred sheep seems to imply wealth, but it’s the fact that the shepherd notices the one missing out of the hundred that sets this parable apart. To notice one in a hundred, one would need to account for each sheep. I imagine shepherds get pretty efficient at this task, but without practice, this would be a terribly difficult job.
Once he’s taken time to notice the missing sheep, the shepherd, in desperation, sets out to find it. When considered in light of the other two parables and if we set aside Luke’s unique reference to repentance,* this parable is different than the others in the way it stresses the need to take stock of our blessings, noticing what has been lost so that we can begin the process of recovery.
The Lost Coin
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
The defining feature of this parable is a bit harder to notice. Unlike “The Lost Sheep”, here we are only dealing with ten coins, although it might be difficult to discover a missing coin when ten are in a pile, counting coins is easier than counting sheep.
The variant in this parable comes at the end when the woman takes responsibility for losing the coin. Unlike the shepherd, the woman admits fault stating that it was her who lost the coin. Here we find a significant development: although it’s hard to count sheep, it’s often harder to admit fault.
These first two parables end on a happy note, the shepherd and the women are made whole; their fortunes are restored. As we will see, the final parable ends in ambiguity. The parable of “The Lost Son” doesn’t have a simple answer. The parable ends with a father’s attempts to make his family whole as he stands in a field with his son.
The Lost Son
11 Then Jesus[b] said, “There was a man who had two sons.
12 The 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 [life] between them.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[c] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
17 But 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
20 So 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. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[d] 22 But 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But 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.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[e] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But 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.’” (Luke 15.11-32)
This parable begins with a father who had two sons. Jews in Jesus’ audience would recognize this as fitting with the famous father-son relationships in the Old Testament: Adam had Cain and Abel; Abraham had Isaac and Ishmael; Isaac had Jacob and Esau; Jacob’s favourite son Joseph, has two sons Manasseh and Ephraim; and the pattern continues. In each of these groups, it is the younger brother who receives the blessing and the older brother who is often less admired. Consequently, everyone listening to Jesus would prefer to identify with the younger son — better to be Abel than Cain.
Another unusual detail that modern readers might not notice to the same extent as ancient listeners is that the younger brother asks for his inheritance. Literally translated, the verse says that the father gives half of his life to the younger brother. Although an early inheritance request was not unheard of at the time, it was also reasonable to expect a parent to deny such a request. Here the father not only agrees but gives more than is required.
The actions of the son go against audience’s expectations. It’s not difficult to imagine the audience expecting the youngest son to be like Joseph, but the parable flips expectations. Unlike the spoiled son, Joseph doesn’t leave his family with an inheritance. Rather Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery. When famine strikes, Joseph doesn’t run back to his father. Rather, he acts to save his family from disaster and restores fractured relationships. In Christ’s parable, the son chooses to abandon his family and then is forced to return after he wastes his inheritance.
It was foolish for the younger son to request his inheritance and it was likewise foolish for his father to grant it. Perhaps spoiling the youngest was a common theme in the family and maybe by granting the son’s request the father is somehow complicit in the son’s debauchery. Of course, the young son’s motivation to return is a result of various factors: there is a famine; he finds himself in a different culture; he’s separated from a support network; and he clearly has difficulty making mature decisions.
After hitting rock bottom and returning home, we might expect a genuinely repentant son. A few details, however, make me question this assumption. First, the only time Luke uses inner dialogue to tell us about someone’s thoughts, that someone isn’t very honorable: we hear the thoughts of a rich fool, a dishonest manager, a corrupt judge, and perhaps a spoiled son. Second, the son’s words of repentance mirror the Pharaoh’s false confession to Moses and Aaron. When the Pharaoh hits rock bottom, he too “repents” using almost the identical phrase as the youngest son. Finally, the parable says that the son “comes to himself,” in other words, he remembers that he is a son of a wealthy father who would do anything for his youngest son. Perhaps he’s not as repentant as is often assumed.
The father runs out to meet his son, hugs him, kisses him, gives him new clothes, and throws a party in his honour. We don’t know how the youngest reacts, perhaps he is genuinely humbled, maybe not. What we do know, however, is that his appearance is the last straw for the older brother, who up until this point the reader, like the father, has forgotten all about.
Upon noticing the oldest son’s anger, the father rushes out to find him and bring him back into the family. There are a few differences in how the father interacts with his oldest. First, the oldest son doesn’t need to remind his father of his position. Unlike the youngest who stresses the idea that he is a son, the oldest distances himself from the family, calling his younger brother “the one you [father] call son”. Second, when dealing with the youngest, the father doesn’t talk to him, evidently nothing needs to be said. With the older brother, however, the father is compelled to enter into dialogue. Here the father uses his words wisely, first appealing to his son’s emotions, and then reminding him that the youngest is still his brother.
The story ends with a father and son standing in a field. It doesn’t tell us if the father was able to unite the family. The resolution is ambiguously absent and the completeness of the father’s wealth remains questionable. Will the oldest yield and be united with his family? What happens after the father dies and the older son receives the inheritance? What does the father do now that he’s “found” the older son? What about the youngest, how should he respond? All these questions and more are left unanswered.
Evidently finding lost children is much harder than noticing and finding a lost sheep or taking responsibility for losing a coin; the consequences of losing a son are far more complicated. These parables teach us that being reconciled with one another or being reconciled with oneself requires work. We need to take stock of our blessing, seek out what has been lost, accept responsibility for our actions, and work at our relationships with one another. This work will likely include repentance of some kind as Luke’s interpretation of the parables make clear.
Like all good parables the parable of “The Lost Son” inverts our expectations, disturbing the listeners’ world enough to open up new questions. Here Christs provokes us to step into the complex realm of relationships and begin asking questions that develop in us a sensitivity to the needs of others, an awareness of our true wealth, and an understanding of what right relationship requires. Not only, therefore, do we learn about the messiness of living together, but just by engaging Christ’s stories we put into practice the skills relationships require. This, I believe, is the disruptive power of Christ’s parables.
* References to repentance in these first two parables are specific to Luke. In Matthew, the same parable of the Lost Sheep includes a different ending, it asks the disciples to care for sheep that have been deceived. Further, both parables are also found in Apocrypha literature, biblical or related writings not forming part of the accepted canon of Scripture, and in these books where the parables are found, references to repentance are absent. It’s primarily for this reason that we don’t think the bits about repentance would have been included in Christ’s original telling of these parables. It’s more likely, considering the rhetorical nature of parables, that Christ kept his interpretations to himself, leaving the audience to struggle with their possible meanings.