Posted by: mattcolvin | September 20, 2010

Luke 15: The Prodigal Son In and Out of Context

15:1 We have to pay attention to this verse as it establishes the context for the parable. Jesus is eating with tad collectors and sinners, and is accused by the Pharisees of receiving them (prosdechetai) and eating with them (sunesthiei). These are verbs of social intercourse and association. The parables that follow then are going to explain why it is that Jesus is doing this. It is designed to justify the sort of constant celebration that is going on around him, as he welcomes everyone into the new age, especially those who need saving.

15:3-6 The rescue of the lost sheep — and Jesus tells the Syro-Phoenician woman that he was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel — is framed in terms that deliberately echo what Jesus is doing: He comes to his house (Jerusalem) and invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice along with him (sugcharete). Again, social unity. What would we think of a neighbor who replied to the woman’s invitation with, “Who cares about your stupid coin, you disorganized old bat?”

The image of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulders became a Christian motif in catacomb paintings and mosaics of the early church.

It is questionable whether we should take “who have no need of repentance” sarcastically. As we will see, the prodigal son parable doesn’t match a sarcastic reading of this phrase.

8-10 In the case of the woman finding the lost drachma, note again the emphasis on the pains and effort which she takes: she turns her house upside down, rummages through it, searches with care (epimelws). Then, like the shepherd, she throws a party: invites the neighbors to “rejoice with me”.

The Pharisees’ attitude, Jesus says, does not match that of the angels of God in heaven because they are holding off from the feast, and refusing to rejoice along with God who has “found” the tax collectors and sinners who were lost.

In light of these two, we should turn to look at the parable of the prodigal son as explaining the same thing, uttered in the same context, before the same disapproving audience of standoffish Pharisees. That is the main point of the parable, to indict the Pharisees’ attitude, That God forgives sinners was well known. That some people were very sinful was also not new. It is very good and proper that these two aspects have been appreciated by centuries of faithful readers. My daughter’s Doctrine teacher at school was converted by a sermon on these aspects of the parable of the Prodigal Son. But they are not what would have hit Jesus’ listeners. The striking point for them was rather about the Pharisees’ evil reaction to Jesus.

The father tells the older brother, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” How hard can we press this? Our theological agendas impel us to trample it. The Pharisees are not really “with the Father”, we protest. They are a “brood of vipers,” after all. And so the analogy must break down. Does it? Would the Pharisees’ attitude be quite so problematic if they did not really enjoy the benefits that they begrudge the forgiven Sinners who dined with Jesus?

How can we learn from this parable ourselves? I’d submit that the sin of the Pharisees is manifested in a church culture of conformity, in extra-biblical rules that become heavy burdens for others (certain patriarchal teachings, quiver-full legalism, and other things that I, to my shame, have spread), in mockery or disdain for those who have not made such wise choices as we have. This could involve scorn of those who don’t make the same educational choices, or who don’t use the superior hymnal; or whose music on Sunday morning isn’t up to the standard you’re used to. Anytime we find ourselves chafed by the difference, or supposed inferiority, of those whom God has forgiven, for whom Christ has died, we are in danger of failing to “rejoice along with” Christ. These are all sins of those who are in, not of those who are out.



  1. When Chris and I first started performing music, we played a lot of small venues with other performers whose gifts we thought were, uh, meager. Not that we thought we were so much better, but we chalked our limitations up to lack of experience, while many of the others had been obviously performing at the same low level for many, many years.

    But those folks also got a much, much better response from the audience than we did, and for awhile it puzzled me. Fortunately, I was humble enough to recognize that it wasn’t the audience that was clueless, but me. My standards were too narrow, unable to comprehend that what I saw as amateurish and mediocre was in fact doing a much better job at what we had all come to do, namely bring a smile to the face of our listeners.

    A good way for us to put our residual Pharisaism to the test is to find a small country church and gather with the brothers and sisters there. Our own church is one of those, and Chris and I also have the opportunity to visit other small country churches when they ask us to come perform for us.

    Like yesterday, when we played for a homecoming event at a small church about twenty minutes from here. After the service there was a pot luck meal, then our singing. We arrived for the meal, and joined with a crowd of badly dressed, unsophisticated, lower class brothers and sisters to eat, the kind of people who the more sophisticated among us only see when they are being subjected to ridicule, the legendary People of Wal-Mart.

    Now, we are more country in our behavior than we were five years ago, so it wasn’t especially uncomfortable for us. But as usual I was confronted with the choice of writing them off or trying to relate to them in my thinking. I tried to relate, and as usual what I saw was the usual situation I despair over, namely good people enslaved by a wicked culture. In this case, it exhibited itself in slovenly appearance, rude talk, and inconsiderate behavior. But I’ve seen the same thing in churches where they dress nicely, maintain trim figures, and talk properly.

    The other thing that occurred to me was that these were the folks that are regularly disparaged, at least implicitly, by those who insist on correct doctrine and practice. For those of us who think we have it right, these are the folks we’re railing against when we go on about those who have it wrong. These are the ones we’re claiming (in the nicest way) to be superior to. But as we talked with them, and sang for them, I wasn’t so sure I had anything that they were lacking.

  2. You have a careless error at the beginning of the next-to-last paragraph, where you have the father addressing the prodigal and proceed to quote his words to the older son.

  3. I couldn’t be certain last night that those where not your pages of calligraphy and various images from nature. Does it say more about your relative talent to the true artist or about my artistic ignorance and general blindness?

    • I think it says more about how much you love me, Mom. 😉

  4. Oh, Matt. Don’t beat yourself up so much about the quiverful thing. You’ve always said what you’ve thought was right. I’ve been reading your blog for more years than I can count. You’ve always written what you’ve sincerely believed. But you’re human, and as humans, we grow, we learn, we change. It’s natural. I’d rather that you’ve written for this long and been – what? – 99% right? – than not have written this long but never EVER been wrong.

    I hope this makes sense? I’d rather read your thoughts – even if you make normal errors every blue moon, and who doesn’t? – than have had you be only silent all along.

    Peace to you,

  5. Sigh. I was once a tad collector. I kept them in the aquarium and watched them turn into frogs. Some of the best years of my life.

    • Glad I can afford you some entertainment while I’m growing up, Mickey.

  6. […] my older post, “The Prodigal Son In and Out of Context. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  7. […] from which I delivered the sermon earlier this year. There is doubtless some overlap with this earlier post from six years ago. See also my response to Kenneth […]

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