As I learned from Bruce Jorgensen, it is important to read the parables of Luke 15 together. Consider the setting that Luke gives us in verses 1-2 and then imagine Jesus telling each of these parables in response to what happens in those verses: he hears the Pharisees and the scribes complaining because he eats with sinners, so he tells the parable of the lost sheep; evidently they don’t understand his point because he immediately tells another parable, that of the lost coin—I imagine a silent pause after the first parable, with Jesus waiting for the Pharisees and scribes to respond; they seem not to understand the second one either, so he tells them a third, more complicated parable, the parable that we often call “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
As I learned from Arthur Henry King, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is a strange name for this parable. It draws our attention to one of two sons and neglects the father, yet the parable is clearly about both sons (else there would be no point in the parable continuing past the announcement of the feast) and the father is clearly central to the parable’s meaning. Arthur suggested instead “The Parable of a Father and His Two Sons.” I think that is a better name.
Verses 1-2: Why would the publicans and sinners have come to hear Jesus? Why does it bother the Pharisees and the scribes that Jesus eats with publicans and tax collectors?
Verses 3-7: Why does Jesus use the figure of the shepherd so often? Are scriptures such as Isaiah 40:11 and 56:11 relevant? Would the Pharisees have seen a connection to such verses? How is this parable a response to the murmuring of the Pharisees and scribes?
Verses 8-10: Why would the woman have to light a candle to find a lost coin during the day? What would have made finding it difficult? Who does Jesus intend the shepherd to represent to to the Pharisees and scribes, and what does he intend the parable teach them? Who does the woman represent? Is the lesson of the second parable the same as that of the first? Another way to think about these questions: what do the Pharisees and scribes fail to understand when Jesus tells them the first two parables? Do verses 7 and 10 explain how these parables are related? Do they tell us what the Lord wanted the murmurers to understand?
Verse 11: What do you make of the fact that Jesus begins this story telling us that it is about two sons? Isn’t this evidence the name by which we usually call it, Parable of the Prodigal Son,” may change the meaning of the story?
Verse 12: What is the young man asking for? Under inheritance practices of the time, how much of his father’s estate would the younger son receive? In response to the son’s request, the father gives both of the sons their inheritance? What does this mean for the father? The word translated “riotous living” is also used in Ephesians 5:18 (“excess”), Titus 1:6 (“riot”), and 1 Peter 4:4 (“riot”). How is the second son spending his money?
Verses 14-16: What does it mean to say that the second son joined himself to a citizen of the country where he was? How would the Pharisees have responded to the idea that this young man has taken the job of feeding swine? Does verse 16 say that he wanted to eat the carob husks that they fed pigs, but no one would let him? Or does it say that he wanted to eat the husks because no one would give him anything else?
Verses 17-19: “Came to himself” is a literal translation. What does it mean to come to oneself? What does it mean to be away from oneself? Have you ever been away from yourself? How did you come back? What does the son remember about how his father treats hired servants? What does that tell us about the father? Why does the son rehearse what he is going to say to his father? How has he sinned against heaven? How has he sinned before (“in the presence of”) his father?
Verses 20-24: How could the father have seen his son while the son was still a great way off? What does this suggest about what the father has been doing? How long has the father been waiting for the son to return? The word translated “compassion” could also have been translated “pity.” How does the father respond to seeing his son return? Why doesn’t the son finish the little speech that he has prepared for his father? Does the father treat the returned son as he would a hired servant? How does he explain his joy in verse 24? How does that answer the Pharisees’ murmuring? Is that explanation also a reference to Jesus’ coming death and resurrection? Is there any sense in which Jesus has become like a prodigal son? Who would Jesus have expected the prodigal son to represent in the Pharisees’ understanding?
Verses 25-27: We have here the second half of the story, about the second son. Whom would Jesus have expected the Pharisees to understand the second son to represent? Why does the second son call a servant to find out what his going on in the house rather than go in and find out for himself? Who was the owner of the house?
Verse 28: Why is the second son angry? Why won’t he go into the house? How does the father deal with the son’s anger?
Verses 29-30: Is it true that the father has not given the older son anything? Do you think it is true that the older son has never transgressed one of his father’s commandments? Is it likely that he has had these feelings about his brother before? If he has, would that have violated his father’s commandments? The older brother says that the younger one has used up the father’s money “with harlots.” Does he know that?
Verses 31-32: When the father says “all that I have is thine,” of what is he reminding the older son? Compare verse 32 to verse 24. Why does Jesus have the father repeat this? How does this parable answer the Pharisees’ murmuring differently than did the previous two parables?
Verses 1-10: What gives the sayings in these verses unity?
Verses 1-2: What do you think Jesus means by “offences”? The Greek word is skandala, the root of our word “scandal.” It means “traps,” “temptations,” “sins,” or “things that make one stumble.” It can also mean “things that cause revulsion and result in hostility.”
Verses 3-4: Compare this saying to similar sayings in Matthew 18:15 and 18:21-22. What is Jesus’ point? Does the number seven have an exact significance? If the person were to come an eighth time on the same day, could you forgo forgiveness on the ground that you had already met the requirement to forgive him seven times in one day? In other words, are there limits on how much forgiveness we are expected to offer?
Verses 5-6: In verse 5 the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. In verse 6 he responds by telling them that even if their faith were very tiny it could uproot a fig tree and cast it into the sea. Is he telling them that the amount of their faith is not yet sufficient, or is he telling them that its quality is not yet what it ought to be? In other words, is he agreeing with them that they need more faith, or is he telling them their faith isn’t the kind of faith needed? How do you think that what he says in verses 6-10 is a response to the apostles’ request?
Verses 7-10: This parable (a simile: A is like B) is taken from ordinary life: A small farmer is wealthy enough to have one slave who serves him. He has that slave work the farm. Then, in the evening, rather than saying to the slave, “Go ahead and have your dinner,” he says “Fix my dinner. Then you can have yours.” Does he thank the slave for doing the farm work and fixing dinner? No, because that is what is expected of him. Can revise this parable, using contemporary social relations or does the parable only make sense in an ancient context?
Verse 10 tells us the point of the parable: “Even if you do what is commanded, you are an unprofitable servant.” Why would Jesus tell them something that negative like this rather than something encouraging? Is he saying, “No matter what, you can’t do enough”? In this verse the word translated “unprofitable” means “useless” or “worthless.” Is this to be understood literally or as hyperbole?
When the lepers ask Jesus for mercy (also translated “pity”; verse 13) are they asking for alms or for a miracle?
How is it relevant that the leper who gave thanks was a Samaritan (verse 16)?
There is no evidence that the lepers knew that Jesus was divine, so why would he expect them to return to him to give glory to God (verse 18)? Why not expect them, instead, to give that glory at the temple as they are implicitly commanded to do by Leviticus 14:2-4?
Is this a story about gratitude, or is it a story about the contrast between the Samaritan / stranger, one the one hand, and the people of Israel, on the other? Could it be a story about the difference between miraculous healings and faith?
Verses 20-21: This is the only canonical gospel in which we find this saying, but something very much like it is also in the Gospel of Thomas (Gospel of Thomas 113). The Greek word translated “observation” in verse 20 means “keeping an eye on something closely.” Why can’t watch for the kingdom of God? What does it mean to say that the kingdom of God is within us? Some modern translators have translated the Greek phrase as the King James translators did: “within you.” Others have translated the phrase as “in your midst,” and others have translated it “within your grasp.” The Greek preposition entos can mean either “within” or “among,” and since its basic meaning is “within specifiable limits,” it can also mean “within reach.” How does the meaning of each differ? Which of those translations seems most likely to you? Why? Is Deuteronomy 30:11-14 relevant to understanding what Jesus says here?
Verses 22-37: How are the various things that Jesus says in verses 24-30 unified? Do they have a common theme? Do verses 31-35 introduce a new theme or do they repeat the theme of the previous verses? (Verse 36 is probably a later addition to the text rather than something in the original.)
Why do those who respond to him ask “Where?” when that is the very thing he has just told them thy ought not to seek?
What do you make of the Savior’s strange response in verse 37? It is strange in itself, and it is strange as an answer to the question “Where will this happen?”
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