Despite appearing only once in the Bible, the parable of the lost son is among the most popular ones used by Jesus in his teachings. Over time the story has grown so popular that many scholars and creative artists use its central theme of grace and forgiveness as their motivation.1 The allegory is about a young man who asked for his inheritance, squandered it, and went back home to ask for forgiveness.2 When his father forgave and welcomed him, his elder brother was appalled. Despite being universally attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, it is unclear whether the story originated with the Messiah himself. Nevertheless, many theologians, and laypersons have found the parables thematic concerns worth investigating. Different scholars examine different aspects of the story, such as the plot, character, settings, pedagogical methods, and lexical-semantic dynamics, to extract the parables full meaning and relevance in contemporary society. This paper will synthesize the literary and historical context and the inferences of the various scholars and theologians to present an analysis that is applicable in the world today.
The book of Luke is one of the four gospels (evangelical) in the bible. The word evangelical was derived from the Greek word Evangelion, which can be loosely translated to mean good news. Luke tries to present Jesus as an ordinary man. This depiction is essential to Lukes authorship style, considering that he was a medical doctor and a physician.3 These professions shaped his writings to have more technical finesse than that of the other evangelists of the New Testament. Many scholars consider Lukes Gospel to be a canonical book because of the authors canonical ties to his mentor, Paul.4 It was received with as much acclaim as the other three gospel books, and it is a representation of Gods plan to redeem humankind.
The story of the lost son is told as a parable. The definition of the term parable tends to be shallower nowadays than it was in biblical times. However, many scholars and theologians agree that the term is in continual flux and is even more ambiguous today than in the past. A basic definition of the term refers to a compelling story drawn from everyday life to teach listeners a moral or spiritual lesson. Some theologians believe that a parable is a byword for an allegory, a fable, a riddle, or a fable. The parable of the lost son fits into narrative parables, which move beyond simple details to convey a deeper meaning. Some clergymen claim that Jesus used parables in his teachings to keep outsiders guessing while benefitting true followers.5 One needs to understand the mechanics of using parables to convey a message before attempting to analyze Luke 15:11-32. The moral dilemma posed in the parable is designed to persuade the reader to a decision.
It is also noteworthy that Jesus chose his parables by carefully considering the audience and its characteristics. The literary context of the parable of the prodigal son is an excellent example of the particular choice of the literary form of His lesson. At the time of narration, Jesus listeners were a group of tax collectors and other men of little faith. Most of the people present made their livelihoods by supporting oppressive regimes and were hated by other community members. They were seemingly unworthy of forgiveness, such as the prodigal son. Also present were scribes and clergymen who considered themselves pious and who despised the sinners.6 The composition of Jesus audience is interesting because it is used to explain why Jesus chose the parable as the format with which to teach. Further, it becomes possible to understand why he chose the parable of the prodigal son.
Raschko posits that chapter 15 of Lukes book has one primary focus to promote happiness, which people experience when they regain their lost possessions.7 This argument is compelling because the more one reads through Luke 15, the more one realizes that the author continually paints the picture of lost and found possessions. For instance, in this chapter, Jesus also uses the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin before he recounts the story of the Lost Son. It does not escape the notice of a keen eye the mathematical relationship between the three parables. The lost sheep strayed from a herd of 100 sheep, the missing coin was part of 10 coins, while the person who collected his inheritance and left was one of two sons.8 The numbers could be pointing to the increased specificity of Jesus teachings as he carries on with his ministry.
One of the challenges that Jesus faced throughout his ministry was the assertion by His critics that he spent too much time with sinners. He regularly fellowshipped with publicans, Pharisees, and sinners in his quest to covert as many people as possible. Considering that the father forgave his son when he came back to him, Jesus was trying to communicate that people should not be too intolerant to other people who are less virtuous than them.
It is unclear when Lukes book was written, but some theologians and historians believe it was authored somewhere between 70 and 75AD. Other scholars argue that the book was penned between 63 and 68.9 Yet other historians are confident that the authorship of the book occurred before Pauls death in 65AD. The assertion underpins the lack of consensus of the exact time of authorship of Lukes book since other scholars claim it occurred between 50 and 60 AD.10 However, one can be reasonably confident that the book was written in the first century AD because it does not mention Pauls death, and neither does the subsequent book of Acts. The death of Paul is too momentous an event for Luke to overlook when writing the book. Therefore, considering that he died in 68AD, it is safe to assume that the book was authored between 50 and 65AD.
What is more precise than the date of the authorship of the book is the writer. It is universally accepted that the Gospel Book was written by Lucas, who is also referred to as Luke. He was likely born in Antioch and was a physician by profession. He was an ardent disciple of Paul besides being a close personal friend of his. Luke was not born a Jew. However, he had such a deep understanding of Judaism that many scholars believe that he was converted into Judaism early in his life. Luke was born too late to have witnessed the gospel first-hand. Thus his account is based on the testimonies of his predecessors, such as Mark.
As an author of a Gospel book, Lukes credibility is underpinned by his capacity to address dignitaries such as the most excellent Theophilus (Lk. 1:3).11 Such titles were conferred to prominent people in society. The fact that Luke was allowed to write him letters was a testament to his status in religious and political realms. Theophilus was the chief magistrate of a Grecian city, and not everyone had access to his office. Delcorno argues that Theophilus is the sponsor behind Lukes ministry financially.12 However, some scholars question his credibility based on his lack of first-hand experience of the life of Jesus and his ministry. Still, some others question the source of the parable, with some suggesting that the parable is Lukes creation since it does not appear in the other Gospel books. Yet others claim that the first part of the fable is the creation of Jesus while Luke finished the second part. Luszczynska posits that the parable in its current version is not direct enough and that its sharpness has been blunted by transmission and translation.13
The scripture Luke 15:11-32 is known to many as the parable of the prodigal son or the lost sons parable. There are many interpretations of the passage, but one should analyze it exegetically verse by verse for a full comprehension of the message. The following analysis examines the story of a son, his loving father, and a cynical brother.
The story begins with a rebellious son who demands his share of the inheritance. According to the story, a man had two sons, and one day the younger one said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me (v. 12). According to Eng, it was disrespectful to ask for their inheritance if ones father was still alive.14 It was comparable to wishing that your father dies so that you have your freedom. Rimmer and Kristanto agree that this was a disrespectful act to do, and it would disrupt the serenity of a happy family.15 16 Since there was no cash that the father would have handed him in those days, he would have to divide the property. This exposed the father to ridicule since he was still alive. People in the community expected him to disown the rebellious son and exile him. However, the father gave his younger son his share of the property.
After a short while, the son sold all his property and left his homeland, searching for adventure. Jesus narrates, He went far off from his fathers house and wasted his substance on riotous living with harlots (v.13). These actions of rebelliousness are akin to the way people abandon God in pursuit of worldly pleasures. Many theologians compare the lost son to the unbelievers who see the service to God as a killjoy.17 In the contemporary world, the lost sons will abandon the church by keeping away from the ministry and criticizing the legitimacy of the word of God. Also, in the audiences context, the younger son embodies tax collectors rebellious nature and other sinners.
Later, when the son has squandered all his wealth, a great famine hits the land. According to the scripture, When he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want (v.14). He became so impoverished that he offered his services to a new friend, a pig farmer. On the farm, food was so scarce due to the famine that he began sharing food with the pigs. The fact that he offered to work in a pigsty shows how far he had fallen from grace. Pigs were considered to be unclean animals, and those who worked with them in those days would probably have been unwelcome in the temple.
One day, the son remembers that the servants at his fathers farm are treated far better than he was at the pig farm. He resolves to return home and beg his father to hire him as a servant. He mused, How many hired servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger. I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no worthier to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. (v.17-19). He knows that he had disrespected his father and did not deserve to be considered his son. By being one of the workers, he would have plenty of food to eat and start working to repay his father. Just like the prodigal son, sinners in the contemporary world have to work for the rest of their lives to earn the grace of God again.18 The priests present would have insisted that the father offers him the job of a manservant.
When he gets home, his father sees him from way off and runs to him, embraces him, kisses him, and welcomes him home. This unexpected twist in the story signifies the loving nature of the father, and Luszczynska compares his actions to Gods forgiving nature.19 One wonders how often the father would have been looking out into the horizon and wishing his son would return to him. In those days, it was unheard of for patriarchs to run. Women and children could, but wealthy men had servants to run errands for them and thus were unaccustomed to physical exertions such as running. Nonetheless, the fathers love for his son was so strong that he could not wait for his son to cover the distance between them. When the lost son apologized and offered to be his fathers hand, the father would have none of it. He orders the servants to clothe him with the best apparel and prepare a feast to celebrate his return.
Plyushko likens the ring he orders for him to the Holy Spirits seal, and the robes were symbolic of the process of restoration that sinners go through when they find their way.20
When the elder son returns from the fields, where he was dutifully working for his father, he is dismayed to learn that his father has selected the fattest calf in the herd to be slaughtered for the returning lost son.21 The son complains that he has never received any appreciation from his father despite serving him dutifully for many years. Many religious scholars liken the elder son to the Pharisees and scribes who were part of the audience. These people took issue with Jesus for dining and fellowshipping with the publicans and sinners. The priests castigate the tax collectors for their sins and their unworthiness before the Lord. While the elder sons anger was understandable, it underpins the unwillingness of pious people to welcome sinners into the presence of the Lord unless they share their beliefs. The elder brother refers to the returning as thy son when addressing his father, which shows his refusal to be a loving elder brother to his returning sibling.
The older brother is unwilling to join the family at the banquet because he feels he is underappreciated. His father tries to convince him to change his mind, going as far as referring to the returning son as your brother to invoke his sons empathy.22 The parable has proven to be ageless since it has been relevant through numerous generations and is still applicable in everyday life. The choice of title for this parable does not shift the focus of the story to the son. Arguably, the title could be changed to The Affectionate Father or The unforgiving brother. The reader quickly knows that this is a story of forgiveness and grace. Nonetheless, the permissibility of the younger sons actions is debatable. Some scholars see the act as unforgivable since it can be construed as the desire of the son to be in control, while others see it as permissible. However, in my opinion, the first argument is more compelling, and it appears that the younger sons decision to return and beg for forgiveness was not sincere. It is the realization that he may starve to death, which drives him back home. Therefore, people should not wait for life to mistreat them to remember that God is waiting for them to reach out.
Despite being less than one page long and recounted only once in the bible, the parable of the prodigal son is an ageless expression of Gods desire to welcome every lost soul into His loving arms. To fully understand the deeper meaning of the scripture in general, and parables in particular, it is important to consider the texts immediate, literary, and historical context. Despite the examination of many scholars and theologians interpretations of the parable, there seems not to be one single interpretation of the parable that takes precedence over all others. However, the main theme revolves around rebellion, jealousy, forgiveness, and grace.
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