Who’s Jesus talking to?
A reflection on Luke 15: 1-32 by Nathan Nettleton, 25 March 2001
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Bible Study Notes


The story of the Prodigal Son probably shares the honours with the story of the Good Samaritan for being the best known of all Jesus’ parables. It is perhaps also one of the ones which is least often heard with anything like the force and bite it would have had in the context Luke records Jesus using it in.

The thing with this parable is that, unlike most of the parables, it has several different focal points within it, and you tend to hear one or the other most prominently depending on what’s going on in your life. For example, if you are the parent of a runaway child, you may hear this parable from the perspective of the waiting father and relate to him. The story could have become known as the parable of the Waiting Father; the parable of the Prodigal Son; or the parable of the Older Brother. I even heard one preacher suggest one time that he might try preaching on it from the perspective of the fatted calf!

The reason that it has become best known as the parable of the Prodigal Son is probably because it makes such a great text for evangelistic preaching. It is easy to get people relating to the son who has run away and stuffed up his life and needs to find a way back to somewhere where he’ll be safe and secure and maybe even loved. There is nothing wrong with hearing the story from that perspective, and of course, it is the most encouraging and affirming perspective to hear it from. It’s hard to get tired of hearing that God loves us and yearns for us to be close and is always ready to come running to meet us with open arms and an instant party ready to celebrate our homecoming. I suspect that Jesus told this story lots of times and that on many of those times that’s exactly the angle he was working for the people who were listening at the time. However, even if that is true, the gospels only tell us about him telling it once, and in the context of that occasion, the emphasis falls elsewhere.

Verses 1 - 3 give us the context. The devout religious people are taking offence at the kind of company Jesus is keeping. They reckon that he should either be steering clear of the “tax collectors and outcasts”, or else giving them harsh sermons about their need to repent and mend their ways whenever he crosses their paths. Instead they see him relaxing in their company and enjoying food, drink and conversation. So far as they are concerned, this behaviour proves his lack of religious credibility.

In the face of their objections Jesus tells three stories. The first two and a half are pretty much reruns of each other. The first is the story of the shepherd who looses a sheep and leaves the other 99 until he finds the lost one. When he finds it, he’s so happy he wants to throw a party with his friends. Jesus concludes it by saying that all heaven rejoices over one sinner who returns to God. The second is the story of a woman who loses a valuable coin and spends the whole day searching the house for it. When she finds it, she’s so happy he wants to throw a party with her friends. Jesus concludes it by saying that all heaven rejoices over one sinner who returns to God. Then the third story begins along similar lines. The main difference is that this time we are dealing with a story of an actual sinner who gets himself in a complete mess, and it’s entirely his own fault. The story though is similar because we have a man who has lost his son and desperately wants him back. And then he gets him back, the one who was lost is found and the man is so happy, he’s throwing a party with a big spit roast and singing and dancing.

This time, though, Jesus doesn’t stop with the party. There’s another character in the story - the elder brother. One of the techniques used by traditional story tellers is “broken repetition”. You’d know it from the many jokes that work that way. You have a build up that keeps repeating the same line or pattern over and over until the punch line that breaks the pattern with a funny twist. The technique doesn’t only work in jokes though, and Jesus is using it here. One story, two stories, three stories, and then the twist that packs a punch. The lost is found - let’s celebrate! The lost is found - let’s celebrate! The lost is found - let’s celebrate! “I will not celebrate!!!”

So suddenly, Jesus is not just saying that God and all the company of heaven celebrate over every sinner who turns back to God; he is contrasting two very very different reactions to the sinners who turn back to God. In a sense, the prodigal son himself is not the point at all. The focus is not so much on him, but on the two different reactions to his return. Perhaps what we have then, at least on this particular occasion when Jesus told the story, is really the Parable of the Loving Father and the Angry Brother. And in the face of the hostile disapproval being voiced by the devout religious people, that is one very pointed parable to tell!

Questions for Discussion

• Jesus is contrasting two reactions to the repentance of lost people. What does the parable illustrate about God’s reaction? What does the father in the story teach us about God?

• Jesus compares the reaction of the elder brother in the story to the reactions he’s hearing from the devoutly religious Pharisees. Put yourself in the shoes of the Pharisees or of the elder brother in the story. Why are you angry at the welcome your father is offering your wayward brother?

• How do you see the attitude of the elder brother expressed in the modern church, or perhaps even in yourself?

• What things does the elder brother need to better understand in order to be able to react with God-like joy at the return of the brother? How do those things relate to our situation in today’s church.