They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: Introduction – Luke 15

We now turn our attention to the most well known of the the three lost and found stories in Luke 15, the story of the lost or prodigal son. No story in the Bible, or any other sacred literature presents such a dynamic and compassionate picture of our Father. For hundreds of years the Latin tradition has called this story, “Evangelium in Evangelio”, which means the gospel within the gospel. However, as we have mentioned in our past posts, the more familiar a story becomes, the more it takes on its own interpretation and special way of seeing the story develop that then become part of the text itself. The basis used to interpret Bible metaphors comes from the cultural assumptions of the story teller and his audience. Often, their world view is the standard from which conclusions are drawn as to what the Bible writers meant. That is why it is so important to place Bible stories into the culture in which they were originally written. Let’s look at the story of the Lost Son in light of the middle eastern culture in which it was written and see if perhaps there is some different conclusions that surface and some new light to be shed on this wonderful story.

First, we need to identify some problems that seem to exist from a casual comparison of the Lost Son story with the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin stories that precede it in Luke 15. At first glance, the first two stories appear to be in conflict with the third. The parable of the prodigal son appears to have no savior! The prodigal , “came to himself”, in the far country and then went home. If God is the Father in the story, then it would seem that God passively waits for us to return home, but does not go after us like the good shepherd and the good woman went after their lost objects. In the first two stories the finder does all the work. The shepherd leaves the flock and goes after the lost sheep till he finds it. The lost sheep cannot find his own way home. In the same way, the good woman diligently looks for the coin until she finds it. The coin can do nothing to be found on its own. Yet, on his own, the prodigal comes to or finds himself and then heads home from the far country. Could this be correct?

How can this be the gospel within the gospel as has been thought for centuries? Do these three stories conflict with each other? Can we come to God, unaided? Where is the seeker and saver of the lost, the ”word becoming flesh”, the heavy price to be paid, the mediator between God and humans and the savior that make up the “gospel” of the New Testament? More than a casual reading is needed if we are to unlock the hidden manna in this wonderful parable from our Messiah, Jesus. So, let’s get our spades and dig into the word and see what shows up. We will break the story into three parts and look at one part for each lesson. In the first lesson we will look at the, “Request for the Inheritance”; the second, “Returning Home”; and third, “The Banquet and the Older Son”. Then we will try to draw some conclusions. Stay tuned for Part 1 next week.

The Story of the Lost Sheep – Luke 15

If you will remember in our previous lesson we saw that the three stories found in Luke 15 are really one parable that Jesus told in three parts to explain to the Pharisees why He would eat with sinners. Jesus begins his explanation by telling the story of the good shepherd and his lost sheep. As we study this story, remember that Jesus’ overarching goal is to explain in a systematic manner to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law why he is associating with what the Pharisees called , ”the people of the land”, or the common, unlearned folk.

In this story of the Lost Sheep, Jesus is retelling a classical story already well known to His listeners. This theme of the shepherd and lost sheep was a very common one in the Hebrew Testament. Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ezekiel 34:1-31 all have the same characteristics and elements as this lost sheep story. Although we don’t normally think of Psalm 23 in this light, a closer look will show that lost and found is definitely the point of the 23rd Psalm. The key is found in verse 3, where it is translated, “He restoreth my soul”. The Hebrew word that is translated restore is “shuwb” which means to repent or return. Middle Eastern and Arabic translations of this verse have always said, “He brings me back”, or “He causes me to repent”.  If this is understood, then the theme of Psalm 23 becomes the same as Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. The good shepherd goes out and brings back the lost sheep. The next set of verses in Psalm 23, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness” expand more on that subject. The assumption is that the psalmist was walking in paths of unrighteousness. The good shepherd went after him, picked him up and carried him to the righteous or correct path. The shepherd caused the sheep to repent and return. Psalm 23 also closes with a meal and rejoicing, just like the parable of the lost sheep. The hearers of this lost sheep parable would have been very familiar with this type of story and would have been asking themselves,”Where is he going with this?”, and who is the shepherd, and who is the sheep?

We don’t have the space to fully develop the lost sheep stories in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but they add an important element that Jesus’ listeners would have picked up on. In these two lost sheep stories, God is mad at the shepherds of Israel because they have neglected and scattered the flock. In both accounts, God says, “I have had it with the way you are treating my sheep, so I am going to come and rescue them myself”. For example, listen to Ezekiel 34:11-16: “Behold I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out….I will bring back the strayed.”

With this background and knowledge of the Bible’s sheep stories, what would the Pharisees have thought when they heard Jesus’ story of the lost sheep, after they had complained about who He was associating with? They would have heard Him say through this parable, “I am God; I am the one that God has sent to rescue His lost sheep, the ones that you have been abusing”! Jesus was saying that He was the fulfillment of God’s promises spelled out in Psalms, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that He (God himself) would come to His people and personally seek His lost sheep. Jesus would have been saying, “This is who I am and this is the reason that I am doing what I am doing.” There is no question that Jesus was talking about Himself in this parable. As the good shepherd, He is the one that God sent to restore lost sinners to God. Jesus personally paid the great price and made the costly demonstration of love to save the helpless, lost sheep. The joy that was felt in the home of the shepherd was equated to what the joy in heaven would be like when a lost sheep was found.

But Jesus is not finished. After this wonderful story of sheep and shepherd, lost and found, love and redemption, He dramatically introduces a second story of the good woman and the lost coin. Our next lesson will examine this next story in Jesus’ reply to his astute audience of Pharisees and the teachers of the law.