Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32
4th Sunday in Lent - Year C

Other texts:

Note: If you have a broadband connection, be sure to visit - Good Samaritan and one of the studies in my parables series HERE.

Note: Luke 15:1-10 is the assigned Gospel for Proper 19 C and some of my contextual notes come from that posting. I don't think that our text can be studied without looking at the two parables that precede it (as well as the introductory verses that are part of our lesson).

I know that I will be omitting some obvious themes from our text, but there are too many to try to include them all. I will be highlighting some new insights that have come to me in my study of the text.


Chapter 15 is connected with the previous chapter through its picture of the great banquet. Jesus is criticized for whom he eats with!

The first two parables end with a statement about repentance. On one hand, that presents an absurd image. The idea of a sheep repenting is only slightly less absurd than the idea of a coin repenting!

On the other hand, Richard Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) suggests a new definition of repentance:

The only possible action in this story that could constitute repentance is the finding of the lost. Repentance, therefore, may be defined as our acceptance of being found. (Jensen credits this insight to Kenneth Bailey's book, Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15) [p. 167]

Later Jensen iterates:

Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that we acknowledge our own "lostness." [p. 169]

and specifically about the younger son:

The father simply gives him back his sonship as an act of grace. The son accepts. He repents: he accepts being found! [p. 175]

If we take the meaning of metanoeo as "to change one's mind," then what is suggested by Jensen is that one's understanding of the relationship is changed -- which doesn't come about because of the actions of the "lost" one, but from the actions of the Finder.

A slightly different image of repentance might be noted when one realizes that what was lost originally belonged to the owner/father from the start. Repentance, then, might be understood as the restoration of a lost relationship, rather than the creation of a relationship that never existed before. I wonder how this applies to evangelism which frequently assumes that the "lost" are people who have no relationship with God. Should are starting point be that God, as Creator, has established a relationship with all people? Or that Christ's death and resurrection establishes a relationship with all sinners?

Tannehill (Luke) adds an emotional element to this theme:

Repentance is more an experience of being found by a concerned seeker than the product of human effort. And its public sign is joy at the gift of new life rather than doleful remorse. [p. 238]

This can lead to the "emotional" theme, which I think is a key to the entire chapter, which is found in the phrase, "Rejoice with me" (sygchairo vv. 6 & 9). See also related terms chairo = "rejoice" in vv. 15:5, 32; chara = "joy" in vv. 15:7, 10; and euphraino = "rejoice, celebrate" in 15:23, 24, 29, 32.

Joy is the emotion of repentance! The Pharisees and scribes in the introduction will not rejoice with Jesus over the sinners who eat with him. Instead they criticize.

In a sense all three parables end with unanswered questions: Will the friends and neighbors of the shepherd rejoice with him? Will the friends and neighbors of the woman rejoice with her? Will the older son rejoice with his father who eats with his son? Often the point of a parable is the unanswered question which the hearer is left to answer.

Note also: The central figure in the rejoicing is not the found thing/son; but the finder.

In the conclusions to the parables, it is clear that all of heaven is rejoicing (as well as the father) -- asking us the question: "Will we rejoice with the heavenly host over sinners being found and repenting?"

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) expands this thought and perhaps suggests another aspect of "repentance" (metanoeo = literally, "to change one's way of thinking") required in these parables:

Neither sheep nor coins can repent, but the parable aims not at calling the "sinners" to repentance but at calling the "righteous" to join the celebration. Whether one will join the celebration is all-important because it reveals whether one's relationships are based on merit or mercy. Those who find God's mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents. Thus they exclude themselves from God's grace. [p. 298]

Perhaps the ones who are most in need of repentance are the judgmental Pharisees and scribes; the older brother; and any others who are unwilling to join the joyful celebration of the "Finders".

Fred Danker (Jesus and the New Age) writes some challenging things to our congregations about this passage:

Against so much that is drab in religion, Jesus depicts the happy laughter of a Father who invites the angels to the home-coming festival. Somber, morbid religiosity has no place in the Kingdom. Dancing, the blowing of trumpets, beating of drums is a legitimate part of the church's worship (cf. 2 Samuel 6:5). The cult of respectability must give way to the cultivation of the art of joy over God's delight in reclaiming the refuse of humanity. In worship the Shepherd is congratulated, not the sheep. God does not commend the righteous for remaining righteous (vs. 7), and Jesus has not come to compliment them for what they ought to be in the first place. Nor has he criticized their standards. Their position is not made less secure by Jesus' outreach to publicans and sinners. All he expects of them is that they share his joy over the return of the lost. [p. 169]


I'm afraid that most of us would have agreed with the Pharisees and Scribes. As parents we are concerned about who our children may associate with. We have the mottoes: "Birds of a feather flock together" and "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch" and "Guilt by association." As clergy, don't we have to be careful about who we may be seen with and where? I imagine most of us have listened to or read materials on boundary crossings and misconduct. The concern about Jesus' eating partners has some legitimacy.

Note also that Jesus is not out searching for and seeking the lost. The tax collectors and sinners are coming to him -- to hear him -- exactly what Jesus asked for in the verse just before this text: "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" (14:35b). Jesus seems to invite them to eat with him. (Hmmm -- sounds like word and sacrament stuff again.) "Eating with" (synesthio) seems to have been a problem in the early church. Peter is criticized for eating with Gentiles (Acts 11:3), but not criticized for baptizing them! We still struggle with who should be welcome to the Lord's Table. At what age does Jesus welcome people to eat with him? Is baptism necessary in order to be welcome and eat with Jesus? What if they were baptized "Mormon" or in some other cult group? Does one have to be a believer first? It would seem that if these "sinners" were coming to listen to Jesus, they had to have had some kind of belief in him. Does one have to be acceptable to us before being acceptable to God?


Culpepper uses all three characters in his title to this section. Each character plays a significant role in the parable.

The parable begins with "A certain man had two sons." They are not referred to as "brothers" at this point. From the beginning, the important relationship is that between the children and their father -- not necessarily between the siblings -- although that will have some greater importance later.

Jensen, using Bailey's book mentioned above, adds some of the original cultural aspects to this story. (Bailey spent most of his living in the Middle East and has access to "eastern" attempts at understanding this story.) I will be quoting frequently from Jensen, who suggests that the sermon for this week be a retelling of the story; with, perhaps, some of the amplifications offered by the first century culture.

It is a surprise in a Middle Eastern story that the younger son speaks first. He is out of his place already! What he speaks is even more astonishing. He is basically telling his father to "drop dead." All Eastern commentators on this story acknowledge that the son's request is totally illegitimate. It is an unthinkable request. A father only gives the inheritance in death.

The father should explode with anger at such an inappropriate request. He does not explode. He grants a request that was completely unimaginable in his time. Such is the nature of the father in the story. This is a very unusual father! [p. 172]

Luke tells us, literally, that the father "divided between them his life (bios) in v. 12. Later, v. 30, the older brother will accuse the younger of "devouring [the father's] life (bios) with prostitutes."

Especially in light of what Jesus will do, the Father gives his life to his sons -- it would seem that the older son also received his share -- a double share -- of his father's life/property.

Jensen goes on:

The son goes out and squanders his property in dissolute living. Eastern commentators do not take this to mean a necessarily immoral lifestyle on the part of the son. He is a spend-thrift to be sure. He spends money like it is going out of style. We often talk about the Prodigal as being engaged in all kinds of immoral activities. Eastern commentators do not read it that way. It is the Elder Brother who suggests that the Prodigal has spent his money on prostitutes (v. 30). The Elder Brother is not a very reliable source of information on the matter! [p. 172]

The Greek words in v. 13 do not imply immoral behaviors, but thoughtless actions. "Scattering" (diaskorpizo) the money without any thought of future consequences (asotos). He is living just for the moment. This may have worked out all right, except for the natural disaster of famine which he hadn't counted on. The younger son's dire straights were not completely his own fault. The famine, of which he had no part in causing, also played some part in it.


In verse 16 the Prodigal reaches the low point. He wishes he were a pig! At least the pigs had something to eat.

And then the young man "came to himself." We usually think of this as his moment of repentance. But that is not the meaning of repentance that these stories of the lost in Luke 15 convey. Repentance in these stories occurs when the lost is found. Bailey notes that Arabic translations of these words read that the Prodigal "got smart." He got smart in the sense that he now was ready to look out for himself. He had a plan. He knew that his father had many hired hands who had bread enough and to spare. He'll go back home. He knows he can't go back as a son. He won't go back as a slave. So he will go back as a hired hand. "He will not live at home, and not join the family. He will pay is own way. First he must convince his father to support the plan" (Bailey, p. 133). The Prodigal's plan, that is, is to earn his restored status. "Give me a second chance. I'll earn it back and repay you. I am not now worthy to be called your son, but I will be if you give me a chance" (Bailey, p. 133).

I hadn't noticed before the distinction between a "hired hand" [misthios from misthos = "pay, wages; reward" vv. 17, 19] who is paid for his work; and a "slave" [doulos v. 22] who is the property of the owner. NOTE: The older son uses the verb douleuo in v. 29 -- present tense -- to refer to his understanding of continual "slaving" for his father. What kind of relationship is that?

I also note, that in contrast to the first two parables, the father is not going out seeking after his "lost" son. He stays home. Similar to Jesus in the first three verses, he offers something that will attract the "lost" to come "home." In the introduction, Jesus offers teaching that draws sinners to him. In the parable, it is food! -- although the returning son receives much more!

The Alban Institute catalogue gives the following description for the book: Feeding the Flock: Restaurants and Churches You'd Stand in Line For, by Russell Chandler:

This award-winning journalist and veteran religion writer for the Los Angels Times offers striking lessons and principles of restaurant success that can be applied creatively to church leadership and growth. Chandler lightheartedly delivers solid, non-preachy, motivating insights into ways churches can be faithful to Jesus' teaching "If you love me, feed my sheep."

Throughout the Bible, eating is an important image. I used this idea with a recent study on this text and asked, "What makes for a good restaurant for you?" and "What makes for a bad restaurant for you?" After discussing some of the good qualities of restaurants, we explored ways those qualities might be applied to churches. Having known a few restaurant managers, I didn't know any of them who went out seeking customers. Hopefully, they created such a positive experience with good food and good service that the eaters recommended and encouraged others to come and try the food. Shouldn't our church programs be just as attractive and appetizing?

Anyway, back to our text.

We overhear the younger son rehearsing his confessional speech. Then we will hear him give it to his father -- except that the father interrupts him before he is able to say his last line. I think that the timing of this interruption is significant.

In the rehearsal (vv. 18-19) he concludes his brief confession with; "treat me as one of your hired hands." Before he says that line to his father, his father has ordered a long robe, a ring, sandals, and a celebration. A footnote on v. 22 in the Contemporary English Version says about "the ring...sandals:"

These show that the young man's father fully accepted him as his son. A ring was a sign of high position in the family. Sandals showed that he was a son instead of a slave, since slaves did not usually wear sandals.

Precisely in the son's speech where we would expect him to ask to be received as a hired hand, the father receives him as an honored son.

There are some significant comments about the act of the father running to his son while he is still a long way off.

Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreter's Bible):

In ancient Palestine it was regarded as unbecoming -- a loss of dignity -- for a grown man to run. Yet the father set aside all concern for propriety and ran. [p. 302]


Bailey notes that Arabic translations of this story refuse to translate this running! They avoid this because it is clear that the father here is acting as God acts towards prodigals. Running is public is too humiliating to attribute to a person who symbolizes God. [p. 174]

Why this lack of proper actions by the father? Was he just overcome with joy at seeing his son? There may be other reasons.

Tannehill (Luke) comments on v. 20:

[The father's] response is described in a rush of verbs that move rapidly from seeing to running, embracing, and kissing. By these actions the father gives an emotional welcome before the son speaks a word. The father does not wait for explanations, confessions, or promises. Nor is he concerned with the restoration of his own damaged honor. It has been suggested that running to meet the son while he is still at a distance also has the purpose of protecting the son from the scorn of the rest of the village, who would remember the way that he had treated his father and make their feelings known (Bailey, 181-82).

The public display of reconciliation is also indicated by killing the fatted calf. Tannehill:

Meat was not part of the daily diet. The whole animal would have to be eaten in a short time or the meat would spoil, so the father is expecting a large group. Perhaps the whole village will be invited. The father is not planning a quiet family gathering but is making a public gesture to proclaim his acceptance of his son so that the whole community will follow suit. (Note that when the father states the reason for the party in v. 24 he explicitly refers to the prodigal as "this son of mine.") All of this is done without requiring any period of testing or acts of public penance from the wayward son. [p. 242]

This party is in honor of the father -- like in the two previous parables, the parties are for the shepherd and the women who find. This means that the older son's refusal to join the party is an indication of not honoring his father!

Perhaps the father leaving the party to seek his older son could also indicate the setting aside of his honor for the sake of this wayward child.

The slave's response in v. 27 reminds the older son of the relationships: "Your brother" and "your father." The older son will not use these terms. He seems to indicate his relationship with his father as that of an obedient slave (v. 29). When talking to his father, he refers to "this son of yours" (v. 30). However, the father reminds him of these relationships: in v. 31: He calls him "child" and in v. 32, says: "this brother of yours."

The father is seeking to reestablish the proper relationship between himself and his older son; and as Culpepper writes: "In the world of the parable, one cannot be a son without also being a brother." [p. 304]

Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries): might be well to underscore two elements in the story that often get neglected. One is the party. It was the music and dancing that offended the older son. Of course, let the younger son return home. Judaism and Christianity have clear provisions for the restoration of the penitent returnee, but where does it say that such provisions include a banquet with music and dancing? Yes, let the prodigal return, but to bread and water, not fatted calf; in sackcloth, not a new robe; wearing ashes, not a new ring; in tears, not in merriment; kneeling, not dancing. Has the party canceled the seriousness of sin and repentance? ... The second element often overlooked is that the father not only had two sons but loved two sons, went out to two sons (vv. 20, 28), and was generous to two sons (vv. 12, 22, 31). [p. 188]

Earlier I mentioned the word euphraino = "rejoice, celebrate" in 15:23, 24, 29, 32. This word is also used in a negative sense:

Is singing and dancing wrong? The fact that there was dancing strongly suggests to me that the music was "danceable," that is, it had a beat (not plainsong style of music) and there were probably percussion instruments, e.g., drums, tambourines, guitar-like plucked instruments, etc. In the three verses mentioned above, such "celebrating" seems not to have been approved by Jesus; but the joyful celebration in our text is presented as a model of rejoicing with heaven over repentant sinners. Perhaps the difference is that in the parable, it is the Father who is being honored. It is the restored relationships that the Father has brought about that is celebrated. It is a public witness by the community, who has been invited to share in the celebration, that the Father has restored the relationship.

I conclude with a comment Jensen makes:

What might it do for our evangelism efforts if people knew that our church is a church that throws a party whenever the lost are found? [p. 170]

I am certain that if we did that, there would be many church members and community people participating in the party, and many who would criticize and stay away.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901