The story of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most well-known story in the Bible. As others have observed, it may also be one of the most misunderstood. In two short essays, I will point out features of this story that are commonly neglected, aspects of Jesus’ parable that might direct us to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ well-known words. Most of these observations come from attending to details in the text, but some of them involve taking the cultural context into account as well.
First, it is important to note that the famous parable of the Prodigal Son is one part of a parabolic trilogy: the story of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, the story of the woman seeking the lost coin, and the story of the father welcoming his lost son. The three stories are meant to mutually interpret one another. How do we know? Luke says — to offer a woodenly literal translation — “He spoke to them the parable this . . .” Of course, not all commentators agree, but it seems relatively clear that whenever Luke uses language like “the parable this,” it refers to a single parable (Luke 8:9, 11; 12:41; 13:6; 15:3; 18:9; 20:9, 19). Thus, our starting point is noting that the three are one. The parts of the trilogy illume one another.
Second, the specific context is important, especially in the Gospel of Luke. Though Matthew and Mark also note that the Pharisees were offended by the fact that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10–11; 11:19; Mark 2:15–16), Luke emphasizes the matter with the use of particular term to bring out its significance. I am referring to the Greek word translated “grumble.” The English, like the onomatopoetic Greek original, puts the sound of their protest in our ears (grumble, grumble, grumble).
Matthew and John, too, use the Greek words for “grumble” (Matthew 20:11; John 6:41, 43, 61; 7:12, 32), but only in Luke is the “grumbling” of the Pharisees or the crowds said to be because Jesus has the audacity to associate with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:30; 15:1-2; 19:6-7).
Why should the word “grumble” be important? Because it is well known and its association is clear. Luke — the companion of Paul, the former Pharisee — used the same Greek word that in the LXX refers to Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness (Exodus 15:24; 16:2, 7–9, 12; 17:3; Numbers 11:1; 14:2, 27, 29, 36; 16:11, 41; 17:5, 10; Deuteronomy 1:27). There can be no question about the fact that Luke is specifically associating the scribes and Pharisees, and even the whole generation of Jesus’ day, with the rebellious generation that could not enter the promised land because of their unbelief (Numbers 14:11).
For the Pharisees to “grumble” at Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners was an expression of their unbelief in Jesus’ kingdom program: “And when all the people heard Him,even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” (Luke 7:29-30).
Since Jesus is addressing the parabolic trilogy primarily, though not exclusively, to the scribes and Pharisees, these details are essential to our understanding.
Now that we are ready to begin considering the trilogy, we have to admit that we confront a host of difficulties. From ancient times to now, commentators and theologians have been troubled by numerous features of these stories. Each story in the parable has distinct problems that would have been noticed by astute listeners in Jesus’ audience. Many of them have been remarked upon by readers of Luke for close to 2000 years.
Before detailing the problems themselves, let me discuss the question of method. How shall we deal with these perceived problems? One approach is to look for answers in the cultural context in which Jesus lived. This presupposes that we have problems with the three-part parable because we don’t know the culture. However, this often involves reading cultural background into the text rather than interpreting the text itself. For example, in the story of the lost sheep, we are told that we must understand that a first century shepherd would not leave 99 sheep alone. Thus, we have to assume there was another shepherd. Anyone in Jesus’ day would have understood that. Perhaps.
A better approach, I believe, is to understand that the “problems” were part of the parable, essential to its message. In the trilogy of Luke 15, too, Jesus is challenging His audience, as He often did, with strange teachings that provoke as many questions as answers, or maybe more. Let’s see if this approach and attention to what might seem to be secondary details offers insight into Jesus’ instruction.
First, consider the story of the lost sheep. Remember that Jesus is speaking this to “grumblers” — the Pharisees and scribes. The “story" actually is stated as a question. Which one of you would not leave the 99 and go searching for the 1 lost sheep? The question is put in such a way that the audience is expected to regard the shepherd’s actions as natural and proper. However, I think Jesus is setting His audience up.
It may be true that they would have assumed other shepherds would watch the 99, while the good shepherd goes to look for the lost sheep, but these other shepherds are conspicuous for their absence in the story as Jesus tells it.
Finding the lost sheep, the shepherd lays it on his shoulder and rejoices (the word “lay” is used in many texts, but interestingly in Luke 23:26 for laying Jesus’ cross on Simone of Cyrene). When he comes home, he calls his friends and neighbors together to rejoice with him because he has found his lost sheep. For some reason, the 99 do not seem to have been invited to the party!
If that were the end of the story, I would probably agree with interpreters that suggest the 99 sheep no longer have a function in the story, so what happens to them is not relevant. After all, this is part of a parable, not history. But in Jesus’ story, the 99 do come back!
Speaking of joy for the third time in just a few verses, Jesus says that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents “than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Jesus brings the 99 “sheep” back into the story as “righteous persons” — the kind of person who might not think he needs to submit to the baptism of John the baptizer (Remember Luke 7:29-30!).
I wrote above that I think Jesus’ question was setting the audience up. Why would I say that? Because of a specific word Jesus used. When Jesus said the shepherd would leave the 99 in “the wilderness,” His audience might have been slightly puzzled by the word “wilderness” though presumably they would swallow the bait and consider it proper for the shepherd to seek the lost sheep. But why did Jesus speak of “wilderness”?
Unless we relate the grumbling in verse 2 with the wilderness in verse 4 and the 99 righteous who need no repentance, we might not find an answer. But putting these three details together, we cannot help but notice that Jesus used a well-known and pregnant expression.
Jesus used the same Greek word that in the LXX refers to Israel in the “wilderness” (Exodus 3:1, 18; 4:27; 5:1, 3; 7:16; 8:20, 27–28; 13:18, 20; 14:3, 11–12; 15:22; 16:1, 3, 10, 14, 32; 17:1; 18:5; 19:1–2; 23:29, 31; Leviticus7:38; 16:10, 21–22; 26:31, 33; Numbers 1:1, 19; 3:4, 14; 9:1, 5; 10:12, 31; 12:16; 13:3, 17, 21–22, 26; 14:2, 16, 22, 25, 29, 32–33, 35; 15:32; 16:13; 20:1, 4; 21:1, 5, 11, 13, 20, 23; 23:28; 24:1; 26:61, 64–65; 27:3, 14; 32:13, 15; 33:6, 8, 11–12, 15–16, 36; 34:3; Deuteronomy 1:1, 19, 31, 40; 2:1, 7–8, 26; 4:43, 45; 6:4; 7:22; 8:2, 15–16; 9:7, 28; 11:5, 24; 29:5; 32:10, 51; 34:3). I know this is “reference overkill,” but I want to illustrate clearly that this word had strong literary and historical associations that would naturally have come to mind.
The Pharisees are identified in Luke’s Gospel as men who refused John’s baptism, as men who seem to think they need no repentance. They are associated with the unbelieving generation that grumbled for 40 years. The 99 sheep that are left in the wilderness belong with the wilderness generation and the Pharisees — who, unless they repent and learn to rejoice with God, will also perish in the wilderness.
The detail about the sheep left in the wilderness was not an oversight, nor was it an unimportant detail that can be filled in with cultural coloring. It was Jesus preparing the Pharisees for the punch line: more joy in heaven over the sinners and tax collectors who repent than over you Pharisees who think you need no repentance.
By leaving the 99 sheep in the infamous wilderness, Jesus is calling the Pharisees to repentance. He is extending a pointed, though gracious, invitation for them to join the party.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
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