Jesus teaches the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
As I write in every chapter:
This commentary and entire website is for everyone, but it is mainly for those in oppressed or developing countries, where Christians cannot afford or have access to wonderful Study Bibles or commentaries. I hope it helps them.
The commentary has a practical application (GrowApp) at the end of each section of Scripture, for discipleship.
The translation is mine. I offer it only to learn what the Greek really says. It tends to be literal, but pure literalism and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
The Greek terms with brief definitions can be looked up at biblehub.com. However, I hope to bring different nuances to the few words I focus on. And I keep things nontechnical.
Links are provided for further study.
Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10)
1 All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing close to him, to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and teachers of the law began to grumble, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” 3 But he told them this parable, saying, 4 “Which man among you having a hundred sheep and after he lost one of them would not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? 5 And after he finds it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And going home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I found my sheep that was lost!’ 7 I tell you that in this manner there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who have no need of repentance.
8 “Or which woman having ten drachmas, if she lost one drachma, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and look carefully until she found it? 9 And after she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I found the drachma that I lost!’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God at one sinner repenting.”
I love how the unacceptable were drawing close to him. He had a magnetic personality, true, but this drawing was done by the power of the Spirit. They liked his message of acceptance and redemption. The imperfect tense may indicate a habitual action, an emerging custom.
“tax collectors”: You can learn more about them here:
“sinners”: It is the adjective hamartōlos (pronounced hah-mahr-toh-loss and used 47 times and 18 times in Luke), and it means as I translated it. It is someone who does not observe the law, in this context: “unobservant or irreligious person … of one who is especially sinful.” BDAG defines the adjective hamartōlos (pronounced hah-mar-toh-loss and used 47 times) as follows: “pertaining to behavior or activity that does not measure up to standard moral or [religious] expectations (being considered an outsider because of failure to conform to certain standards is a frequent semantic component. Persons engaged in certain occupations, e.g. herding and tanning [and tax collecting] that jeopardized [religious] purity, would be considered by some as ‘sinners,’ a term tantamount to ‘outsider.’” Non-Israelites were especially considered out of bounds [see Acts 10:28].)” “Sinner, with a general focus on wrongdoing as such.” “Irreligious, unobservant people.” “Unobservant” means that he did not care about law keeping or observing the law.
Do you fail to conform to certain standards? Maybe you did break the demands of moral and religious law. Pray and repent, and God will accept you. The good news: God promises us forgiveness when we repent.
“teachers of the law”: This term is often translated as “scribes.”
You can learn more about them here:
Both groups were the Watchdogs of Theology and Behavior (cf. Garland, p. 243). The problem which Jesus had with them can be summed up in Eccl. 7:16: “Be not overly righteous.” He did not quote that verse, but to him they were much too enamored with the finer points of the law, while neglecting its spirit (Luke 11:37-52; Matt. 23:1-36). Instead, he quoted this verse from Hos. 6:6: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7, ESV). Overdoing righteousness damages one’s relationship with God and others.
“this man”: it could more literally read, “this one” for the word man is not in the Greek. The term shows the derogatory outlook about Jesus, because the accusers did not use his name. They stood aloof from this wandering itinerant preacher.
“grumble”: it is the verb diagonguzō (pronounced dee-ah-gon-goo-zo), and it is used only here and in Luke 19:7. It is onomatopoeic (the sound of a word gives away the meaning, as in buzz). It means “grumble” or “complain.” The related verb is gonguzō (pronounced gon-goo-zoh), and it too is onomatopoeic. It means “grumble, mutter, complain” (Matt. 20:11; Luke 5:30; John 6:41, 43, 61; 1 Cor. 10:10) and also “secret talk, whisper” (John 7:32). These are the only verses where this verb appears, so it is comparatively rare. Apparently, adding the preposition dia as a prefix makes things a little more thorough.
“welcomes” it could be translated as “have a good will towards them.” In modern terms, he had positive feelings or a friendly outlook towards these undesirable classes of people.
“eats”: in this culture eating dinner was significant. Even Peter withdrew from eating with Gentile Christians when extra-strict Messianic Jews showed up from Jerusalem (Gal. 2:11-14). Eating together shows a close connection to the guests. Plus, some foods for Jews (even for Messianic Jews at this early time) were unkosher, so it was too risky to eat with Gentiles untrained in such matters.
“welcomes” and “eats” are in the present tense and indicates an ongoing pattern.
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night. (Ps. 1:1-2, NIV)
In this verse of Psalm 1, “stand in the way” could be translated as “stand in the path.” In any case, be careful of the company you keep.
“welcomes”: it could be translated as “welcomes towards himself.”
“sinners”: see v. 1 for more comments.
“parable”: literally, the word parable (parabolē in Greek) combines para– (pronounced pah-rah and means “alongside”) and bolē (pronounced boh-lay and means “put” or even “throw”). Therefore, a parable puts two or more images or ideas alongside each other to produce a clear truth. It is a story or narrative or short comparison that reveals the kingdom of God and the right way to live in it and the Father’s ways of dealing with humanity and his divine plan expressed in his kingdom and life generally. The Shorter Lexicon says that the Greek word parabolē can sometimes be translated as “symbol,” “type,” “figure,” and “illustration,” the latter term being virtually synonymous with parable.
“man”: it is the Greek noun anthrōpos (pronounced ahn-throw-poss), and even in the plural some interpreters say that it means “men.” However, throughout the Greek written before and during the NT, in the plural it means people in general, including womankind (except in some cases). In the singular it can mean “person.” So a “person” or “people” or “men and women” (and so on) is almost always the most accurate translation, despite what more conservative translations say. In this verse, however, the context clearly indicates a man, a male, because shepherds were usually men and the pronouns “he” and “him.”
“The sheep would have been counted as they entered into the gold and passed under the shepherd’s staff (Jer 33:13; Ezek 20:37)” (Garland, comment on 15:4). In the wilderness the shepherd counted the sheep and found on missing. One could object that the shepherd should not have left the ninety-nine unprotected, but shepherds often knew each other, but in the story the loss of one merely highlights the emotion of loss (Garland, on 15:4).
Bock is right: “In the story he comes up one short. In all likelihood, if this was a typical search, he left the ninety-nine with someone to protect them and went out to look for the missing animal. The shepherd would look until he failed to find the, found its tattered remains, or located the animals. The point is that the lost sheep receives special attention over those that are safe and sound” (p. 1300). Bock says in footnote 12 that Luke and the other Gospel writers abbreviated the telling of the story. “Wilderness” could also be translated as an open field, a heath, where animals grazed. So the ninety-nine would not be neglected.
“lost”: it is the verb apollumi (pronounced ah-pol-loo-mee), and it means, depending on the context: (1) “to cause or experience destruction (active voice) ruin, destroy”; (middle voice) “perish, be ruined”; (2) “to fail to obtain what one expects or anticipates, lose out on, lose”; (3) “to lose something that one already has or be separated from a normal connection, lose, be lost” (BDAG). The Shorter Lexicon adds “die.” In this verse and in v. 6 it means the third definition.
It was a big risk to leave behind the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness or desert to find just one sheep. What if a predator were to attack one of the ninety-nine? This shows the love and concern the shepherd has for one of his lost sheep.
Jesus also personalizes it for the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They considered shepherds to be low-grade, because they were not educated in the law. Now Jesus places these religious leaders in the shoes (or sandals) of the shepherds! This is a small part of the Great Reversal, announced in Luke 1:51-53, where Mary sang that Jesus and his kingdom would exalt the poor and humble, while the rich and powerful would be demoted. In Luke 2:34 Simeon prophesied that Jesus was appointed for the rising and falling of many. Here the lowly shepherd was going to show more concern for a sheep, while the religious leaders were not showing love for lost people. Are the religious leaders so confused about the law—are they so steeped in the ceremonial aspects of the law—that they could not love the lost, the last, and the least? They had lost their perspective and a sense of proportion, while the lowly shepherd had a better outlook.
“go after”: the shepherd is active in his search. He looks for the sheep. The Father is looking for lost sheep. Are you one of them? Or do you look for the lost one?
Jesus would cause the fall of the mighty and the rise of the needy, and the rich would be lowered, and the poor raised up. It is the down elevator and up elevator. Those at the top will take the down elevator, and those at the bottom will take the up elevator.
The shepherd placed it on his shoulders, by wrapping the two pairs of legs around either shoulder and holding it by its feet. Sheep could weigh about 70 pounds (31.7kgs) The Greco-Roman image of the boy carrying the sheep was transformed into the Good Shepherd image (google it). Wonderful image.
Then the shepherd cared so deeply about his found sheep that when he returns home—presumably after leading his hundred sheep with him!—calls together his friends and neighbors. To be honest, I probably would not have done that because I’m not a shepherd, so I can’t relate. Come to think of it, I might have let the one sheep wander off and counted it as a business loss. But not so with Jesus (or the Father).
“rejoice with” could more literally be translated as “co-rejoice.” Since I’m not a shepherd, I might have said, “congrats!” and then moved on with my life. What’s the big deal about finding one sheep? But this shepherd lived in a community of agrarians who took agricultural matters seriously. More specifically, he lived among other shepherds.
For more about “rejoice” and “joy,” see the next verse.
“lost” see v. 4 for more comments.
“In a communal society personal joy must be shared to be genuine” (Garland, comment on 15:6, quoting another scholar named Wendland.)
“joy”: The noun chara (pronounced khah-rah and used 59 times in the NT) means “joy, rejoicing, happiness, gladness” (Zondervan’s Interlinear). BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the NT, says it means “the experience of gladness”; “a state of joyfulness”; “a person or thing that causes joy, joy.” It is the noun that appears in Gal. 5:22, as one of the fruit of the Spirit.
The verb is chairō (pronounced khy-roh and used 74 times), and it means “to be in a state of happiness and well-being, rejoice, be glad (BDAG).
The verb is in the passive voice, and here it is the divine passive, which is an understated way of saying that God is the one who rejoices (Stein comment on v. 7). Imagine that. God rejoices in your salvation.
“sinner”: see v. 1 for more comments.
“repentance”: it is the noun metanoia (pronounced meh-tah-noi-ah), and it literally means “change of mind.” But it goes deeper than mental assent or agreement. Another word for repent is the Greek stem streph– (including the prefixes ana-, epi-, and hupo-), which means physically “to turn” (see Luke 2:20, 43, 45). That reality-concept is all about new life. One turns around 180 degrees, going from the direction of death to the new direction of life.
Yes, repentance is wonderful as a foundation, but we must move on to Christ’s deeper teachings. In our context today, we should teach repentance to an audience where there may be the unrepentant and unconverted, but let’s not harangue the church with constant calls for them to repent. They need mature teachings. Too many fiery preachers never allow their churches to grow, but shriek about fire and brimstone (eternal punishment). Happily, this seems to be changing, and preachers bring up repentance, but also realize that there are many other doctrines in Scripture.
“righteous”: Jesus proclaimed the same idea in Luke 5:32. Who are the righteous? There are two main interpretations.
First, some interpreters say that certain people are righteous in their behavior. After all, Luke says Simeon was righteous and devout (Luke 2:25). Paul testified that before he came to Christ, he kept the law blamelessly and was faultlessly righteous in the law’s terms (Phil. 3:4-6). The law, particularly the Ten Commandments, are not that difficult, particularly for the extra-scrupulous. Paul was an ex-Pharisee, much like these Pharisees. I have no doubt that he kept the law, outwardly. Even “Average Joes and Janes” don’t steal or commit perjury or commit adultery, nor do they make images of gods. They can live free from coveting their neighbors’ possessions, in outward appearance. This interpretation says Jesus was not calling the Pharisees and teachers of the law to repentance, because they were indeed righteous on a social level and by outward appearance, but he was calling the sinners and tax collectors to repent. The Pharisees and teachers had a certain knowledge of the God of Israel.
Second, some interpreters say Jesus is using irony. The issue is of the heart. Jesus deepens the requirements and turns them into love for God first. If we love God, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), Jesus deepens the requirements of the law to the heart, and everyone fails in some way. Therefore, they are unhealthy in some way before God and need him through Christ. No one can be righteous enough for God, and if the Pharisees saw their own need, they would realize this. Jesus is calling them to repentance, if they could only but see it.
My preference: the second interpretation, with some truths in the first one. All Jews, even the extra-devout, need Jesus their Messiah. However, some people are disciplined enough to live an outwardly righteous life, and God likes it when they do. There is a lot more peace and honesty spread around society. But their good-natured behavior is not enough to save them before a thrice-holy God (Is. 6).
It is good to know that heaven is joyful. But the creatures who inhabit heaven rejoice over salvation and moral issues. They celebrate repentance. They hare joyful with a purpose, about eternal matters. Paradoxically, they do not rejoice as much over the righteous who do not need repentance. Interestingly, however, there is still joy in heaven even about the righteous. Bottom line: heaven is joyful and celebratory. Can we say that God himself is joyful? Yes! He rejoices us with gladness and sings over us with joy (Zeph. 3:17).
Once again: Word Study on Joy
A drachma (roughly = a denarius) is worth a day’s wage for agricultural workers. She saved up ten, so she was fairly prosperous, up to a point, and Jesus’s listeners would recognize it immediately. But that’s not the main purpose of the brief parable.
The question assumes an affirmative answer. Yes, she would light a lamp and sweep the whole house until she found it.
As with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, she actively looks for it and does practical things, like lighting a lamp and sweeping, and actually looking, until she finds it. Her active searching for something that is lost shows the Father’s active search for a lost soul. She looks “carefully” or “scrupulously” or “thoroughly.”
Then she responds like the shepherd did. In her world or neighborhood, she calls or invites her friends and neighbors to celebrate the fact that she found it. She tells them to “rejoice with me.” The verb “rejoice with” could literally be translated “co-rejoice.”
For other key words here, see v. 6.
Then when God informs the angels that the lost person has been found, the angels cheer. Perhaps an angel writes his name in the Book of Life.
“in the presence of”: it is one adjective enōpion (pronounced eh-noh-pea-on and literally “in the face of”). We should not exclude angels from rejoicing, just because the joy happens in their presence. Preachers who say this are hinting that God is the (only) one who rejoices. That idea takes things too far. As we saw in v. 7, both God and the angels celebrate a sinner returning home.
Liefeld and Pao: “Moreover, Jesus’ final comment (v. 10) reinforces the point: ‘In the presence of angels’ is a reverential reference to God, as is ‘in heaven’ (v. 7). This parable, like that of the lost sheep, justifies Jesus’ welcome of sinners (v. 2)” (comment on 9-10).
“angels”: An angel, both in Hebrew and Greek, is really a messenger. Angels are created beings, while Jesus was the one who created all things, including angels (John 1:1-4). Renewalists believe that angels appear to people in their dreams or in person. It is God’s ongoing ministry through them to us.
Here is a multi-part study of angels in the area of systematic theology, but first, here is a summary list of the basics:
(a) Are messengers (in Hebrew mal’ak and in Greek angelos);
(b) Are created spirit beings;
(c) Have a beginning at their creation (not eternal);
(d) Have a beginning, but they are immortal (deathless).
(e) Have moral judgment;
(f) Have a certain measure of free will;
(g) Have high intelligence;
(h) Do not have physical bodies;
(i) But can manifest with immortal bodies before humans;
(j) They can show the emotion of joy.
“sinner”: see my comments at v. 1.
“repents”: see v. 7 for more comments.
GrowApp for Luke 15:1-10
A.. How was God searching for you to bring you to repentance?
B.. What is your repentance-conversion story?
Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)
11 Then he said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that comes to me.’ And he divided for them his property. 13 After not many days the younger son gathered up everything and struck out on a journey into a faraway country, and there he squandered his property, by living recklessly. 14 And while he was spending everything, a powerful famine occurred in that country, and he began to be in lack. 15 He went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into the fields to feed the pigs. 16 And he even longed to be fed from the carob pods that the pigs were eating. But no one was giving him anything.
17 But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have an abundance of food, but I perish here in this famine! 18 I will get up, go to my father, and tell him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired workers.’” 20 So, he got up and went to his own father. And while he was coming from a long distance away, his father saw him and felt compassion. He ran, fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 But his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly! Bring the best robe and put it on him! Give him a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Bring out the fatted calf and slaughter it! Let’s eat and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead and lives again; he was lost and has been found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 His older son was in the field, and as he was coming in and nearing the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And when he summoned one of the servants, he began asking what these things possibly could be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has returned safe and sound!’ 28 But he got angry and was unwilling to go in. And his father went out and invited him in. 29 But in reply he said to his father, ‘Consider how many years I have served you and never broke your commandment, and you never gave me even a kid goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends! 30 But when this son of yours has come, who had devoured all your property with prostitutes; you slaughter the fatted calf for him!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘Child, you are always with me, and everything of mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead, and he lives; he had been lost and was found!’”
I approach this most beloved parable with fear and trembling. In fact, I got a little moved once or twice while I translated it. Preachers have rightly gotten much use out of it. They have focused on the lost son, which speaks to a wayward sinner outside of Christ and his kingdom, and that interpretation is fine. But one commentator labels this parable, Parable of the Forgiving Father (Bock). Exactly right. It is more about the father than the son, but since in Luke 15 the previous two parables were about being lost, I stayed with the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament’s suggestion: Parable of the Lost Son. The traditional title is Parable of the Prodigal Son. “Prodigal” means wasteful or spending money prodigally or drunken behavior or loose and reckless living. See v. 13 for more comments.
Marshall quotes another scholar (Danker) who offers an ancient, real-life papyrus letter from a son to his mother:
‘Greetings: I hope you are in good health; it is my constant prayer to Lord Serapis. I did not expect you to come to Metropolis, therefore I did not go there myself. At the same time, I was ashamed to go to Kanaris because I am so shabby. I am writing to tell you that I am naked. I plead with you, forgive me. I know well enough what I have done to myself. I have learned my lesson. I know I made a mistake. I have heard from Postumus who met you in the area of Arisnoe. Unfortunately he told you everything. Don’t you know that I would rather be a cripple than owe so much as a cent to any man? I plead, I plead with you … (Signed) Antonios Longus, your son.’
The letter was not written in a Christian context, but it shows common humanity, when people mess up. In this case Antonius Longus messed up and begged for forgiveness. We don’t know the outcome, but we know how the Father in Jesus’ parable responds.
The parable is divided into four movements:
(1).. The younger son’s decision to strike out on his own;
(2).. His spending wastefully and consequently suffering under a famine;
(3).. His coming to himself or his senses and returning home;
(4).. His older brother’s response.
Each of those major movements could be subdivided, but I’ll let the reader decide how to do this.
Recall at in 15:2, the Pharisees and teachers of the law grumbled about welcoming sinners. This parable can be applied to family relationships, salvation, redemption after major mistakes, overcoming resentments, and a loving, generous and wise father. A good story has multiple layers. And Jesus may intend to rebuke the Pharisees and teachers of the law in the older son.
Academic commentators calculate the younger son’s age to be about seventeen. He went out ahead of the natural order of things. It was, in fact, a violation of family rules. An insult. The father writes up a will, and only on his death does the property pass to his two sons. The younger son usually did not get as much, but sometimes in Israelite culture the entire estate remained within the clan, so the younger son could inherit, if the estate was large enough. And it seems this father’s estate was large and prosperous, judging from the servants and hired workers. In any case, his father saw the inevitable and realized his son had free will. He divided up the estate.
The younger son’s knowledge of his father was shallow. He should have remained at home and come to know him. But he knew better and left. How many times do believers abandon their shallow faith and walk away from deepening their knowledge of God?
Then the younger son looked around at all the hustle and bustle on his father’s estate and said, “No thanks! I’m leaving. I can do better than this. All these rules are stifling me. I gotta be me!” So he gathered up all his belongings, including his money, and took off, without even an appreciative goodbye or a friendly word to his father. He just left. He did not know his father deeply enough. Gratitude before God is a signal that a person has a deeper relationship with him and understands how God sustains him. He knows his own heart and his Father’s heart.
Then he went full-scale lunatic with his foolish and deficient personal life, his wild lifestyle. He spent money like there was no tomorrow.
Two background passages:
Whoever loves pleasure will become poor;
whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich. (Prov. 21:17)
21 For your ways are in full view of the Lord,
and he examines all your paths.
22 The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them;
the cords of their sins hold them fast.
23 For lack of discipline they will die,
led astray by their own great folly. (Prov. 5:21-23)
The verb for “squandered” is diaskorpizō (pronounced dee-ah-skohr-pea-zoh), and it means “scatter, disperse … waste, squander.” It is used in the next chapter in the Parable of the Prudent Manager, when the manager was accused of wasting his owner’s property (16:1).
“recklessly”: it comes from the adverb asōtōs (pronounced ah-soh-tohss), and its basic meaning is derived from the prefix not (a-) and ultimately from the verb sōzō (“to save”) (Lidell and Scott). So one could literally translate it as “living unsaved or unsafe” or “living outside of salvation or safety.” Other words can be used, depending on the context or the form of the word: “profligate, wasteful life … prodigality, wasteful … having no hope of safety abandoned, profligate … bringing ruin” (Liddell and Scott). Other possibilities: “debauchery, dissipation … dissolutely, loosely” (Shorter Lexicon). Finally: “reckless abandon, debauchery, dissipation, profligacy … wastefully, prodigally” (BDAG). I like recklessly, which means foolishly and loosely and wildly, without calculating the cost. However, Jesus never said he squandered his money on prostitutes, though his older brother will claim this (v. 30).
It is easy to picture the youth visiting crowded taverns every night with women sitting on his lap, as he hoists a cup of strong drink or wine and laughs and yells with his friends. “Drinks on me!”
Then an unforeseen natural disaster struck the faraway country—a famine. The youth began to go without or to be in lack. The Greek verb here is hustereō (pronounced hoo-steh-reh-oh), and it means, depending on the context: (1) (a) active: “come too late, miss, be excluded”; (b) “be in need of, lack” (c) “be less than, be inferior to” (in a comparison); (d) “fail, give out, lack”; (2) passive: lack, “be lacking, go without.” It is a rich word, expressing lack and deficiency. Here the second definition is the right one.
Be sure that unforeseen circumstances of the world system set up by people or the natural world left to secondary causes will arise and hit home. Are you prepared? It is best to come to know God deeply so that when disaster does strike, you won’t be shaken too much. Your faith will resist the temptation to become bitter. God did not cause the famine, but he can use it to wake up the young man. It was the first step in the man’s coming to his senses.
So now another set of circumstances teaches the younger son. He joins a citizen of the faraway country, who was apparently prosperous enough to give him a job. The prosperous citizen must have looked him up and down and saw his delicate hands, unused to real work, and scoffed at him. He may have heard his accent and concluded that a foreigner doesn’t deserve real work. So he sent him out into the fields to feed the hogs. He didn’t deserve to live near the center of prosperity in the rich citizen’s household. He became a swineherd. Jesus was speaking to Jewish culture, so instantly his listeners would have understood that the youth sunk down to the lowest of the low. Pigs are unclean animals.
“Wallowing in sin, he now wallows with hogs” (Garland, comment on vv. 14-15).
He joins up with hogs and Gentiles, and both were considered unclean to extra-devout Jews (Garland, ibid.).
Stein says this is the Jewish equivalent of “skid row” (comment on v. 15),
What will happen next?
The youth had fallen so far that he lusted after the “carob pods” that grew on trees in the greater Middle East and were indeed used to fatten pigs (please google it). The Greek word for “desired” or “lusted” is epithumeō (pronounced eh-pea-thoo-meh-oh and used 16 times). It is used in Luke 16:21, where Lazarus yearned to be fed from the rich man’s table. BDAG says it means, depending on the context: (1) “to have a strong desire to do or secure something, desire”; (2) “to have sexual interest in someone, desire.” The noun is epithumia (pronounced eh-pea-thoo-mee-ah), and BDAG says it means, depending on the context: (1) “a great desire for something, desire, longing, craving” (and one can do this with good or bad things); (2) a desire for something forbidden or simply inordinate, craving, lust” (so this is always bad). One commentator says it was idiomatic for “hungered,” but he offers no source. I like lusting or strongly desiring. So he was craving to be fed with what the pigs were feeding on.
“to be fed”: this passive construction indicates even more devastation and helplessness. It is another circumstance that makes the young man come to his senses. No one gave him any. “Any” has been added, because the Greek is silent. What is the “any”? It is the carob pods. Apparently the other hired workers were treating him like dirt. It is easy to imagine his supervisor saying, “Stay away from our food!” “Can I have what the pigs are eating?” “No! Now get back to work!” Circumstances are a cruel teacher. Will he come to his senses? What will it take?
Here it is! Enough is enough! He finally comes to himself or comes to his senses. The Greek literally says, “coming to himself, he said ….” Apparently his training or childhood upbringing kicked in. Prov. 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, ESV). Some academics and severe and austere teachers tell us that this verse is a general statement tucked inside the genre of wisdom literature (Proverbs). It is not a hard-and-fast, guaranteed rule. That may be true, but when parents hold on to this verse and pray it out loud, I believe God is pleased with their faith. He will arrange circumstances to bring the wayward child to his senses. God will work overtime to bring the child to his senses. I for one would never go on national TV or radio and tell parents not to “claim” this verse as a foundation to pray. Pray, parents, pray! Use this verse, and never give up on praying for them until the day you die. My mother prayed from her oldest son until the day she passed, and finally, a few years before he died, he too got his heart right with God. No doubt the two had a relieved and happy reunion Up There.
The young guy talked to himself. It is a good idea to exhort or strongly urge yourself. King David and other psalmists talked to their own souls (Pss. 42:5, 11; 43:5; 57:8; 62:5; 103:1-2, 22; 104:1, 45; 116:7; 146:1). This youth finally spoke the truth out loud. His confession was accurate, at long last. The circumstances, which he acknowledges in this verse, were like a series of glasses of cold water thrown in his face.
“came to himself”: Liefeld and Pao: It “was a common idiom, which in this Jewish story may carry the Semitic idea of repentance … Certainly repentance lies at the heart of the words the son prepared to tell his father … The subsequent physical act of returning to his father affirms … the existence of a repentant heart in the younger son. … Jesus is redefining the traditional understanding of repentance here; repentance is no longer understood simply as a mental act—it is to be accompanied by an observable act” (Comment on vv. 9-10 and p. 256).
“famine”: it is the same word as in v. 14, but here it could be translated as “hunger.” Either way, this circumstance threw cold water in his face.
“perish”: it is the verb apollumi, and see v. 4 for a fuller look at this verb. It could be translated as “die.”
He further drew the right conclusion: his father’s hired workers have an abundance of food (literally “bread”) to eat.
“abundance”: It is the Greek verb perisseuō (pronounced peh-ree-sue-oh and used 39 times). It could have been translated as “abounding in bread.” BDAG says the verb can mean, depending on the context, (1) “to be in abundance, abound”; and we can abound in things: “more than enough, be left over”; we can “be present in abundance”; we can abound in spiritual and worldly things: “be extremely rich or abundant or overflow”; we can “grow in abundance”; and we can work and “be outstanding, be prominent, excel.” (2) “To cause something to exist in abundance, cause to abound.”
Clearly the father of the estate was an effective farmer-business man who started up all sorts of agricultural endeavors requiring servants and hired workers, so he prospered. God can cause this second definition to become real in our lives.
The Greek literally says, “After I get up, I will go to my father ….” So apparently he was languishing on the earthen floor, or he was seated, possibly on a small boulder or rocky ledge, watching the pigs eat their food. (or some say it was an idiom meaning, “I will immediately go,, so “get up” is seen in the modifier “immediately”.) But I like to keep things a little more literal. He had had enough of longing for what they ate. “Getting up” in Greek has a hint of a resurrection of sorts. He was about to live again (see v. 24). But let’s not over-interpret things—just the tiniest hint.
“I have sinned”: it is one Greek verb hamartanō (pronounced hah-mahr-tah-noh), and BDAG says it means, depending on the context: “to commit a wrong (in the sense ‘transgress’ against divinity, custom, or law”). Then it is used in a variety of contexts: “with a fuller indication of that in which the mistake or moral failure consists” … (so the details of the sin are clarified); “with indication of the manner of sinning” (e.g. lawbreaking); “with indication of the one against whom the sin is committed” (against God or in front of the youth’s father in Luke 15:18). See v. 1 for more comments on the verb’s cognates.
This verse expresses deep humility, and God loves it. This is true repentance. The young man is at the end of the rope, and just before he loses his grip and slides off into the abyss, he realizes he needs to ask for forgiveness. I get the impression that many teachers in the Renewal Movement would advocate that the young man strut right up to the father and point a finger in his father’s face and say, “I am your son! Reinstate me, now!” But Jesus’s story version is better. It is best to humble yourself under God’s mighty hand and let him lift you up (1 Pet. 5:6). He himself will call you his son, the moment you kneel, humble yourself, and repent.
Repentance is defined in Luke-Acts “as abandoning one’s former ways of thinking and living and ‘adopting new ways of thinking and living consistent with the lifestyle prescribed in the teachings of Jesus.’ The son’s confession demonstrates how he now recognizes the errors of his ways and must now change. His actions show appropriate changes in behavior and thinking (more important than any emotional feelings or remorse), and his joyous reception by his father shows how repentant sinners should be received (as in 5:27-39)” (Garland, comment on 15:18-19).
Would the father accept him, welcome him back? Would his father be furious? Would his father scold him? Lecture him?
So the boy got up and returned home, just as he exhorted himself to do.
And here is the most moving verse in the whole parable. His father saw him from a long way off. He recognized the familiar gait of his younger son. But his usual gait looked a little worn down. Tired. No one else is said to have seen him. Only the father did. However, if the boy walked past a hired worker harvesting the grain with a sickle, the worker may have stared at him, but did not come running. He may have just said to himself, “What’s he doing here? His father’s going to kick him out!” And then he went back to his sickle work. As a hireling, he did not know who his boss was. Come to think of it, neither did the younger son. He is about to learn who his father was.
“felt compassion”: The verb is splanchnizomai (pronounced splankh-nee-zoh-my) and is used 12 times, exclusively in the Gospels. “It describes the compassion Jesus had for those he saw in difficulty” (Mounce, New Expository Dictionary, p. 128). BDAG is the authoritative Greek lexicon, and it defines the verb simply: “have pity, feel sympathy.”
Let’s explore the inner reality of compassion more thoroughly.
BDAG further says the noun splanchnon (pronounced splankh-non) is related to the inward part of the body, especially the viscera, inward parts, entrails. But some update their translation with the noun as “heart.” So the verb is also related to the inward parts of a person. It could be translated as “He felt compassion in the depths of his heart.”
As an important side note, in Hebrew the verb raḥam (pronounced rakh-am, and used 47 times) means “to have compassion on, show mercy, take pity on and show love.” The noun raḥamim (39 times) (pronounced rach’meem) means “compassion, mercy, pity.” Both words are related to the word for “womb,” when a woman feels close to and love for the human life growing there. It’s deep in God, too.
Here the father, who represents God the Father, feels compassion for his son. A wonderful image. Hold on to it in your life.
“He ran”: it moved me to think of the older guy running to meet his son. Now we get a clear picture of who God is, when a sinner returns home. God loves him.
“fell on”: that is what the Greek verb literally says (KJV, NKJV), but some translations modernize it and say “embraced him” (NASB, NLT, MSG, ESV); “threw his arms around him” (NIV); “hugged”: (NCV, CEV, NET). I like “threw his arms around him.”
“kissed”: it has the added prefix to indicate intensity. I also like to picture the father shedding a tear of gratitude, while the son dropped his traveling bag (if he still had it and didn’t sell it off to survive) and hesitated to embrace his father because the son felt so unworthy.
It is a very, very moving scene. Repeat: the scene reveals Father God’s heart to all of humanity when it returns to him. God loves Gentiles. God loves the whole world (John 3:16).
Then the son spoke out what he had been rehearsing a million times on his long journey back. He is no longer worthy or deserving to be called the father’s son, but he omits the part about accepting him as a hired worker! Once again, humility is better than presumptuous demands. After the display of his father’s love, the words must have seemed a little empty, but the boy needed to say them out loud. It is best to repent and pray out loud. But it must have been a good feeling in the boy to realize that the outcome was revealed: forgiveness and love from his father.
The father issues a series of orders to his servants (or slaves): Bring out literally the “first” or “primary” robe, which is translated as “best”; put a ring on his hand (literally), which should be read nonliterally as “on his finger,” and that’s how translations have it. “The ring may contain a seal and thus represents the son’s membership in the family … but it stops short of being a transfer of authority” (Bock, p. 1315). In other words, his repentance does not soon elevate him to leadership. He has to grow into it. Bock also reminds of us of how the Pharaoh put a ring, fine clothes and a gold chain on Joseph, but Joseph was second in charge (Gen. 41-42).
Next, put sandals on his feet; either the son journeyed back home barefoot or his sandals were worn out. My guess is that he was barefoot. Lead out and slaughter the fattened calf. (Sorry for animal rights activists, but they lived in an old agricultural society, and animals were slaughtered humanely, by cutting the throat.) Then everyone was to come in out of the fields and into the house, which must have been large, indicating wealth, and enjoy the celebratory barbeque.
The noun for “servants” is doulos (pronounced doo-loss and singular, and the plural noun is douloi and pronounced doo-loi), and it can definitely be translated as slaves, and maybe that is the better rendering. But I chose servants because in Jewish culture a Hebrew man who sold himself into servitude to his fellow Jew was like an indentured servant whose term of service had a limit; he was freed in the seventh year. But then the indentured servant could stay with his family, if he liked his owner (Exod. 21:2-6; Lev. 25:38-46; Deut. 15:12-18). So there was a lot of liberty even in servitude, in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
It is a sure thing, however, that Luke’s Greek audience would hear “slaves” in the word douloi. But culturally at that time slavery had nothing to do with colonial or modern slavery.
Garland suggests we translate it as “came back to life.”
Why should everyone join the festival? The father explains. His younger son had been dead, so to speak, but now he was alive again. This indicates that the son never wrote home (yes, they had primitive postal services back then). So the father didn’t know how his son was doing. Today, we have modern technology. We can get instant messages and emails. We can see each other over our smart phones. We can even use the old-school telephone. Imagine how life was back then! His son had been lost and now found, and the father learned of his survival only when he saw his son at a distance, on the old road home.
So that’s a good sermon title: Lost and Found. Or, Once Dead, Now Alive Again.
Verses in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are relevant, because they also speak of being dead and now living: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins, in which you once walked … But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places ….” (Eph. 2:1-2a, 5-6, ESV).
The “heavenly places” in this parable is his father’s estate. The father hugging and embracing him is the lifting or raising his son up and reinstating him to his rightful place. He had abandoned it, but the father was so generous that he returned it to his wayward son.
No, the son in the parable was not a Christian after Pentecost (Acts 2), but his coming alive does bring up issues of salvation and forfeiting it.
Now we shift over to the fourth movement of the terrific parable. The older son returned home from the fields, no doubt supervising what the hired workers were doing. As he got closer to the house, he heard music and dancing. A millennial TV pastor said, humorously, that the people must have been dancing loudly to hear them from outside! They were getting down! He even danced a dorky dance as he spoke. Fair enough.
I like the word for music here. It is the noun sumphōnia (pronounced soom-foh-nee-ah), and yes, we get our word symphony from it. It literally means “sounds [coming] together.”
He summoned a servant (doulos again and see v. 22 for more comments). He asked, “What these things might be” (literally). He didn’t know about the return of his younger brother. The elder brother must have been in another area of the large estate.
The servant informs him why the celebrations were going on.
The father did not literally kill the calf, but a servant did. Here is the causative idea. The father is said to kill it, but he caused his servant to do it, actually.
The father received him back “safe and sound”: it is the verb hugiainō (pronounced hoo-gee-y-noh, and the “g” is hard as in “get,” and our word hygiene is related to it). Used in the NT twelve times, it means “healthy,” as here, but the NIV mostly translates it as “sound.” In 3 John 2, it is translated as “enjoy good health.” It speaks of soundness in body and mind (Luke 5:32; 7:10; 15:27), but also sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:10, 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Tit. 1:9, 13; 2:1, 2). It is interesting that Dr. Luke sees it exclusively as healthy in body and mind, while Paul transforms the verb into sound doctrine (though the adjective is translated as “healthy” in body throughout the NT). Here “safe and sound” is best.
A TV pastor said the elder brother had a point. But this is not clear to me.
The oldest son got angry. He was unwilling or refused to go inside and enjoy the party. The elder brother certainly did not rejoice. “I’m so happy he returned! I’ll go in right now and show them some dance moves!” His loving and generous father went outside to find out why his elder son wouldn’t come in. He must have seen anger on his face, as well. He invited him in, but the son said no. The son did not understand the grace and favor of his father. The younger brother did not know his father until he returned, and now it is clear the older brother did not, either.
“this son of yours”: this phrase drips with sarcasm. He does not call him “my brother.”
Why did he get angry? His argument: it is simply unfair that he had been slaving for years and never disobeying orders, but his father never celebrated his son’s work ethic and obedience. He had been scrupulous in keeping the household law, which the father had implemented in his estate. In fact, the younger brother didn’t deserve the grace of his father but got it anyway.
“consider”: the verb is usually translated as “behold.” He pointed out the obvious. He has been “serving” or “slaving” (the verb form of doulos, and see v. 22 for more comments) for many years—his whole life, the moment he could use a farming tool or show the hired workers and servants what to do. In my view, we should not see him wielding a sickle like a slave but overseeing the entire large farm or landed estate. So his statement of “slaving” is an exaggeration.
Apparently a fatted calf was a more important animal than a kid goat. So it seems the calf symbolized more joy and was used on special occasions.
“This son of yours”: he does not call him by name or even “my brother.” It is easy to imagine the elder son gesturing contemptuously. But the father also called his younger son, “this son of mine” (v. 24), so maybe that’s the way this family talked.
In any case, Jesus did not want to burden the essence of the story with too many details, like names. That would have distracted the listeners with word games and puzzles. “Who is he talking about? Let’s guess!” It was best to leave those things out when the main point is so significant for the nation of Israel and the original listeners.
The parable had not said the younger son spent his money on prostitutes, but it was a safe bet that he did. In any case, the elder son pointed out the specifics, just to take a shot at his brother and possibly turn the father away from him. Be wary of people who bring up your old sins. Do they have your best interests at heart?
Bock (who seems to agree with the TV preacher, referenced above):
The elder brother’s concern for justice is natural. But the point is that God’s actions is gracious, not deserved. Repentance yields God’s kindness, which wipes the slate clean and is a reason to rejoice. A proper response is not to compare how you are treated in relationship to the penitent, but to remember that repentance yields the same gracious fruit for all, so it is just. Repentance also represents a new direction in life, and one might share in the joy of a changed direction. The brother is so consumed by the issue of fairness that he cannot rejoice at the beneficial transformation that has come to his brother. (p. 1318).
Now it is the father’s turn to speak. He called him “child.” In a passage where the word son is used often, the father did not use the term. “Child” seems much more intimate. He is always with the father. The firstborn son has everything the father has. All the privileges of his father’s estate belong to him. He should not complain.
“we had to celebrate”: “had to” is the impersonal Greek word dei (pronounced day), and if you know French it is like “faut” (pronounced foh), which means “must,” which is our form of the Greek and French verbs. I must, we must, you must. They simply had to celebrate. It comes from the word dei (pronounced day), and in some contexts it denotes a destiny orchestrated by God, as it does here. (Compare the French il faut, “one must” or “it is necessary,” if you know this language.) The Greek verb means: “it is necessary, one must … one ought or should … what one should do” (Shorter Lexicon). In Luke it often means divine necessity; that is, God is leading things: Luke 2:49; 4:43; 9:22; 12:12; 13:16, 33; 15:32; 17:25; 18:1; 19:5; 21:9; 22:37; 24:7; 24:26, 44; Acts 1:16; 1:21; 3:21; 4:12; 5:29; 9:6, 16; 14:22; 16:30; 17:3; 19:21; 20:35; 23:11; 25:10; 27:21; 27:24, 26. Why? It was impossible for a generous father to scold or reject his returning son. An ungenerous father might react in such a bad way, but not a forgiving and loving father. Fathers, please be welcoming and warm towards repentant sons.
And finally the father describes the before-and-after photos. This brother of yours was dead and now alive, “lost and found.” That’s what the final clause of the parable literally says: “lost and found.” The father had the last word. A perfect ending to a perfect parable.
I like how Bock introduces, which I take to be a summary, this wonderful parable:
The basic theme centers on God’s character, and the parable offers vindication of criticism for associating with sinners. God’s forgiveness is always available. No history of sin is too great to be forgiven. Our need is to turn to God and take what he offers on his terms. We need also to accept those who seek forgiveness, for there is joy in heaven over those who repent. One should not compare how God blesses, but be grateful that he does bless. In turning to God, one gains total acceptance and joyful reception into God’s family. (p. 1308)
GrowApp for Luke 15:11-32
A.. We are supposed to see ourselves in parables. Which character are you? The older brother? Younger one? Generous father? The servants and hired workers “getting down” on the dance floor and watching the family drama?
B.. How does this parable reveal the God the Father’s heart for humanity generally and you specifically?
Summary of Luke 15
Luke said that Jesus was firmly resolved to go to Jerusalem, ready to die (9:51). That was his ultimate mission. Luke adds that Jesus was on a ministry tour through the villages and towns (13:22). So he had to teach the people before he departed.
In Luke 15, Jesus told three parables about being lost and found.
In the conflict setting, the parables offer a seemingly innocuous response and allow Jesus tp challenge his critics indirectly by drawing them into a story. The singular “parable” in 15:3 indicates that Luke understands the three parables to form one unit. In the initial hearing of the parables, the shepherd is a shepherd, the woman is a women, and the father is a father. As the listeners allow themselves to be transported away in their imaginations from the story’s literal arena, they encounter the surprise and shock of another reality. The actions of the shepherd, woman, and father become metaphors for what God is doing through Jesus. (p. 609)
The three parables in this chapter confirm that Luke understands repentance to involve “both divine and human action. Questions challenging the genuine repentance of the prodigal miss the theological point that repentance is also God’s gift (see Acts 5:21; 11:18).
Scriptures for comparison:
“It is this man whom God exalted the Overall Ruler and Savior at his right hand, to grant repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Indeed God has also given Gentiles repentance leading to life!’” (Acts 11:18). No, I’m not a Calvinist, and I don’t believe in the rigid “order of salvation,” but the word of the gospel does cause people to wake up, so they can repent.
Summary and Conclusion
The first parable was about a lost sheep. The shepherd is so generous and concerned that he risked leaving the ninety-nine sheep just to look for the one. (Personally, I would have counted the wandering sheep as a business loss.) Father God actively looks for lost people. Then the shepherd celebrated with his friends and neighbors when he found it. There will be rejoicing in heaven when God finds you too.
The second parable about being lost is a woman who had ten drachmas, and she lost one. So she lit up a lamp and swept her house clean to find it. She found it. She too called her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her. Angels in heaven will also celebrate your recovery.
The third parable is an extended teaching, about the generous father, the hard-working, law-abiding elder son, and the profligate or reckless younger son. The younger son goes away from the father’s estate, lives loosely, comes to himself, and returns to his father. The father warmly embraces and welcomes him home. He orders a celebration, while the older brother has a restrictive spirit in him. He doesn’t celebrate. The story ends with the father encouraging his older son to celebrate with him. But I get the impression that the older son still refused, but the story does reveal the full ending. Maybe he eventually relented. The celebration also reveals how heaven itself celebrates when a lost person is found. We should see ourselves in the parable.
Finally, there is a reversal of sorts here. Recall that in Luke 1:51-53 Mary sang that the poor and humble would be exalted, while the rich and powerful would be brought low. In Luke 2:34, Simeon had prophesied that Jesus was appointed for the rising and falling of many. The hard-working, law-abiding son is on the outside of the house, while the shiftless, partying, runaway son is now in the inside. The roles have reversed. Be sure that God’s grace is extended to anyone who repents. The elder son didn’t recognize it, while the younger son didn’t over-analyze it but just received it. Such is the kingdom Jesus is ushering in. It overturns longstanding beliefs and sets up new ones.
Bock, Darrel L. Luke 1:1-9:50. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Vol. 1 (Baker, 1994).
—. Luke 9:51-24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Vol. 2. (Baker 1996).
Culy, Martin M., Mikael C. Parsons. Joshua J. Stigall. Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2010).
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., SJ. The Gospel according to Luke, I-IX. Vol. 28. The Anchor Bible. (Doubleday, 1981).
—. The Gospel according to St. Luke, X-XIV. The Anchor Bible. Vol. 28A. (Doubleday, 1985).
Garland, David E. Luke. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2011).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans, 1997).
Liefeld, Walter L. and David W. Pao. Luke. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. (Zondervan, 2007).
Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Eerdmans, 1978).
Morris, Leon. Luke. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. (IVP Academic, 1988).
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