Is Jesus (un)like the Prodigal’s loving father in Luke 15?

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Lent 4 in Year C is the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.1–3 and 11b–32, though it is perhaps as well called the parable of the loving father, or the parable of the father and the two sons. I realise that many will be focussing on Mothering Sunday, but it would be a shame to miss out on preaching on this passage if you follow the lectionary in your preaching; perhaps the best solution is to celebrate Mothering Sunday in the service, but preach on this passage without working two hard to connect the two.

It’s a passage I have known well for a long time, and can still remember quite vividly listening to the late Michael Green teaching on it during a student mission when I was an undergraduate. But I have recently come across two quite different readings of the parable which highlight some important issues in how we interpret it.

The first was in Jane Williams’ Lent book three years ago, The Merciful Humility of GodIn her introductory chapter, she takes three of the short pages to explore the parable, and rather than seeing it as an exposition of Jesus’ ministry, she sees it as a notable contrast:

The infinite patience of God is more active than that of the father of the Prodigal, because God does more than wait; in Jesus Christ, God enters into the way of the Prodigal so that even here, while the Prodigal is still assuming that he is fine on his own, the love of the father is present…The life of Jesus means that we can turn and find God beside us, everywhere.

I have explored previously some of the theological problems with this reading, but we ought to note how strange this is as a narrative reading. After all, this chapter in Luke is introduced by the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus ‘receives sinners and eats with them’. In other words, Jesus tells the three parables here (shepherd seeking sheep, woman searching for coins, father welcoming his son) in response to the comment that he is too close to the ‘prodigals’, so it would be odd if the very parable he tells us contrasts so sharply with the ministry that it is explaining.

The second interpretation came from a friend with whom I was in conversation a couple of years ago, and also draws attention to the location of the father. God does not take delight in us, my friend said, in an unconditional sense, but only delights when we turn to him. After all (he went on) I don’t delight in my son if he wastes his time or squanders his gifts, but only when he applies himself or does well—just as the way my father delighted in me when I did well. After all (he clinched his argument), the father in the parable does not follow the son into the foreign country, but waits for him at the gate of his property.

Both these readings make the same point, but in support of opposite conclusions: the father does not pursue the son, and either that is a bad thing which Jesus contradicts or it is a good thing we should learn from.

Jesus’ parables are challenging to interpret, and even his best-known ones are commonly (and demonstrably) misinterpreted in contemporary preaching and teaching. This is partly because they are narratives making an implicit point, rather than prose discourse that presents an explicit argument; partly because Jesus uses provocation and hyperbole to make his point in a dramatic way; and partly because much of the impact of the parables relies on contextual information which is not explicit in the text.

Some years ago, German scholar Joachim Jeremias argued (in his The Parables of Jesus) that the parables had essentially one main point, and so we should look for that rather than focussing on the minutiae of the other details. This was made in reaction to earlier tendencies to allegorise Jesus’ parables, which often allowed readers to go on flights of fancy in their readings which became detached from the narrative and context of the parable itself (the best known being interpretations of the parable of the good Samaritan). But the problem with Jeremias’ thesis is that Jesus explicitly makes several points when interpreting his own parables, the most obvious being in the parable which is also a parable about parables, the story of the sower in Mark 4 and parallels. In explaining the parable, Jesus is clear that each of the sower, the seed, and the different soils all ‘stand’ for something. And in the parable of the prodigal, there are at least three key narrative foci in the three main characters.

But we also need to note that this is the third of three parables, and contrary to the cut-and-paste job suggested by the lectionary, I think we need to read all three together—and carefully! The first tells us about a foolish shepherd, who is so anxious about the one lost sheep that he abandons the other 99 (‘in the open country’, Gk eremos ‘wilderness’) in search of the one, and continues to forget about the others whilst he has a party! This is hardly a model for pastoral ministry! The second story, of the woman and her lost coin, is less obviously foolish, but once again focusses on urgency of the search and the rejoicing when it is successful. In other words, these two are about the one doing the searching, rather than the ones being searched for, and they make the simple point about the searcher’s passion.

In the third of the three parables, the emphasis shifts decisively. The story itself has much more detail, includes a more complex situation, introduces three main characters with some realism, and involves a shift of focus. Much of the emotion on the part of the father is implicit and borne in the narrative detail, whilst the focus is turned decisively to the characters being ‘sought’, the younger and the older son, with their emotions being described explicitly, in contrast to the previous parables where the things being sought played no real part in the story.

The story opens with the younger son demanding his inheritance now, rather than waiting to the due time, and this is where we begin to see the importance of reading in cultural context. Unlike our context, where we might indeed want to pass on an inheritance early, for Jesus’ hearers this is like the son saying that he wishes his father were dead—and the father, shockingly, agrees to the request. Our contextually attuned ears can hear the audible gasps of Jesus’ audience. The parable suggests that our own acts of rebellion, in which we take from God the life and the blessings he offers, but refuse to acknowledge his authority over our lives, is effectively wishing him dead. Sin is death-dealing not only to us, but to God himself, as we wish him dead in the claims he makes over us.

The narrative then follows the son on his journey downwards—away from his loving home, down into an immoral life, down into poverty, down into disgrace, and finally down into hunger and neglect as no-one pays attention to his needs. For a Jewish audience, the son’s job of looking after the unclean pigs shows that he has reached the lowest point possible. The turning point in the narrative is when he ‘comes to his senses’, literally ‘he came to himself’—which intriguingly suggests the way that sin not only separates us from others, but separates us from our true selves. From this point, the son makes a journey of ascent—out of the pig sty, out of hunger, out from the strange land and up to the threshold of his former home. But he cannot imagine anything like the full restoration to sonship that awaits him.

Once more we need to read attentively and contextually. How does the father notice the son whilst he is ‘still a long way off’? We can only infer that that father has, daily, been awaiting his son’s return with longing. And, though the son intends to make the journey himself, it is not a journey he completes, since the father runs to meet him—the reunion does indeed involve journeying by both parties. Contextually, this again would have been shocking, as the father dispenses with the dignity of an older member of the community who (in the hot climate of the Near East) could never have run in public. Despite his son’s actual and ritual uncleanness, the father dramatically embraces him in the sight of all. All this flows from a key word, which appears (as in other narratives in Luke) to be actually (numerically) central to the telling of the story: ‘he was moved with compassion’, splagchnizomai, his guts were stirred.

The son brings out his rehearsed speech, recognising the error of his ways—but he is not able to finish it before the father lavishes on him the signs of sonship in the ring, the robe and the sandals to put on his bare and filthy feet, and prepares to celebrate with a feast. And where the story of the younger son reaches its climax, the story of the elder son begins with the second’s jealousy and resentment. He has cast his position in the family as dependent on duty, law and obedience, and has failed to understand the nature of the relationship between father and son that is his true inheritance.

Where does that leave the two interpretations that I started with? Jane Williams’ observation does have a point; from the perspective of the one doing the searching, there appears to be nothing that he would not do in order to find that which was lost, and this is communicated most clearly in the two shorter parables preceding this one. The foolish shepherd and the anxious woman will not rest until they recover their lost possessions. Yet what she appears to miss is the reciprocal aspect of searching and finding that becomes the focus of the third parable. It is not enough to be sought; one has to be found, and the one being found has to respond to the one doing the searching. Jesus makes this point not once, but twice: the younger son has to come to himself, and make the decision to turn and embrace the father that he has betrayed, even at the cost of admitting he was wrong. But the older son must also ‘come to himself’ and recognise the reality of sonship and what it means. He might have been in ritual and physical proximity with his father, but he was not in relational proximity. Although Luke does not (unlike elsewhere) note that this parable was told ‘against’ the Pharisees and scribes, the two-part shape to the narrative and its finality at the end of the chapter (following which the focus turns to the disciples) makes this plain. They might be in ritual and physical proximity with God (through living in the land or obeying the law or coming to the temple) but they are not in relational proximity. They, too, need to change and turn for this relationship to become a reality.

The second interpretation that I mentioned gets one thing right: when the younger son is far from his father, there is a real distance and absence in that relationship, and (according to Jesus’ teaching) that distance is not closed until the son makes his change of direction. (It is worth comparing this with the parable of the two sons told only in Matt 21:28–32; the first son does make sonship a reality until he ‘changes his mind’.) And yet the possibility of restoration depends, within the narrative, on the unwavering longing and compassion of the father, which (theo)logically precedes the repentance of the son and is necessary for the narrative to reach its completion. The restless searching of God for the lost is already communicated powerfully in the first two parable.

As an afternote, there is an interesting parallel drawn on the Wikipedia discussion of this parable.

A similar parable of a lost son can also be found in the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra.[26][27] The two parables are so similar in their outline and many details that several scholars have assumed that one version has influenced the other or that both texts share a common origin.[28] However, an influence of the biblical story on the Lotus sutra is regarded as unlikely given the early dating of the stratum of the sutra containing the Buddhist parable.[28] In spite of their similarities, both parables continue differently after the two meet for the first time at the son’s return. In the biblical story, there is an immediate reunion of the two. In contrast, in the Lotus sutra, the poor son does not recognize the rich man as his father. When the father sends out some attendants to welcome the son, the son panics, fearing some kind of retribution. The father then lets the son leave without telling him of their kinship. However, he gradually draws the son closer to him by employing him in successively higher positions, only to tell him of their kinship in the end.[26] In the Buddhist parable, the father symbolises the Buddha, and the son symbolises any human being. Their kinship symbolises that any being has Buddha nature. The concealment of the kinship of the father to his son is regarded as a skillful means (Sanskrit:upāya).[29]

The grace of God means that the restoration of the son in Jesus’ parable is not only immediate, but is known immediately. Here is no long, uncertain path to enlightenment, but the sudden, grace-filled embrace of our heavenly father.

(The next post will be of the video discussion of this passage which you can find on my YouTube channel.)

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53 thoughts on “Is Jesus (un)like the Prodigal’s loving father in Luke 15?”

  1. The reading that there is no outward movement from the Father ignores the fact that there are 2 lost sons. For the younger son, the father has been keeping an eye out at great distance. As Kenneth Bailey points out, the lad is in danger of being driven off or killed by well meaning neighbours of the father who want to protect him from shame of the unclean reprobate coming back. So the father keeps an eye out beyond that fringe area, so has gone out. But even more so, for the older lost son, the father goes out to him. He doesn’t wait for him to come in (sulking, repenting or otherwise), but does out to him.

    To change the question about atonement to “are there echoes of the atonement in this parable”. I would say there are echoes of the incarnation in that the father goes out to both sons. And there are echoes of cost/sacrifice as the father ignores shame by meeting both lads on their grounds. There are also echoes of covering and cleansing.
    So not a fully orbed atonement picture, but certainly echoes of it, particularly for a society who reads things in the key of shame and honour.

    • There is only one lost son in the parable (Luke 15:24) – you may, of course, add your own meaning of ‘lost’ to bring the total up to two!

      The parable applies both to individual sinners who repent and to whole nations. At the level of individuals, it works particularly well because of the ‘teenage rebellion’ type behaviour exhibited by the callow youth, full of hope and ambition but short on self-knowledge. At the level of nations, the elder son represents that part of the Jewish nation that rejects the offer of forgiveness (as others have noted). What commentators have perhaps not noted is that the celebration is equivalent to the wedding banquet at the end of the age. In the parable specifically about the banquet (Luke 14, Matt 22), the slaughter of fatted calves is also involved (Matt 22:4) and the Jews are those invited first but decline. Angry at their refusal the king burns their city (= Jerusalem).

      In the Luke 15 parable the elder son is angry – so there is a different emphasis. The father’s assurance that nonetheless “all that is mine is yours” is a hint that there will, in the end, be reconciliation.

      It is interesting that, when the father agrees to the son’s request, he also gives the elder son his share. Whether lost or not, the elder son does not squander his inheritance. But it hardly seems to matter. Somehow, the prodigal son’s inheritance is not all irretrievably spent, and what matters for the elder son is not his having dutifully worked to maintain his father’s estate but that he should put away his jealousy and anger and rejoice. The father is interested in restoring relationships, and his wealth is more than enough to cover the younger son’s folly.

      The reference to a ‘far country’ is also allusive of a third parable, in which it is Jesus himself who absents himself and waits to see what people do with the money entrusted to them (Luke 19:12). The inheritance initially divided in Luke 15 is really no more than the talents or minas each of us is expected to do something with as we go on life’s journey.

  2. Not quite on point, but the father running out to meet the son reminds me of the most forgiving person in the OT, Esau, who similarly ran to meet his brother. Jacob said afterwards that to see Esau was like seeing the face of God. A possible inspiration for Jesus’ story?

    • Fascinating thought Penelope. Thank you.
      Pressing the Esau/Jacob analogy further into the parable, Jesus is the true elder Son, who delights to share his inheritance and reveals the face of the Father.
      And without drawing on Esau/Jacob link, that is a similar Gospel point that Ed Clowney, followed by Tim Keller drew from it, without extending it to Jesus the true Elder Son, also revealing the Father.

      • Kenneth Bailey writes a book on this whole topic. “Jacob and The Prodigal: How Jesus retold Israel’s story” IVP, 2003. I’ve not read it fully, but there’s certainly a large overlap, recapitulation and retelling of Jacobs story in this parable.

    • Except that Esau is an apostate figure in the Genesis narrative; he sold his birthright treating it as something of little consequence. Why Esau had this change of heart towards his brother (having previously wanted to kill him) we are not told. Natural filial affection seems to have prevailed. Perhaps we are to see the providential hand of God who in the previous chapter had promised to bless Jacob. Jacob was worried about meeting Esau but God had gone before him and Esau would be no threat. It is not new life in Esau but God’s bending the human heart as he wills. God will protect Jacob,

      Jacob, however, despite his meeting with God earlier falls back on his old ways. He tries to bribe Esau by lavishing presents on him. Yet in all Jacob’s failings for him the inheritance mattered. Esau turned his back on the inheritance and upon the God who bestowed it. Jacob committed himself to both the inheritance and the God of the inheritance. (Cf. Hebs 12).

      Forgiving is not only a trait of believers.

      • John,
        The comparison with Esau is that Jesus os the true elder son, who far from relinquishing his birthright, relishes and rejoices in it and joyfully shares it with all who will believe.

        • Yes, I can see this contrast may work. I would probably see this as a contrast to draw out rather than any more rooted typology.

      • It occurred to me that Esau’s change of heart was short-lived. Esau was the father of the nation Edom who were enemies of Israel. In Ps 83 Edom heads the list of the nations who hate Israel. The hatred of the father burned strong in his descendants (Amos 1:11). When Israel was overrun by Babylon fleeing Jews were put to the sword by edomites, Edom gloated at Israel’s calamity (Obadiah). Esau married the women of Canaan. The Canaanites became his people.

        In time, when Esau and Edom revealed his true heart God would reveal his electing purposes; Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated (Mal 1:1-3; Roms 9). Edom was condemned to extinction (Amos 9:11-12).

        I think the history of Esau makes it a mistake to see in him a fitting parallel with Christ.

        • John,
          Jesus certainly is not ” a fitting parallel to Esau”.
          Jesus is a fitting contrast I’d suggest as the true elder son in whom true primogeniture resides ! (As I hope my comments have made clear: seemingly not. Or, perhaps, a parallel by contrast?
          I’m certainly not suggesting that Esau replaces Jacob in the longitudinal biblical history of redemption.

          • Hi Geoff

            No your use of contrast was clear. I was mainly pushing back on Penelope and trying to establish Esau’s true nature which was not godly and not really a suitable foreshadowing of the father’s love for the prodigal. Adam off course served as a parallel/contrast type.

      • Esau is a complex figure. He is as rich if not richer than Jacob- he can muster 400 people. Despite being wronged he offers forgiveness, though we do not hear of him and Jacob subsequently meeting up. Like for Ishmael, Esau is another example of God blessing sons who are not of the promise. God’s promise of blessing to and through Abraham is extended or also there for folk like Ishmael and Esau. Sometimes the events in the narrative subvert the apparent “message”; we have to read with care.

    • Thanks for mentioning that. I think people too often say that men in the middle East would never have run out to meet there son when preaching on this parable, but that doesn’t seem true.

      I wonder where the assumption the father wouldn’t run comes from.

      Esau is a great example. He certainly was forgiving, by God’s grace, and exuberant.
      If the ESV is right, Abraham and Laban are also recorded as running. Laban to meet Abraham’s servant. Abraham to get a calf for the visitors at Mamre.

  3. The son coming to himself and returning has a link with the first two parables in Jesus’ comment at the end of each about the joy in heaven over a sinner who repents.

    This joy is ‘before the angels’, so it is the joy of the Father. Coupled with the compassion of the father at the centre of the third parable, we have a wonderful insight into the heart of the Father.

  4. Because of the otherwise gratuitous detail of the pigs (and also the naturalness of such an idea in context; & the fact that the various details of the narrative cohere; & and without exception) I have long thought this has to be Luke making a Jew-Gentile parable of Matt’s two brothers. It would be characteristic of him to do this, as a leading participant in the Gentile mission.

    • Agreed Christopher. Israel (Son) who have the law represents the elder son. The younger son represents Gentiles.
      Both are lost in the parable. And we are left pondering over the final response of the elder son to the Father, as obedience to the law, of itself , is not foundational to the relationship. G
      Rather it reflects recognition of the unmerited Fatherhood, Fathering by God.

      • Geoff

        I’m more inclined to see the prodigal as the sinners in Israel (v1) and the elder son as the scribes and the Pharisees (v1). Certainly the elder son represents legalistic obedience that cannot grasp the love and lavish grace of the gospel. Ultimately the elder son puts himself outside the banquet of grace.

    • Perhaps Jesus was the one who made the parable – and Luke simply faithfully wrote down what he was given to understand from a reliable source that Jesus actually said? We could be looking at the precise words that Jesus uttered.

      • As I said.

        Possibilities are myriad. That is why (a) scholarship tries to deal with probabilities not possibilities. (b) if someone singles out one possibility above the myriad others, that is bias, no?

        • I think anyone reading a purportedly historical text should start from the presumption that it is telling the truth (to invoke a rather old-fashioned concept in this post-truth age), just as if you were listening to a live human being recounting an incident. Luke says it was Jesus who told the parable. ‘Scholars’ who wish to suggest otherwise must do so taking into account the a priori probability that the account they are dealing with is not dishonest.

          • Where to start?
            (1) The fact that both Matt and Luke have precisely one two sons parable has to be dealt with somehow.
            (2) All the more so if we agree there is a literary relationship between the two.
            (3) Why speak of fashion as so many people do? That is to give fashion (whether old or new) the dignity of being a relevant factor. If you do not agree it is, do not treat it as such.
            (4) What you in fact do is invoke fashion before invoking any other factor. Thus seeing it as potentially the main thing rather than being (as it is) of no importance. Which is quite a difference.
            (5) Truth is as it is whether the age is post truth or not. Ages are incoherent in their thinking in all kinds of ways. When they are incoherent, why listen to them? It will just encourage them.
            (6) Scholars not ‘scholars’.
            (7) ‘Start from the presumption’ – not at all: very dangerous. Never presume. The place where you start is from the place where anything is possible. You then look at the data and see which option leaps out.
            (8) Because you are starting from that place where you see the max number of options, then it follows that you already are taking into account a lot of possibilities. That you are taking into account probabilities therefore goes without saying. They are the first thing you take into account.
            (9) A priori – how is a priori calculated? If it is on the basis of our expectations, it may as well be on the basis of cliches and of framing of issues. A priori is too similar to presumption and has all the same dangers.

          • (1) I don’t see your reply as a basis for questioning that Jesus was the author of the parable in question.
            (2) Ditto.
            (3) With a dash of irony I spoke of the concept of truth as old-fashioned because so many intellectuals/scholars no longer believe in categories of truth and falsehood.
            (4) Ditto.
            (5) ??
            (6) I stand by the inverted commas. Some ostensible scholars have an inflated sense of their own objectivity and percipience.
            (7) I do presume. That is the way human beings relate to each other; we are not, most of us, logical robots. I presume that someone is innocent until prove guilty and is speaking the truth until facts prove him not to be. Logical positivism is for the birds.
            (8) As you say, some things go without saying.
            (9) I don’t see how this is relevant to my comment.
            (10) Your ‘scholarly’ suggestion that Jesus was not the author of the parable strikes me as both gratuitous and spiritually corrosive.

          • But don’t you think that people are inclined to think that the things that are most central to us culturally (Beatitudes, Lord’s Prayer, Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son) are the things that were most central to Jesus? That is making Jesus in our image. What will be admitted on all sides is that there is no logic to that position.

            On your (10), assertions are never scholarly. It is only the upholstery of supporting argument that is scholarly.

            On (4-6) I am surprised that you think that scholars do not believe in truth. I know that a lot of postmodernists and wokerati don’t. If scholars don’t, then what on earth activity do they imagine themselves to be engaged in in their day job? You would think that out of all the professions where it would make least sense to disregard truth, the scholarly profession would be the chief.

            The presumption of innocence is a convention not rooted in reality. In reality, the most evidenced assumption will vary from case to case.

            Tentative conclusions about the gospels are built on a complex web of internal/literary and historical logic. They would be ‘gratuitous’ if they arose from no thought at all!!

            The truth can never be spiritually corrosive, because the truth is such a good thing. We all try to get as close to the truth as we can. Those who have that attitude are, of course, the goodies. I am pleased I have got closer to an accurate understanding today because of John’s pointing out the evidence of 15.1 which I had rather blindly missed for my entire life.

          • I am surprised that you think that scholars do not believe in truth.
            Well, you mention the wokerati (for one). The whole academic edifice is collapsing, as it elevates group-think and self-righteousness above the rigorous pursuit of truth, as traditionally understood within the various disciplines. The corruption of Academe is no more clearly visible than in the field of medicine. An article has just been published in the BMJ lamenting how universities have prostituted themselves to financial interests (, to say nothing of the crisis of reproducibility (not being able to reproduce the research results reported in journals). Investigation has shown that a lot of data is simply faked.

            In theology, the obsession with source criticism and deconstructing texts is another symptom of the academic spirit having a life of its own and not really understanding the texts at hand. The continual pressure to say something new is also unhealthy. Truth is ultimately a spiritual concept, not a (merely) intellectual one, and especially in theology.

            Many of today’s scholars bear comparison with the scribes and lawyers in Jesus’s day. Very learned, very clever, but blind.

            As for Luke 15:1, I would have thought ‘tax collectors and sinners’ was about as broad a phrase as could be imagined: distinct from the Pharisees, yes, but not implying anything ethnic. The prodigal son represents Jewish and Gentile sinners alike.

        • Christopher – the only possibility for a Christian is that these were the words actually spoken by Jesus. For a Christian, this is a certainty.

          If we do not take the view that this is a certainty, then we suspect that Luke is a liar, since he presented these as the very words of Jesus. If we suspect that he may be a liar on this point, then we have no reason to believe that he isn’t a liar with everything else he wrote.

          If these are not the very words of Jesus, then there is no reason to believe that Scripture is in any way an integral part of how God communicates with us.

          If this was simply something that Luke made up, in order to make a theological point, based on something that he had read in Matthew (and not based on hard information he received that Jesus actually uttered these words), then he is dishonest.

          You may take the view that Luke is dishonest if you want to, but in doing so be aware that you trash the whole of Christianity.

          • The earliest gospel writer Mark had (like the others, who relied much on him) good original material from eyewitnesses, though he was not an eyewitness and did not know what was the correct chronological order. He therefore reproduced the material he had, plus took the prophecy fulfilment for granted – Jesus could scarcely be accorded less.

            Luke can lie only about what he witnessed, which does not include the ministry of Jesus which took place when he was a babe in arms, probably in a different land. Biographers don’t lie (what a strange idea – think yourself into the shoes of a biographer); they get as close to the truth as they are able. They may end up saying things that are not factual. That is not their fault. They did their best.

            One might as well say that the writers are lying because their sequences and chronologies are not at chronicle level. They would certainly be lying if they pretended to such when in fact they did not have that degree of minuteness available to them. Which they didn’t.

          • Christopher – Nope – I think that pretty much anyone can see that some rearrangement of the chronology and journeys in order to make a narrative, so that the story reads well, while accurately presenting events, is something qualitatively different from claiming that Our Lord, during his sojourn here on earth, uttered words which he didn’t actually utter and told parables which he didn’t actually tell. Luke would be taking a tremendous liberty by taking his own ideas of Christian theology (which is what he would have done had he taken the Matthew story and developed it) and presenting these ideas as something that had been delivered by Our Lord.

            Of course, someone who has spent too much time with sophistry and the empty philosophies of men might fail to see this. But to the ordinary Christian sitting in the pew, this is clear.

          • The earliest gospel writer Mark …
            A more careful scholar would say, ‘Mark, whom I take to be the earliest gospel writer, …’ It is not a historical fact but an interpretation that Mark was the first of the four evangelists.

            Luke can lie only about what he witnessed, which does not include the ministry of Jesus which took place when he was a babe in arms, probably in a different land. Biographers … get as close to the truth as they are able.
            According to his own characterisation of his purpose (Luke 1:1-3), Luke based his account on eyewitness testimony, and his purpose was to give his readers ‘certainty’, i.e. certainty that what they believed, insofar as it corresponded with what he had researched, was in fact true.

            Your thesis is that Luke invented the parable and passed it off as Jesus’s. It is therefore imputing a lie (as Jock has said).

          • All that is binary. If someone expands a parable organically out of an apophthegm as a perfect expression of that apophthegm, then you could say that the parable was just a 3D version of the apophthegm. In fact Matthew did just that 3 times or so. See Matt 20.16, 25.13 (&24.42), 25.29 (and cf. 22.14). Then compare the tares in Matt with the seed growing secretly in Mark; again, could be a case of expansion. Then also note how Matt’s parables are full of features (and social background) that are characteristic of Matt, while Luke’s full of features (and social background) that are characteristic of Luke (JTS 19, 1968). Sanders found the parables the best case bar none for these 2 evangelists’ expansionism. Matt’s gospel aims to show Jesus as the new Moses so any way his body of teaching can be allowed to be as large as possible he will be keen on that.

            Which ought we to be doing? – paying close attention to the text like this, or making huge generalisations?

            ‘Invented the parable and passed it off as Jesus’s?’ Luke is anyway writing too long after Jesus to know with certainty, in most cases, either that Jesus did or didn’t say X. What can someone do in such circumstances? Nothing? Keep pleading ignorance on minor details? He (as is the way with the evangelists, and the convention of their genre) found it far preferable to produce a flowing narrative held together by a tight structure. He hands on the tradition, a tradition regularly based in eyewitness; and there are two mechanisms whereby it was considered permissible to ‘expand’ the tradition: illustratively (think: sermon illustrations to bring a bullet point to life) and prophetically, i.e. by filling out an existing OT template employed to show Jesus’s prophecy fulfilment and presence in all the scriptures, which was understood to be a given.

          • However the above picture is bolstered by two considerations, both large, and both among the first questions to ask when interpreting Luke:
            (a) Luke has a large Deut 1-26 sequential template from Luke 9.51 to Luke 18.14. Just as the Good Samaritan neatly reverses Deut 7.2 (show them no mercy), so the Prodigal Son (grouped here as part of a threesome of parables treated as a unit) reverses the instructions on how to deal with a rebellious son, Deut 21.18-20.
            (b) Luke is the final gospel written, yet the first three don’t include either of those 2 parables. However, if we had been the other 3 evangelists, we would have included both three times. That proves that our assumptions about the NT material are faulty.
            There is an idea that there was a large database of Jesus’s teaching from which the evangelists selected. There are several arguments against this idea. First Papias says Mark took care not to leave anything out. Second, if Mark has only seed growing secretly and not tares, whereas Matt has vice versa (and Matt has only 2 contrary sons whereas Luke has only prodigal son) then there is a more economic explanation looming into view: the expansion and rejigging of the earlier by the later, who saw the earlier as a skeleton story that could be made more of. Third, the material that appears later on is sometimes of higher quality so would have been selected by the earlier writers had it been available to them. Fourth, there is not the slightest evidence for this database, which makes it irresponsible to hypothesise it. Fifth, had it existed (and covered both deeds and words) it would have been a super-gospel already, so the evangelists would not have needed to pick up their pens. Sixth, we do not see selection taking place. We see instead Matt reproducing Mark, for example. Seventh, such new material as is added falls into patterns explicable from other parts of scripture. Thus for example Matt has (as noted) various parables in chs 20,25 built on maxims already in Mark and perfectly expressing those maxims. Mark chose only the maxims from the database and Matt only the parables built on the same maxims? Yet Matt has Mark as his source. That is why expansion is by far the simpler view. For a second example, some of Luke’s parables fill in what would otherwise be holes in his Deut 1-26 template.
            It should be noted in passing that in a didactic context illustrations that expand on the main point are of great didactic benefit and are the likeliest way for the tradition to expand.

          • `Luke is writing too long after Jesus to know with certainty …’

            This is circular. How do scholars know that the evangelists were writing a long time after Jesus? It is because they impute theology that came directly from Jesus to the evangelists – and then they say, `oh this didn’t happen instantaneously; they needed time for their ideas to mature.’ And then they use the length of time after Jesus as evidence that the words imputed to Jesus really didn’t come from Jesus.

            When people have the once-for-all event taking place before their eyes, it is very difficult to believe that (a) there weren’t people with good journalistic inclinations taking very good notes and that (b) the evangelists didn’t feel a very strong burden to get the Good News out as quickly as they possibly could after the ascension.

            The hypotheses that the gospels were written a long time after the resurrection and that the evangelists didn’t have access to the words spoken by Our Lord don’t really add up.

            As Steven points out, if the evangelists tell us that Jesus said something, then the working hypothesis is that Jesus really said it – there has to be strong evidence that this working hypothesis is wrong before we reject it – and rejecting it has very serious consequences.

            Put yourself in the shoes of the evangelist – the fear of God and of misrepresenting Him would make any normal Christian extremely worried about passing something off as what Jesus actually said when one wasn’t completely sure.

          • That is an astonishing answer. You could ask why a certain date is assigned. And, more to the point, you could ask those who have researched it. Or just read up on it. You do none of that. You both ask and answer your own question. Is anyone else allowed a look in?

            Dating could not be less circular. It is arrived at (approx) by studying the interrelationships of the writings. This gives us their relative order. Just occasionally there will be ways of arriving at an absolute dating. Once we have a couple of absolute datings this is of great benefit to the entire relative dating web. However (as with Lightfoot and 1 Clement) even when there is not even one large piece of data, the many small pieces of data help us narrow things down appreciably.

            What I can say is that your sentence ‘It is because’ is inaccurate from beginning to end, which is the result of your not having asked or researched first.

            Your (a) and (b) are suppositions and reasonable ones. But no-one needs suppositions when we have the actual texts in front of us, which can be examined for where they fit chronologically. You are saying that suppositions trump texts, but they never could.

            In a world before tape recorders, one cannot possibly be ‘completely sure’ about verbatim reproduction or anything close to that. But you already knew that. Any synopsis also shows that wording is many times different in parallels between gospels even when their writers are working in a literary not oral manner. What you are presenting is an idealised preference which has nothing to do with the texts. Eisegesis (the cardinal scholarly shortcoming).

            This is why Thucydides has to give his rationale and apologia for the words he uses in his speeches – same goes for Josephus and others. Writers will do their best to be accurate in the circumstances, and will also fit the speakers’ words to the speakers’ own circumstances.

            It seems like a form of control. Some people say – you must accept what I say or else. Others say, we must all accept the historical and logical evidence which is independent of anyone’s preferences. The child will not tolerate anything beyond their own preferences; the mature know that they are living in a world where some things are in accord with their preferences, some are not, and few are in accord with their most ideal specifications.

    • Is not the reference to the pigs to demonstrate just how far the prodigal had fallen. Would the impact of this not be better felt by Jews than gentiles. I think the two sons represent the two categories of Jews in v1 (sinners and the self-righteous Pharisee). The punchline being the self-righteous Jew is outside while the Jewish sinner who repents is inside. Of course the message carries over to gentiles too even if the parable is Jewish.

      • This contrast between holy men / authorities on the one hand and sinners on the other is bolstered by the fact that the original Matthew pits the authorities and holy men (chief priests and elders) against the pornai and (once again) telonai for his 2 sons parable. I am sure it has long been obvious to many.

  5. Thanks Ian. A good refresher course on these parables. The sting in the tail is the Second son. Given the parable was delivered to sinners and the Pharisees the latter would presumably have had little difficulty seeing where Jesus placed them in the parable.

    I have always taken it that our love for our children reflects God’s; he loves all his children and delights when they walk in obedience. Which is pretty much what you are saying.

  6. Glenn Scrivener, Reading Between the Lines, vol.2 , pp197
    The apology – “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.”
    was first voiced by Pharaoh; the repentance lasted for a very short time.

    In the OT Pharoah and his princely brother are sundered. In the NT the brothers are brought close.

    • Luke 15:21. Slightly ironic, because the father in the parable is the Father in heaven.
      One also thinks of Ps 51:4.
      There comes a point where one recognises that it is before God, the unseen judge of our souls, that one has to kneel and say sorry.
      Ex 10:16 is an interesting parallel, though does Exodus tell us that the Pharaoh was Moses’ brother? – I though this was only in Prince of Egypt. A 13th Dynasty context would suggest several kings during Moses’s 40-year absence.

      • Stretching a point am I. Moses was a prince of the Pharaoh ( great house) so I wanted to bring them together to illustrate a possible , though faint, echo .

  7. Hi Jock/Christopher

    My own thoughts on the Gospels is that they are reliable and trustworthy, but that we should not treat them as if they were written today with our exacting standards. As someone with a scientific background and thinking, I like to see things as black or white, but Ive come to realise that that does not always work well with theology or Biblical understanding (or quantum mechanics). Things tend to be more nuanced.

    So we should try to understand the Gospels as those who wrote them and those who read them understood them, 2000 years ago in that specific cultural context – not an easy task. Did they believe when Luke, for example, writes that Jesus said ‘…’ that those were the exact words He spoke? I doubt it. There may be some verbatim recollections, perhaps many, but I think the differences between the Gospels despite recording the same event/teaching shows that isnt always the case, and instead the writing reflects the ‘gist’ of what Jesus said. Im fine with that. Again it’s a case of refusing to simply read them through 21st century eyes (they didnt use speech marks then!).

    Having said that I would find it hard to accept that if Luke claims Jesus told a parable that in reality Luke effectively made it up and put words (even the gist) into Jesus’ mouth. It could be justified if that was common practice in that culture, particularly in the writing of Greco-Roman biographies. Though the Gospels are more ‘theological biographies’ per Blomberg. I would defer to the experts on that. The authors’ different theological emphasis (eg Matthew painting Jesus as the new Moses) explains some of the differences, at least between the synoptics. And because they are theological and not straightforward biographies of Jesus, I think the authors can be allowed some flexibility in their portrait of Jesus. All 4, taken together, give us a more complete picture of Him.

    That’s my tuppence worth.


    • The said different theological emphases to a large extent arise from a set of different typological emphases or rather structural templates. Remarkably complementary as the gospels are, it remains the case that each writer knows the work of his predecessor[s]. That is a very odd, even paradoxical combination; but is explained by their having begun with different OT Christological/typological structural templates which will by their nature complement each other and produce a distinct identity for each of the 4 writings even when they are reproducing so much of each other verbatim.

      There are so many parts to the gospels that generalisation is impossible. I have been analysing one parable – which is one out of 50. And yet with dreaded inevitability the impression gets given that I am somehow saying something about all 50. That is 4900 percent inaccurate. Shouldn’t we at least listen to those who can analyse each parable in its own right, rather than making sweeping generalisations that do not refer to the text?

      By discerning patterns in the evidence, we can regularly make real and exciting progress in gospel studies.

      • Or sometimes you do not see the wood for the trees.

        I gave a ‘sweeping generalisation’ because I was making a general point of my own view of the Gospels given yours and Jock’s previous comments, and was not commentating on the specific parable.

        But the problem, Christopher, with your view is your insistence that Luke knew and used Matthew’s Gospel for his own. Your working model may very well be false, as many scholars would argue. If your working model is false, the conclusions which you draw from that model will also likely be false. For example your statement, seemingly without fear of contradiction, that Luke was the last Gospel to be written.

        Looking specifically at the 2 parables, I see little to no connection between them. They appear to be told at different times in Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem (though I accept chronology does not appear to be of high importance to the writers, though Luke probably does imply he did try to provide his account in proper order, unlike Mark, per Papias) and the meaning (which is the whole point of a parable) is different for each.

        So I reject your understanding that Luke used Matthew’s very short parable and expanded considerably to mean something different, to fit with Luke’s mindset. It is perfectly feasible, and to my mind quite reasonable, that Jesus told both stories, separately and at different times.

        • Many things are ‘perfectly feasible’ but once one exalts one of these at the expense of the others that becomes bias.

          Many things are perfectly feasible but only some of those can be arrived at at the end of a process of analysis.

          The big misconception here is to think that we are looking at this story alone rather than first developing an understanding of Luke’s method that fits his gospel as a whole (and it is impossible for any such understanding to fit the gospel as a whole unless it has something going for it) and only then seeing how this story fits into that.

          On expansion of parables, and of sayings into parables: The seed growing secretly in Mark and the tares in Matt are in the same precise context. Yet tellingly neither writer has both. Both refer to sleeping while the seed is growing, and to the harvest. Mark’s story, which I really like, may have seemed a bit mere. Matt’s has been proven to make a more memorable point, since people often quote it. Matt can also be seen to generate a few parables out of Mark maxims (20.16, 25.13, 25.29). In preaching, if you can include strong illustrations, you will never then wish to return to the former sans-illustration state.

          ‘To fit with Luke’s mindset’ is not fully correct. It is to fit with his Deuteronomy template (reprobate son portion thereof).

          When Luke says he has written an orderly account he does not at all say that he has done so unlike Mark. He says that all 4 evangelists have done so. Second, he never mentions chronology. Third, if he either mentioned or implied it he and Papias would disagree. Fourth, he says that there is a particular way in which all evangelists have written an orderly account. Fifth, chronology is less accessible to him than to Mark not more. Sixth, he speaks in his intro of the sort of work all 4 gospels are: a narrative of fulfilments (1.1). Scholarship veers to understanding ‘fulfilments’ not ‘accomplishments’ – see e.g. Fitzmyer. So the narrative, like the other three, is in the order of the things that have been fufilled: an OT generated order.

          At times in your answer, you are arguing that X is possible. In that case, my scenario will also be granted to be possible to put it no more strongly, which possibility does not allow you to ‘reject’ it. However, I would never talk about things that are merely possible in the first place – where would it end? Tons of things are always possible.

          On Luke’s use of Matthew and on Luke being the final gospel we can speak only on the basis of arguments and factors not on the ‘basis’ of ‘scholars disagree’. For even if they do disagree – which they always will in a world of 8 billion people, or if there are unconsidered factors which there always will be – that is irrelevant. All discussion is on the basis of arguments and factors. So we refer to Goodacre vs Kloppenborg (on Luke’s use of Matthew or not) or to Shellard and Matson on Luke’s posteriority to John. Luke’s posteriority to Matthew is demonstrated by the simple logic of Luke’s Elijah and Deut material.

        • (However, the recognition of OT templates for the gospels makes Kloppenborg’s arguments for ‘Q’ – and Q was always a less likely hypothesis – redundant.)

    • Peter – re-read what Christopher wrote earlier. He is not saying that Luke did his best to reconcile various accounts that had some differences; he is not saying that there may have been translational difficulties (e.g. if Jesus taught in Aramaic which was then translated into Greek); Christopher isn’t saying anything like that at all.

      He is suggesting that Luke read something in Matthew’s gospel, which then became the basis for something with a very heavy input from Luke himself; when Luke tells us that Jesus said something, it means that Luke is presenting a parable which delivers the theology that Luke thinks that Jesus intended to communicate.

      All this business about eating the food for the pigs was Luke’s invention to add some verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative (to borrow a phrase from W.S. Gilbert – The Mikado).

      As far as I am concerned, Luke would be guilty of sacrilege if this is indeed what he was doing. Christopher may well be correct; his scholarship may well have yielded the right answers. But if it has, then there is absolutely no basis for believing anything in the gospels.

      I wonder how far this goes. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 – was this a prayer that Jesus actually said in the presence of his disciples? Or is it something that is the product of John’s imagination (whichever John was responsible for writing John’s gospel), because John thought it was necessary to deliver the theology that John thought Jesus was trying to communicate?

      • We return then to the Jesus Seminar of biblical scholar and its streams flowing through scholarship and the church today and the deeply entrenched, historical – higher – form criticism.
        The scriptures as we have them are uncorrectable.
        From my former solicitors position they are and were ” documents of public record” which are admitted as evidence of of the truth of contents, both admissible and reliable.
        Was truth important to the writers?
        Did they think they were writing sripture in continuation?
        How were the contructed? By individuals or by a community?
        How inportant was oral tradition, memorisation?
        While we may see interconnected patterns and theologies in retrospect, eg Moses in Matthew, themes in Luke it is by no means certain they were in the minds of the authors.
        I’ve given this illustration on this site before; it comes from police officers who wrote up their evidential notes together, as soon as reasonably practicable. The notes of each officer at a scene presented a synoptic, common view. Rarely were there any differences. Where there were it gave weight to truthfulness as one officer may have found something relevant that another didn’t. (This is a very condensed illustration)
        Likewise Luke may have recorded somthing Matthew ignored, found irrelevant.
        Certainly there is no need to expand this as Christopher has as Luke evangelistically embellishing to suit his theological purposes. Wasn’t he regarded as Dr Luke, a historian?

        • Thanks Geoff – the `document of public record’ is very useful – although I didn’t have the words to express it as well as you did!

      • Hi Jock

        You several times say I am saying something about theology. I did not mention theology once.

        Luke has a scriptural template and fills it in because he believes in the principle that Jesus fulfilled/s Scripture (see Road to Emmaus and subsequent resurrection appearance). So because his template for Matt sayings is Deuteronomy 1-26, he slots the two sons into the reprobate son slot in Deuteronomy, because he always slots his Matt material into the most appropriate Deut slot, and combines the two sons idea (one obedient one disobedient) with the theme of a reprobate son. (We already know from the Good Samaritan that his idea of slotting into Deut can involve directly reversing Deut – so with the Good Samaritan [Deut 7.1-2] the reversal is from no mercy to foreigners to abundant mercy from foreigners; here it is from stoning a disobedient son to death to lavishly welcoming him home. It is typical Luke.) And the end result is this parable.

        The pigs would only have the chance of being verisimilitude if they were part of an historical narrative not a parable.

        But in any case I did not say they were verisimilitude nor of course do I think that.

        I do not think that any of the evangelists use imagination as a source. Matthew and Luke use raw material as a source. The raw material may be a brief maxim (in the case of Matt) or an OT context in the case of Luke).

      • As for what you say about ‘no basis for believing anything in the gospels’

        (a) So if I had analysed one of the parables that I think comes from Jesus, you would conclude ‘there is complete evidence for believing everything in the gospels’. Otherwise you are being inconsistent.

        (b) You are saying that an analysis of one gospel story will be reproduced across analyses of all gospel stories. It is clear how far from reality that is.

        (c) What have Luke’s doings to do with Mark’s or John’s or Matthew’s? He does certain things – why does that mean that these others do them? Are they all clones, or a syndicate?

        (d) The question (c) is particularly acute because Luke postdates the other 3. So what they have done they have already done, and it is 100% independent of anything Luke does. What is stopping Luke coming along and doing something slightly different? There is not the slightest chance that he would do everything precisely the same as the others had done.

        Sometimes people talk of the evangelists as though they were a single agent.

      • ‘He is not saying that Luke is doing his best to reconcile various accounts that had some differences’. That is often exactly what I am saying. It is something Luke does quite a few times. Not here, though.

  8. The Father’s estate/domain represents The Law. The far country represents everything outside it. One son is under Law the other is beyond it. Think Judah and beyond it, Israel. The hope expressed is that Israel will be brought back into unity.


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