Luke 15 is a trilogy of parables about the ‘lost’: the shepherd who seeks a lost sheep, a woman who diligently searches for a lost coin, and a father who goes to great lengths to restore his lost sons. This essay will consider these parables from literary, social-historical, psychological and feminist perspectives and how these various perspectives lend meaning to Jesus’ teachings for us.
Luke 15 begins with tax collectors and sinners gathering near to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and the scribes criticize Jesus for welcoming and eating with sinners (vv. 1-3). Jesus tells them the first parable (vv. 4-7) about a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to find one that is lost. When the sheep is found, the shepherd lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. Upon arriving home, he invites his friends and neighbors to celebrate the recovery of his lost sheep. The parable ends with “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).
In the second parable, Jesus recounts a story about a woman with ten coins but has lost one of them (vv. 8-9). The woman lights a lamp and sweeps her house carefully in ardent search for the coin. When found, she gathers her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. The parable ends with “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).
Jesus concludes the trilogy of parables with the story of the prodigal son (vv. 11-32). In this parable, the younger of two sons becomes dissatisfied with his life on the family estate. He asks and receives from his father his share of the inheritance, only to squander it recklessly in a foreign land. Hungry and destitute, the son returns home to be eagerly welcomed by his father who dresses him in fine clothing and calls upon his servants to prepare a communal feast.
The elder brother reacts with indignation, aghast at his father’s joyous embrace of one so undeserving. The father attempts to reason with his eldest son and to reconcile him with his younger brother. He tells him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found’ (vv. 31, 32). The parable ends with the matter of the elder son’s attitude unresolved.
The pericope of Luke 15 begins with Luke 15:1-3, a controversy setting which establishes the context for the three parables. Sinners and tax collectors have come to listen to Jesus, thus provoking the Pharisees and the scribes to complain about Jesus associating and eating with them. The setting of eating a communal meal carries symbolic meaning for initiating and maintaining sociability and bonds of common identity, and, in Luke 15, sharpens the distinction between those who claim to be holy through observance of Jewish religious laws (the Pharisees) and the impure (the sinners and tax collectors) (Jeong 62). The pericope ends with the father in Luke 15:32 justifying the need to celebrate and rejoice because his younger son was lost and found.
Luke 15 is organized in a narrative sequence of three parables with the first two parables (sheep and coin) in synonymous parallelism. The third parable about the prodigal son incorporates parallelism within the narrative; the younger and elder son are each shown in relationship to their father in verses 11-24b and verses 25a-32, respectively (Ramsey 41). The entire text of Luke 15 is rendered a coherent whole by the use of these parallelisms.
An inclusio serves a similar purpose with the two complaints, first by the Pharisees and the scribes (vv. 1-2), and followed by the righteous indignation of the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son (vv. 28-30). Each parable ends on the theme of joy (vv. 7, 10, 32) which further unifies the periscope. Luke’s use of the singular, “So he told them this parable” (v.3) suggests he wants the reader to consider the three parables as a single literary unit (Jeong 62).
The overarching corpus establishes the broader literary environment for Luke 15. Neighboring texts are Luke 14 (Jesus Heals a Man with Dropsy, Humility and Hospitality, The Parable of the Great Dinner, The Cost of Discipleship, and the About Salt) and Luke 16 (The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, The Law and the Kingdom of God, and The Rich Man and Lazarus). These parables are in thematic unity with Luke 15. They address issues of hospitality to outcasts, the proper use of wealth and distribution to those in need, detaching from possessions to become a disciple, and the law as followed by the Pharisees compared to the good news of God’s kingdom.
The wider corpus of Luke 15 is the entire Gospel according to Luke often referred to as the “Gospel of the Poor,” which demonstrates concern for the marginalized and oppressed. Repentance and salvation are common themes in Luke’s Gospel (Newsom and Ringe 277).
Sources and Parallels
Biblical scholars debate whether there is a direct parallel between the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7) and Matt. 18:12-14. Many argue that both passages stem from the Q source and are independent versions of the parable. There are various interpretations of Matthew’s version: forgiving those in the faith community who have gone astray (Jeong 64); instruction to Jesus’ disciples about their obligation as pastors to the Church (Stuhlmueller 148); and God’s unrelenting love of Israel and for those who are called to be disciples of Jesus (Hauerwas 164). In contrast, Luke’s message is to include sinners (Van Eck 2-3) and the joy of finding that which is lost (Stuhlmueller 148).
The Gospel of Thomas also includes a passage about the lost sheep. Thomas emphasizes the lost sheep as the ‘largest’ in the flock, the one the shepherd loves more than the ninety-nine. This is consistent with the Gnostic Christians use of the motif of the largest, which is associated with their perceived superior status compared to ordinary Christians (Van Eck 2). In Luke, there is no distinction between the lost sheep and the ninety-nine sheep.
Since the parable of the lost sheep is found in Q and Thomas, scholars conclude that Luke 15:4-6 was promulgated through the oral tradition and was likely the original form of the parable told by Jesus. Jesus’ tendency toward hyperbole in many of his sayings and parables (i.e. ninety-nine sheep left to become potential victims of predators) provides further justification (Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar 355, Van Eck 3). The introduction to the parable (Luke 15:1-3) and the conclusion (Luke 15:7) is believed to be written by Luke as it reflects his pastoral interests regarding repentance and sinners, and concurs with remarks made by him elsewhere (Luke 12:21; 14:33; 17:10) (Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar 355).
There is scholarly consensus that the parable of the lost sheep has a relationship to frequent imagery of the shepherd tradition found in the Old Testament, including Gen. 48:15, 49:24; Psalms 23, 77:20, 80:1, 119:176; Ezekiel 34; Isaiah 40:10, 53:6, 60:4; Jer 23:1-4,50:6; Zechariah 11:4-17 (Snodgrass 105-107, Van Eck 6).
Thematic parallels for the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) are the Woman with the Hemorrhage (Luke 8:43-47), The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8), and the Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith (Mark 7:24-30). Each of these parables involves women recovering that which is lost.
Luke likely created the parable of the lost coin to unify the preceding and following parables. The concluding remark about sinners (v.10) is considered Luke’s addition. However, the exaggerated effort to recover a coin reflects “Jesus’ style and his unconventional estimate of worth” which leads some scholars to believe that the parable may have originated with Jesus (Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar 355). Jeong posits that the parable of the lost coin may have been taken from Q, L and a Lukan composition or a composition of the early Church (Jeong 62).
The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) has no direct parallels in the New Testament. One possible thematic parallel is found in Matt. 20:11-12 (The Laborers in the Vineyard), wherein the laborers gripe about the generosity shown by the owner of the vineyard, which mimics the complaints of the elder son (Jeong 61). In Matt. 22:4 Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven with a wedding feast offered by the king to his son (Nouwen 113). The common message is that celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom.
There are a few thematic parallels in the Old Testament such as the Joseph story (Gen. 37-50) with images of the far country, jealousy of the elder brother, a ring, fine clothing, a banquet, famine, and reconciliation with the father. The loving acceptance of the father for the prodigal son recalls the mercy of God shown for a repentant Ephraim (Jer 31:18-20; cf. 1 Kgs 8:47-51; Hos 11:1-9; Psalms 103:13) (Forbes 212).
Nouwen proposes a similarity of this parable with Zechariah’s fourth vision (Zech. 3:1-10). Joshua stands before the angel of Yahweh dressed in dirty clothes, then is instructed by the angel to dress in splendid robes and to put a turban on his head as a sign of being removed of guilt and of coming into his priesthood (Nouwen 112).
Forbes argues that the parable of the prodigal son “embodies a mosaic of Old Testament reminiscences” and drew from oral folktale of Semitic origin (Forbes 211-213). He and many scholars, agree that most of the parable is authentic because it imitates the general teachings of Jesus elsewhere, especially verses 11-17, 20, 22-23, 24c. The parable may have been a Lukan adaptation which was intended as an indictment of the Pharisees and to form a link with Luke 16 (Forbes 211). Others attribute the entire parable to Luke or a later redactor (Hultgren 72).
Several features of the parable can be traced to Jesus. Jesus associated with sinners in Mark and Q and the vocabulary mixes Lukan and non-Lukan terms. In addition, the parable diverges from Luke’s theology. At the end of the parable, the elder brother (intended to represent the Pharisees) is invited to join the celebration, thus suggesting a reconciliation of Judean with Judean. In contrast, Luke portrays the Judeans as rejecting the Gospel and then offering it to the Gentiles (Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar 357).
According to Gorman, rhetorical style and related literary devices help the reader to be affectively engaged with a parable, to identify with key characters, to extract meaning from the narrative, and to experience a change of attitudes and behaviors (Gorman 63). Luke 15 is rife with examples of this.
All three parables in Luke 15 share a common scheme and language including being lost, searching, being found, rejoicing, and communal celebration (Forbes 221; Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar 357; Jancoski 55; Jeong 62, 73; Van Eck 3).
Many scholars maintain that the use of allegory in Luke 15 is intended to reflect both the character of God and the activity of God (Snodgrass 105, 107). They propose a number of metaphors: the shepherd as God or Jesus who tends his sheep; the sheep as sinners; the father in the prodigal son as God; the younger son as the Gentiles or as the sinners; and the elder son as Judeans or Pharisees (Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar 355, Reid 240, Van Eck 6). The feminine expression of God or Sophia Wisdom is represented by the woman who searches for the lost coin (Beavis 22). Forbes argues that there is not a complete allegory between the elder son and the Pharisees, rather “the parable is addressed to every religious community, for all have their insiders and outsiders” (Forbes 229).
In Luke 15:4-7, when the shepherd is seen as a metaphor for God and the sheep as the sinner, most contemporary scholars conclude that the parable of the lost sheep is about God’s forgiveness (Hultgren 59, Jeremias 40, Snodgrass 93), God’s grace and mercy (Capon 31-39, Westerman 135,184), love and compassion for the lost and marginalized (Bailey 142, Boice 50, Lambrecht 43-44, Perkins 31, Reid 249, Snodgrass 93), salvation (Hultgren 54), the importance of repentance (Bailey 142, Hultgren 61, Perkins 31, Schottroff 152), God’s joy when a sinner is found (Boucher 96, Hendrickx 149, Jones 275), and seeking the lost (Stein 52). Van Eck contends that by excluding shepherd/God and sheep/sinner metaphors and by examining the parable from a social-historical perspective these themes are not present; rather, in a 30 C.E. context told by the historical Jesus, the parable becomes one of Jesus’ Kingdom parables (Van Eck 1-2).
Several literary devices are found in Luke 15 including hyperbole (“devoured your property with prostitutes,” 30), sandwiching technique (the lost coin positioned between sheep and prodigal son parables) (Miller 163), and repetition (the behavior of the prodigal son in the far country repeated in an exaggerated manner by the psychological distance of the elder son) (Ramsey 36). Repetition is used in the prodigal son to emphasize the nature of being lost and found and is presented in poetic parallelism in vv. 24 and 32 as a comparison of death and life. Suspense that heightens tension is also used. The shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep unattended in the wilderness evokes a sense of danger (Jeong 67).
Luke 15 also integrates movement that quickens the pace of the plot while portraying the true nature of the characters (the father running, kissing, music and dancing demonstrates compassion and joy). Affectively-laden words increase our identification with the characters: “grumbling” (v.2), “rejoicing” (vv. 5, 9, 32), and in the prodigal son, “angry,” “refused,” and “plead” (v. 28).
Each parable demonstrates a play of numbers: one sheep in a hundred, one coin in ten, and one son of two (Van Eck 3). Groupings of two as with the younger and elder brothers also represents a dyadic (2-fold) narrative structure (Gorman 76).
Rhetorical questions at the beginning of the parables of the sheep and coin (vv. 3, 4, 8) serve to capture our attention and to evoke contemplation. Withholding information from the reader and creating ambiguity can also inspire reflection. The reader is left to ponder possibilities about the choices that are made by the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son and shapes the impact of the story on the reader (Ramsey 33). The open-ended nature of the story forces us to identify with each character in the parable and generates additional questions: What is my capacity to love and show compassion as the father did? Am I more like the prodigal son who repents or the critical and self-righteous elder son? When am I like both?
Descriptive words found in Luke 15 evoke imagery that both draws the reader into the narrative and intensifies the theme of lost and searching: the shepherd laying the lost sheep on his shoulders, the woman searching carefully for her coin, and in the prodigal son, “severe famine,” “dissolute living,” “dying of hunger.” Alienation resulting from the younger son’s actions is highlighted by imagery of “the far country,” “feeding pigs,” “lost” and “dead” (Forbes 226). Feasting imagery, along with the finery of robe, ring, and sandals contrasts with feeding on carob pods and helps to underline the extremities of lost-found, sin-repentance, and alienation-restoration, while carrying overtones of the messianic banquet (Forbes 221).
In interpreting Luke 15, consideration must be given to the social and historical contexts in which this text was written in order to guard against an “ethnocentristic and anachronistic reading” (Van Eck 4). With regards to Luke 15:4-7, Van Eck posits that the portrayal of the shepherd in this passage was related to Old Testament imagery rather than the social and economic realities of the advanced agrarian society under the control of the Roman Empire and centered in the Temple in Jerusalem of first century Palestine. He states that most interpreters of the parable assume the shepherd owned the flock of sheep or the shepherd was hired as part of an extended family who owned the flock. Thus, the loss of one sheep is a loss to the entire clan and the whole family rejoices when the sheep is found. However, the common practice was for owners to employ shepherds who were often strangers, a trade stigmatized by Jews as unclean, impure and dishonest (Van Eck 5).
Shepherds were poor, forced into pasturing due to heavy taxation by the Roman Empire and the Temple and due to oppression by the elite. They were considered like tax collectors and robbers for bringing their herds onto other peoples’ land and becoming involved in criminality because of their mobility and being armed (Van Eck 5).
The wages paid to a shepherd were meager, thus the loss of one sheep was significant: a male sheep equivalent to a month’s wage; a female more than this. If the herd were leased, the loss of an animal would mean replacement cost and reduced income from the flock. Given these realities, the shepherd in Luke 15 had no other option than to recover the lost sheep and risk the loss of the ninety-nine others. His economic survival and that of his family depended on it (Van Eck 4-8).
Van Eck proposes that the parable of the lost sheep is not a story about God, Jesus and sinners. The story is about a despised shepherd and a lost sheep intended to illuminate the truth about the Kingdom of God that becomes visible through the unexpected behavior of a shepherd. The shepherd could have solved the problem of the lost sheep by resorting to banditry. Instead, he takes a risk to provide for his family through non-violence. The Kingdom of God, therefore, is a place where there will be enough and all are accepted – shepherds, the poor and women, for anyone identified as despised, unclean and impure. A place that is distinctly different from the Kingdom of Rome or the temple (Van Eck 9). Clearly there was reason to rejoice.
The parable of the woman and the lost coin illustrates the extent of poverty experienced by women in first century Palestine. The lost coin (one drachma) is equivalent to one days’ wage for a male laborer and two days’ wage for a female laborer (Beavis 36). Diligently searching for the one lost coin of ten was a necessity for survival, as well as a cultural expectation: a woman’s role was to guard the money earned by men and to maintain order in the home (LaHurd 67). Her power and value in relation to men was as the central figure in the central institution of society – the home. Women controlled sex, honor, children and a happy well-organized household (LaHurd 71). Finding the lost coin was essential to maintain her image and self-worth.
Maloney contends that the woman in this parable is poor. She may have been single or responsible for the safekeeping of ten coins given to her by her husband. The woman lives in a house with few windows that is dark which requires her to light a lamp to find the lost coin (a further sign of her economic status since owners of homes with fewer windows paid fewer taxes and were less wealthy). Having to light a lamp would have intensified the woman’s anxiety because of the expense associated with lamp oil. Even with the lamp, the darkness requires that she constantly sweep while listening for the tinkle of the coin on the dirt floor. As custom would dictate, when the woman finds the coin she gathers her women friends for a celebration. Her value and self-worth are restored (Maloney 36).
In first century Palestine, Mosaic Law dictated a number of rules for religious practice including those involving the use of property and inheritance. The first son had rights to a double share of his inheritance and the youngest son a third (Deut. 21:17). This inheritance was effective upon the death of the father, or by a gift during his lifetime. If it was given as a gift, any interest on the property was payable after the father’s death. If the son disposed of the property, the buyer could not take possession until the death of the father. Allocating the inheritance while the father is alive is a matter of dishonoring the father (Sir. 33:19-23) (Forbes 214-215).
In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son’s request for his inheritance was tantamount to wishing his father dead. Typically, the father would be enraged with such a request and give his son a solid beating. Likewise, the elder son would have intervened (Nouwen 35). The father in this parable freely gives the son his share of the inheritance and the son converts the property to cash (to a Gentile nonetheless), thus ignoring any moral claim that the father had in property. He also violates Jewish law by failing to honor his parents and to sustain them in their old age (cf. Mark 7:11-13). Adding further injury, the younger son leaves for a distant country only to squander his inheritance with reckless abandon, a further betrayal of the treasured values of family and community (Forbes 216, Nouwen 36). Severe famine compounds the son’s problem, forcing him to violate religious custom in order to eat: he works for a Gentile feeding pigs (unclean animals), degrading for a Jew. The son decides to return home with the intention of asking his father to hire him as one of his slaves.
The parable demonstrates another break with tradition. As the son arrives on the outskirts of his village his father runs toward him, thus protecting his son from attacks by other villagers. He then kisses his son repeatedly in an enthusiastic embrace of welcome. This is the opposite of what would be expected. Running, especially toward a son who has shamed his father, would be considered humiliating behavior for an elder.
The father has also aborted risk of his son being dishonored by the villagers; in fact, the father has taken on his son’s shame (Forbes 216-220, Lahurd 70-71). He has reinstated his son into the family and into the community with loving acceptance, requiring no explanation of his son’s behavior or any repentance from him. The father orders his servants to bring his son a robe, ring and sandals, and to kill the fattened the calf for a festive celebration. The father demonstrates the height of hospitality and the breadth of compassion. This behavior is more of the unexpected.
When his elder son reacts negatively to the return of his brother, the father once again defies stereotypes. The elder son’s refusal to join the celebration is met with his father’s patient reasoning and an invitation for him to reconcile with his brother. Typically a Middle Eastern father would respond to such a refusal by locking up his son and after the banquet beating him for his defiance. Ironically, the elder son puts his father’s honor at stake by failing to use a title of respect for him, but the father sustains his compassionate stance by replying “my child,” a more familiar address than “son.” Thus, the father subverts the elder son’s attempt to reduce his honor and that of his younger sibling. Neither son is given an opportunity to score a victory over the other (Forbes 220, LaHurd 70).
Finally, Maloney contends that the purpose for money in the parables of Luke 15 is not to be hoarded, rather to be shared among friends in a celebration. Rejoicing related to the thing lost, be it sheep, coin or son, is not complete unless it is shared by a community. People of faith are lost without community, including the communion of saints of which the rejoicing angels are a part (Maloney 36-38).
Psychology examines emotions, attitudes, motivations and behaviors that are operative within individuals and how these contribute to a person’s functioning in society and capacity for transformation and wholeness. As previously mentioned, the shepherd and woman in the first two parables of Luke 15 were motivated to find the lost sheep and coin in order to maintain their identity and self-worth in relationship to their expected roles within their family and community.
Langer invites us to focus less on the lost coin and more on the ten coins the woman possesses. She sees this claiming as essential because most women have been conditioned to suppress their inner wealth – abilities, gifts, talents, capacities, possessions and property (Langer 24). However, searching to rediscover this inner wealth usually requires a descent into darkness and pain by acknowledging one’s life situations and circumstances, and often bringing light to that which has been lost. What are the precious things that have been lost? Children, parents, husband, friend, health, career, or zest for life are among the many coins which might be named. Langer suggests that such an inward process evokes the “deep and directing wisdom of our intuition” (Langer 25-26). New coins as new potentials and fresh goals are frequently found thus adding to the inner wealth that is already our inheritance in God.
Psychologist Carl Jung proposes that personality is shaped by dimensions of the psyche that are conscious (in awareness) and unconscious (not in awareness). He identifies the collective unconscious as the repository of archetypes: ideas and experiences inherited from the ancestral heritage of humanity that are expressed through images and symbols of cultural myths and personal dreams. The Self is the mid-point of the personality which brings the psyche into the union of the opposites of the conscious and unconscious, a process necessary for individuation or wholeness (Jung 275, Veliyannoor 339).
Veliyannoor draws a parallel between the characters in the parable of the prodigal son and aspects of the psyche. He suggests that the father represents the Self, inviting both the younger and elder sons to realize their destiny of individuation. The younger son is symbolic of the unconscious or inferior function of the psyche, the dark and unbridled instinctual energies associated with play, carelessness, and seeking delight for the senses. His journey to a “distant country” and “dissolute living” are symbolic of the state of his unconscious. However, there is a crisis point when he encounters near starvation which forces him to come to his senses and to take stock of his life.
Crisis is an opportunity for awakening and transformation. Although the younger son is ruled by inferior motives of hunger and need for shelter, these are enough to erode the mask of his false persona and set him upon his return home. He engages an interior monologue which is a rehearsal of the speech that he intends to recite to his father to beg forgiveness for his actions. The reader is given insight into the younger son’s motives (Veliyannoor 340-341).
Scholars are suspicious about the authenticity of the younger son’s repentance. Most consider him as acting out of selfish motives rather than being truly repentant. The reader is placed in a predicament because they expect repentance to be a central theme based on this emphasis in the preceding two parables. However, the younger son’s scripted speech (lacking any evidence of metanoia) suggests that his motivation is to manipulate the situation to his advantage by offering to be his father’s slave. He will do anything to end his suffering.
The son’s planned speech is in stark contrast to the father’s genuine and spontaneous flow of compassion with his son’s return (Forbes 217, Ramsey 37-38). The reader is given a clue to suspend an overly hasty generalization about repentance, as well as an opportunity to reflect on the motivations underlying their own attempts at repentance. Is repentance motivated by a truly remorseful heart, one that has experienced a conversion? Or is repentance marred by ulterior motives driven by personal gain? In this parable, the need to repent seems trumped by acceptance of being found and having made the choice to return to God (Forbes 216).
In his wisdom the father appeals to the dominate aspect of his younger son’s psyche by celebrating his return with a reception that is eros-filled – fine clothes, a ring, music, and a banquet. This is not a direction of destructiveness associated with the unconscious as previously engaged by the son’s departure; it is sanctified and redemptive. The father, as the symbol of the Self, is in essence inviting the younger son into greater integration (Veliyannoor 341). He does the same with the elder son who represents the conscious, dominant, extraverted function of the psyche. The father responds to the rational, social and culturally appropriate side of his elder son by patiently explaining the reason for the elaborate welcome of the younger son.
The elder son is unable to accept the invitation to join in the celebration, or the potential integration offered by his father; he is “deeply dissociated into his own meanness emanating from his unproductive frugality” (Holgate 230). The elder son has a typical reaction of fear and refusal that often occurs when the gateway for equanimity of the Self is opened. He is unable to break free to embrace his shadow due to the compulsion of his persona and is left to continue a life devoid of eros, choosing instead his socially demanded roles. As a result, the elder son projects his dark desires onto his brother and rejects him by first releasing his harbored frustrations upon his father. He shames his father in public by addressing him without title, a gesture equal, if not worse, than his younger brother’s actions. From this morally and socially superior stance, he cuts himself off from his father, brother, and from his own potential for wholeness (Veliyannoor 342).
The father, on the other hand, is the ultimate symbol of individuation and wholeness. He is able to love with abandon for a higher purpose – the reconciliation between his sons and within themselves. The father is inwardly free from the constraints of Mosaic Law, religious mores, and social expectations. He demonstrates this through sharing his property with his younger son before his death, giving him the freedom to choose the direction of his destiny and to experience the consequences, and by his lack of concern for his dignity by running to embrace his returning son. His ability to gently counter his elder son’s anger and righteousness with love is an additional example of how the Self acts as the central authority within the father (Veliyannor 343-343).
The father’s behaviors are steeped in unconditional love. He asks no questions, and expects no apologies, change or anything in return. He protects and takes upon himself his son’s shame by meeting him outside the village, thus preempting an attack of retribution by the villagers. This must have confounded the Pharisees and scribes who surrounded Jesus on the day he told this parable. They, and we the reader of this parable, are naturally inclined to side with the elder son by judging those who have done wrong and expecting repentance from the younger son, sinners and tax collectors.
“The father shows his younger son how to transform his weakness into strength, how to redeem his eros from its destructiveness and use it constructively. And the father gently reminds the elder son how his strength, the logos, can be a weakness when used for divisive and alienating purposes and how it can be used for constructive purposes at the service of communion” (Veliyannor 344).
Jancoski believes the parable of the prodigal son is about relationships and our inheritance as Christians. She concludes that both sons failed to claim their real inheritance because they were unable to release themselves from their identity as servants to their father, even when the father invites them into freedom. Jesus asks the same of us: “to be what I am, what I became at Baptism, his disciple” (Jancoski 56).
In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen offers additional perspective on the psychological and spiritual dimensions that are active within the characters of this parable. He reflects on the vulnerability associated with being held in an eternal embrace by a forgiving God and the degree of surrender and trust this requires: “I would never be able to live the great commandment of love without allowing myself to be loved without conditions or prerequisites” (Nouwen 14). Nouwen acknowledges that the prodigal son could only rediscover his deepest self through the realization of and confidence in his father’s love.
For Nouwen, leaving home is forgetting the voice of God’s love and seeking love in the allurements of the world. He also identifies with the elder son who is filled with paralyzing resentment, complaint, and anger, a darkness that ultimately engulfs the elder son. Joy becomes unreachable. However, the father wants both his sons to return to the house of joy, but sadly as many of us, the elder son refuses the merciful gesture. Nouwen indicates that this is the nature of God who does not force; we are always free to choose between darkness and light (Nouwen 74-77). He proposes that the real sin is to deny God’s love for us and to ignore our original goodness. God offers us forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. We are invited to rejoice with God as these gifts are a source of joy.
God is always seeking us rather than us needing to find God: “God wants to find me, if not more than I want to find God” (Nouwen 106). According to Nouwen, the central message of the parable of the prodigal son is to be compassionate as our God is compassionate (Luke 6:36) (Nouwen 107-116).
In her book The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom, Mary Ann Beavis writes that as a feminist she seeks to “uncover ways in which the parables critique the patriarchal social structures of antiquity (e.g., slavery, absentee landlords) and which open up vistas of new, non-oppressive social relations” (Beavis 17).
Jan Schaberg, in the Women’s Bible Commentary, deems Luke-Acts “extremely dangerous.” While Luke’s Gospel includes female characters, they are often portrayed in conventional female Roman roles as prayerful, quiet, grateful women who are supportive of male leadership rather than engaging in their own prophetic ministry (Schaberg 275).
Several feminist scholars criticize the superior position attributed to the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep. Pastors are often given the status of shepherd (representing God or Jesus), which brings an inherent danger because the lone external hierarchical authority can potentially control, cajole, and cavort with their sheep, the parishioners. Women are most vulnerable to abuse under these circumstances. For women, pastoral care needs to focus on transforming oppressive social institutions. Authority that is centralized in a male pastor who excludes women from ministry only exacerbates the experience of oppression already present in the wider social systems of society (Dykstra 739, Moessner 201, Ramsey 14, Wise 2). An alternative approach in interpreting the lost sheep is to identify both shepherd and sheep as equal in their unenviable plight as lost – both as marginalized and ignored (Dykstra 742).
Beavis views the parable of the woman and the lost coin as a metaphor for Divine Wisdom (Wisdom incarnate) who seeks those who have ‘fallen through the cracks,’ referring to the marginalized and oppressed – women, the poor, and outcasts (Beavis 22). Shcussler Fiorenza believes the joy of the women and her female neighbors on finding the coin brings to mind “the lost emancipatory Christian traditions of reclaiming wo/men’s theologies and histories of their own heritage” (Schussler Fiorenza 181). Maloney proposes that the parable of the lost coin says that “God is like that woman, just as God is like that shepherd” (Maloney 37). This is an equal opportunity parable alongside the parable of the prodigal son where God is like the father.
Beavis takes issue with Luke 15: 10: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one repenting sinner.” She believes it gives comfort to abusers while providing nothing to those who have been abused. Women who have been abused may be doubly victimized by the Church that teaches that she is sinning by withholding forgiveness (Beavis 43).
In the instance of the parable of the woman and the lost coin, the woman is righteous, not sinful, and is not in need of repentance. Women reading this passage and other passages that include women may be led to believe their virtues are vices: curiosity is hubris, freedom is licentiousness, and coping with misfortune is punishment. They may be forced to forgive in favor of betraying their innocence and need for justice. According to Beavis, men in the Bible, “are overwhelmingly sinful, and yet have been elevated through centuries of patriarchal interpretation into towering heroes of faith” their shortcomings overlooked by a misappropriated principle that God loves and forgives sinners (Beavis 43). The true lost are the innocent victims of sin and injustice, as well as those who sin against them. She proposes an alternative to Luke 15:10: “Likewise, I tell you, the angels of Godde rejoice more over one innocent person who is vindicated than over the repentance of sinners who have abused them” (Beavis 45).
LaHurd points to the disparity in the allegory of God-as-shepherd and God-as-housekeeper as presented by Luke 15:7 (“more joy in heaven”) compared to Luke 15:10 (“joy in the presence of the angels of God”). She claims these passages demonstrate that women are less likely to be compared to God. The comparison of the woman and the lost coin with God is less obvious than the shepherd with God. In addition, women’s work is presented as lower status (Durber 59-78). LaHurd concedes on two points: all three characters – shepherd, woman, and father – possess the power to go in search of the lost and all are able to celebrate (LaHurd 72).
Reid adds that the parable of the woman in search of the lost coin often results in sexist interpretations. The woman is judged for being miserly or her actions as trivial. On the contrary, she is an image of God’s divine work of salvation, God as Wisdom Sophia who is willing to expend tremendous effort to bring back any who are lost, as powerful as the shepherd and the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Reid 288). All that is required is the willingness by the one who is lost to be found, to be embraced by God’s tender mercy. The parable of the lost coin demonstrates that a woman’s actions, however inconsequential they may seem, have the potential to transform not only her own situation but that of others, thus leading to a fuller manifestation of the reign of God (Reid 289-294).
Although Luke 15 gives images of God that are male and female, Jancoski contends “I have been programmed, like most Christians, to overlook the female images because they are not valued in society” (Jancoski 56). She asks, How long has it been since you thought of God as a homemaker? In the parable of the prodigal son, the only women who are identified are the harlots who led the younger son astray and aided him in squandering his inheritance. A woman who reads this parable is given one option: to identify with a sinful woman who seduces. The father is also a patriarch who rules over his property and directs his slaves. Where are the mothers and female slaves in this parable? Where are the women in the Roman Catholic Church? Jancoski maintains that the absence of role models for women makes it difficult for women to fully claim their personal and Christian inheritance (Jancoski 56).
Schottroff contends that there is no compelling contextual justification for the allegory of God as the father and the two sons as religious groups in the parable of the prodigal son. She cautions that this traditional interpretation “divinizes the patriarchal father and fosters a romantic understanding of the patriarchal household” (Schottroff 139).
LaHurd cautions us about cultural biases when interpreting Luke 15 or any scripture. In her interviews of a group of Christian Arab women in modern day Northern Temen, she found that many of these women were empowered by the images of God in the three parables and viewed their current circumstances as less oppressive than judged by women in Western cultures (LaHurd 67).
In the trilogy of parables in Luke 15 about the lost sheep, coin, and sons, Jesus offers us many teachings about acceptance, repentance, unconditional love, mercy and transformation. He encourages us to avoid judging others to the point of exclusion because this leads to separating ourselves from others and from our God. Worse yet, is when we harshly judge ourselves. Both instances are a violent departure from the love of God as Christ in us. God’s love comes through the tangible experience of loving others and others loving us.
How often have we been transformed by the loving acceptance of ourselves by another? In the ‘lost’ parables, Jesus promotes loving one another unconditionally as the preferred path to transformation and wholeness, which often requires us to surrender prevailing ideologies and to question external authorities. He shows us that repentance is not a prerequisite for reconciliation with God.
God does not need us to get everything right nor do we need to be God’s servants. We are all loved equally just as we are, when righteous and not so. God makes no distinction among Pharisees, scribes, sinners, tax collectors, women and the poor. Jesus’ ministry to outcasts and sinners is a concrete expression of God’s compassion, patient love, and unconditional acceptance. Any gesture of repentance, therefore, has value for our own sake when done with sincerity. We come into right relationship with ourselves and our God delights in that return.
The “Three Parable of God’s Mercy” are about returning home to God. They underline God’s endless and ardent search for us when we are lost. The shepherd and the woman seek, while the father seeks through patiently waiting. We are always welcomed back by the eternal embrace of God as Father/Wisdom Sophia who does not judge, but rejoices and celebrates with us. Will we surrender and trust this love? Allow ourselves to be loved this fully and to feel this much joy?
As the two sons in the story of the prodigal, we are free to choose whether we will return, whether to come to the communal banquet and partake of the food that will transform us into the wholeness of Christ and God’s great compassion. No matter what we choose, God’s boundless love and limitless mercy await us there.
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