An Alternative Reading of Luke 15: Counting in the Gospel of Luke and The Parable of the Lost Sons

Luke 15 contains three parables, stacked one on top of the other: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and one about a man and his two sons. I think, given their proximity in the text, it is reasonable to believe that the Gospel’s author intended them to be read together and to inform each’s interpretation of the other. I will admit to having never done this previously; and when I did I was surprised to discover how the parables work together to reinforce the importance of making individualized accounting for each sheep/coin/individual over whom we have charge.

Because the bulk of Luke 15 is used to recount the story commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son,[1] that is where I intend to focus most of this essay’s energy. But before getting there, it is useful to consider, briefly, the stories of the lost sheep and lost coin.

In the first parable a shepherd has lost one member of his flock and leaves the remaining sheep (ninety-nine) to find the one.[2] The shepherd and his friends rejoice when the lost sheep is located (Luke 15:4-6). In the second parable a woman loses one of her ten coins. After much searching, she and her friends are joyful when she finds the coin she lost (15:7-10). In both instances, the text quotes Jesus saying there will be similar joy felt over “one sinner that repententh” (Luke 15: 17, 10). In all my church years, I was taught to understand the reference to the repentant sinner as directly tied to the now-returned lost sheep and now-found lost coin. But what, exactly, did the sheep and coin do wrong? Of what do the sheep and coin need to repent? Sheep, by nature, tend to stay with the flock unless something separates them, and coins cannot lose themselves. It seems that if anyone did anything wrong it was the shepherd and the woman.

In these parables, it is expressly noted that the shepherd and the woman “lose” (Luke 15: 4, 8) something of great value (perhaps because of inattentiveness, distraction, carelessness, or self-centeredness). The text does not say that the sheep decided to wander off as an act of rebellion, [3] nor that the coin intentionally hid itself in contravention of previous commands. In both instances, the text suggests that the onus for the sheep and coin becoming lost rests squarely on the designated steward. Thus, I think it is reasonable to entertain the idea that the “sinners that repententh” in these parables could also be seen as the negligent shepherd and the careless woman. Said another way, the shepherd and woman’s efforts to find the thing which they lost can be understood as an act of repentance (see Jacob 1:19), and, thus, the joy the shepherd and woman felt over the recovery of the lost items is the joy that accompanies the shepherd and woman’s return to wholeness.

I open with this framing of the lost sheep and lost coin because, I believe, it informs how we might understand the third parable, about a man and his two sons. But first, a very brief summary of the parable is in order: A man has two sons. The younger son demands his inheritance and leaves home. After a time, the younger son returns, and he is welcomed back by his father. A celebration feast is held in honor of the now-returned younger son, but the older son is not invited. The father reminds the older son that he will inherit the father’s estate.

So, to start, it is worth noticing a few features of the text. We are never told why the younger son decides to leave. The reference to “riotous living” (15:13) after his departure often feeds the narrative that the younger son was just a self-absorbed wild-child who wanted to “live it up.” But if we slow down and ask (to paraphrase Eleanor Longden) “what happened to the younger son?” we open up the possibility that the son had suffered some hurt, pain, or trauma in his home life that made leaving seem like the only option. The fact that the father apparently puts up no resistance to the younger son’s departure may even suggest a fracture in the relationship. Perhaps the younger son said something like, “It’s time for me to go, give me my inheritance and you’ll never see me again,” and the father perhaps responded with, “sounds about right; here you go.” Given that there is no mention of the father making any effort to go find his son after the son departed, this reading may not be such a stretch. In real ways, this starts as a story about a lost son.

Also, it is notable that the younger son’s decision to return home was driven by physical exigency and nothing else. Perhaps, if the younger son had been able to fend for himself, he would never have returned. But in his dire circumstances he seemed to have no choice (15:17-19). When he did return, it appears that whatever animosity existed was set aside for a time. The father-who-never-went-to-look-for-his-younger-son receives the returning son warmly, and the son-who-seemed-content-to-be-gone-for-good says what needed to be said in order to be welcomed home (15:20-22). To celebrate the reunion, the father holds a feast (15:23-24).

Yet, in celebrating his younger son’s return, the father fails to invite the older son to the celebration. It’s unclear if the father forgot about the older son or intentionally excluded him. Either way, the older son was, I think rightly, frustrated (15:25-30). The older son says, in effect, “how could you forget about me? I’ve done everything you asked, and then you throw a party for my younger brother without even inviting me?” I do not read this as a case of sour grapes; I sense hurt and pain. It is the emotional response of someone who feels discarded. In welcoming the younger son, the father alienates—i.e., loses—the older son. A second lost son. The father’s response to the older son contains no expression of sorrow, no recognition of wrongdoing, and no apology for the slight. Rather, the father says, effect, “don’t worry about it; I know you’re the consistent one. You’re going to inherit everything anyway” (15:31-32). The text never comments on whether the father’s response resonated with the older son, and there is no discussion about future family dynamics among the father and two sons. It does not feel like a stretch to imagine that the situation remained complicated.

From this analytical vantage point, what we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son, could reasonably be called the Parable of the Lost Sons. And when taken together, these three parables of lost things seem to reinforce the importance of making an individualized accounting for each sheep/coin/individual over whom one has charge.  Jesus seems to suggest that if something or someone one is lost, then the steward has the responsibility to find it. Seen through this lens, the father’s actions (or lack thereof) stand in stark contrast to the shepherd and the woman. Unlike the shepherd and woman who recognize their loss and actively search out that which was lost—that is to say, they account for their stewardship—in the parable of the lost sons, the father “had two sons, but he forgot to count.”[4] And in not counting, he could not account for his stewardship. In fact, in the Matthew 18’s version of the lost sheep parable, Jesus uses the parable as a warning to his disciples of the need to care for, and to be watchful over, the “little ones” (Matt 18:10, 14). Like Luke’s Gospel, Matthew’s recounting of the lost sheep is about the need for attentiveness by those acting as shepherds (not repentance for the sheep). Luke’s version of the parables seems to add that while it is easy (relatively speaking) to find a lost sheep or locate a lost coin, “making a lost child feel loved, is infinitely more difficult, and infinitely more important.”[5]

Thus, if these parables are about the stewards, then the “lost-ness” and “found-ness” of these parables is more about relationality and the need to heal brokenness than it is about compliance with religious rules or church policies (the Greek ekklesia, usually translated as “church,” is never used in the Gospel of Luke). Remember, Jesus relates these parables to the religious experts of the day who were complaining that Jesus was talking to “publicans and sinners” (15:1). Jesus’s response to their criticism seems to be the lesson that using “compliance with religious law” as the primary method for distinguishing “us” and “them” is misguided. Rather, it is we who are responsible for others that have work to do; and we ought to be focusing on the individuals themselves (rather than our perception of the individuals). We need to ensure that every single individual is counted… including those who seem to be out of compliance with whatever rules we think should not be broken. And because each individual matters, in these parables—and in his life—Jesus teaches that true Christ-like stewardship is, ultimately, an expression of individualized care and love.

[1] Many modern commentators rightly point out that calling this section of scripture the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” prejudices our reading of the story itself and serves to predetermine our interpretive approach. Miroslav Volf’s stunning analysis of this story—under the heading “The Open Arms of the Father”—offers a very different framework to understand the parable. See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Revised and Updated. 2019. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN): 161-171.

[2] Jesus does not identify a specific shepherd, but instead applies the parable to those (apparently men) to whom he was speaking, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep…”. Yet, in the context of the parable, Jesus asks them to consider what it is like to care for a sheepfold, and thus to be a shepherd.

[3] In Matthew 18, it is more explicitly stated that the sheep had “gone astray” (Matt 18:12). However, when the sheep is returned to the flock there is also no discussion of repentance for the sheep.

[4] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (eds), The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Edition, Fully Revised and Expanded. 2017. (Oxford Univ Press: NY, NY): 146.

[5] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (eds), The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Edition, Fully Revised and Expanded. 2017. (Oxford Univ Press: NY, NY): 146.


  1. The idea that the younger son might have suffered in some way before his departure is fascinating (and aligns with a family experience). The idea that the repentant one in these three parables is the seeker came up in a conversation between my wife and me this morning. one of the benefits of parables is their ability to teach layers of wisdom without dictating a singular path. Thanks for this today.

  2. Boomer in the Cheap Seats says:

    A unique and refreshing perspective. I have to teach Luke 15 to my seminary class this evening and will interject this POV in the lesson. Thanks so much.

  3. Todd S says:

    Great POV. This parable has become my favorite in all of scripture, it is rich and deep, with seemingly endless lessons to be gleaned.
    Based on your essay, it makes a lot of sense that Luke 16 begins with “The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward”.
    As you cite in your sources “Many modern commentators rightly point out that calling this section of scripture the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” prejudices our reading of the story itself and serves to predetermine our interpretive approach”.
    I think it’s a bit of a sad commentary on humanity that we titled this story with the focus being on “sin”, or the son we are preoccupied with as sinful. The story captures the entire arch of redemptions story, it’s more about rupture and repair, about re-membering a Father and son that have been estranged.
    The central focus of this parable is about the power of love and forgiveness, not the problem of sin and rebellion.
    Atonement is about reconciliation of parts that have been separated from their whole, it’s bringing together again that which has been separated (sin), which in the original Aramaic language, the word for sin is “hataha”, which literally means “separated”.

  4. J. Mansfield says:

    How does verse 7 square with the shepherd being the one who did wrong and has repented?

    “likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance”

    Who are these 99 just persons? Attentive shepherds not explicitly mentioned who never lost any sheep?

  5. (OP) MDavid says:

    J. Mansfield: A fair point. To be clear, my post is not intended to crowd-out the notion that repentance includes the returning sheep, coin, and son. Indeed, as you rightly note, the text itself doesn’t allow that kind of leap. Rather, I only wanted to explore the idea the text is not solely constrained to this view. Hence, my carefully caveated assertion: “Thus, I think it is reasonable to entertain the idea that the ‘sinners that repententh’ in these parables could also be seen as the negligent shepherd and the careless woman” (that “entertain the idea” and “also” are important). I think there is a multivalency to these parables that permits this kind of exploration.

    More broadly, as some other comments have noted, it is the shift from seeing these parables as focused narrowly on remedying “sin” and toward seeing them more broadly commenting on healing “ruptures” (to use Todd S’s language), and the role that stewards have in healing that rupture, which I find compelling.

  6. Josiah Reckons says:

    I think sometimes I’ve probably driven people away from myself or from church, and as a result they have sinned. I bear some responsibility but I didn’t choose their sin, and I’d be so happy if they repented. I think these parables can work really well with a focus on stewardship even if the one sheep did sin. Even if the one sheep leaving the shepherd is considered the sin, the shepherd may also play a role and hold partial responsibility, like in Jacob where they talk about doing their utmost to fulfil their stewardship and not be complicit in the sins of those they teach.

  7. I think the obvious interpretation is that Jesus was talking to Pharisees who wondered why this so called holy man spent time with sinners. He was answering their accusations, not giving a deeper parable about the danger of being a negligent
    shepard, absent-minded house wife, or abusive father.

    Sheep wander off, people lose coins, and children of wealthy parents go astray easily. Yes, your additional readings into the text can help us to analyze our behaviors, but the context was clearly that we should all go find and celebrate those who are lost and come back. Not scold them, etc.

  8. Bro. B. says:

    Interesting that in our day we at least consider different readings of parables to fit our culture. This reading brings to mind the the alternate reading of the parable of the ten virgins in which we consider the sin of the five prepared virgins as being stingy with their oil. Jesus likely would have told the parables differently or used different parables for us.

  9. “likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance”

    I think this is Jesus making a joke. 99 who need no repentance? Are there ANY who need no repentance?

  10. I agree with some of the ways you interpret the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I believe you miss several of the cultural elements that a first-century audience in Palestine would have quickly discerned. And it isn’t just the boys who need to repent; their father screwed up, too.

    Also, you overlook many of the Old Testament cues in this story, starting with the first verse: “A certain man had two sons …” Cain and Abel? Ishmael and Isaac? Esau and Jacob? Manasseh and Ephraim? Christ reverses the Old Testament motif—younger son always the more righteous—in this story where the youngest boy turns out to be a self-absorbed, irresponsible and manipulative child.

    Imagining that the youngest child suffered some grievance that caused him to run away is not supported by the text, in my opinion. Indeed, there are many textual elements that suggest that the kid was a spoiled brat and that the father was a fool give him an advance on his inheritance.

    Here is my take this story, which I call “The Dysfunctional Family of Man.”

  11. (OP)MDavid says:

    Eric Facer: Thanks for adding your own commentary to the discussion thread. As I note above, I believe these texts have a miltivalency that encourages looking at them from different angles, so I’m pleased you could contribute your own take.

    To your other point: like the title, says this is intended as an “alternative reading” so I intentionally avoided highlighting some of the features you flag in your comment, which seemed to me to be fairly widely known, understood, and addressed in other commentaries (eg the resonance a “two sons” story would have had for a first century Jewish audience wasnt “missed” I just decided not to mention/focus on it). For this post, I simply came at these three parables from a different analytical vantage point. This alternative reading has its strengths and weaknesses, to be sure… as all readings do.

  12. J. Mansfield says:

    So, this proposed reading of Luke 15 seems to be saying, “Parents, if your child wasted massive amounts of money on gambling, got caught up in drinking and drugs, ruined his/her health and mind, and derailed education and eligibility for a job or marriage, it is at least partly because of something you did and should have done differently that estranged the child. Otherwise he/she would not have done those things.” Hopefully, I will be corrected that I am misreading the proposed reading, and that correction may make for interesting reading.

    It was eight days ago I boarded a bus that was empty except for the driver and one other passenger, who I knew, and who resembles the child in my paragraph above. I greeted her, sat down across the aisle from her, and for the next thirty minutes listened as she talked non-stop about her parents’ faults.

  13. When the father runs to greet his son–there’s a marked difference between a father who pushed his son away and a father who did no wrong toward him. Of course, both scenarios are powerful in there own way–but the latter of the two — especially when it is the Father of lights who runs an eternal distance to meet and embrace his lost son — is profound beyond words.

  14. Kristine says:

    J. Mansfield, it’s worth noting that neither the father nor the returning son say that’s how he spent the money. We might choose to be somewhat skeptical of the account of the resentful older brother…

  15. (OP)MDavid, I freely acknowledge that yours is an alternative reading. What I’m saying is that it has little support in the text. Christ is not speaking to us; rather, he was talking to people with a completely different culture and with family ties and relationships that are unlike our own in many respects.

    That the sheep and the lost coin didn’t make conscious decisions to runaway on their own—an object and animal both devoid of the ability to decide to deliberately disappear—does not provide grounds for contriving a mythical grievance of the younger son as the basis for his becoming lost. This was young man who consciously and deliberately squandered his inheritance and never exhibited any signs of ambition or responsibility and, therefore, lacked both the desire and the means “to make it on his own,” as you suggest.

    If you are trying to appeal to the young girl described in J. Mansfield’s comment—someone who has fully embraced today’s victimhood/perpetual grievance culture—then you have succeeded.

    Everyone is entitled to their own interpretation. But not all interpretations are of equal merit.

  16. J. Mansfield says:

    Kristine, the older son says his brother “devoured thy living with harlots.” The narrator of the parable says near the beginning of the parable that the younger son “wasted his living in riotous living.” No, I don’t know the forms of his riotous living. I turned from the fictional personage to my times and current damaging snares. I am not sure what you are objecting to. You don’t want the fictional prodigal defamed as a gambler and drug addict when that is not specified by the narrator as the form of “riotous living” that left the son destitute?

  17. Kristine, it wasn’t just the older son who said his younger sibling had squandered his inheritance. It appears you overlooked verses 13 & 14 of Chapter 15 of Luke:

    “13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
    14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.”

    This is the man telling story speaking, not the older son. His name was Jesus.

  18. J. Mansfield says:

    Getting into the spirit of “question everything” alternative readings:

    The younger son was on a secret mission to root out crime and terror, and he had to keep his true nature unknown by his father and separate himself to keep the family safe. After he finally, through years of suffering, worked his way into the swine cartel and dismantled it from within, he could at last “come to himself” and return home and enjoy his father’s embrace. He still couldn’t reveal the true nature of his wasted years though (and neither could the narrator), because there was still other undercover work to do. As much as he loved his family, he needed to take down his evil older brother, which makes him even more of a tragic hero, and sets up a sequel.

    I’m not saying that this is the only possible reading, or that the verses of Luke 15 support it, but maybe those verses are hiding something.

  19. Kristine says:

    Haha, Mansfield. Well-played :) It’s not a terribly important point, but it ought to make us consider which character we are identifying with and most quick to believe. That’s all I meant.

  20. Todd S says:

    Nice back and forth here. I would like to repeat my sentiments.
    “Many modern commentators rightly point out that calling this section of scripture the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” prejudices our reading of the story itself and serves to predetermine our interpretive approach”.

    I think it’s a bit of a sad commentary on humanity that we titled the parable with the focus being on “sin”, or the son we are preoccupied with as sinful. The story captures the entire arch of redemptions story, it’s more about rupture and repair, about re-membering a Father and son that have been estranged. The parable could just as easily be titled “The unbelievable love of a Father”, and the readers focus would shift to the manner in which God relates to sin, and how he is modeling how we might as well.

    The central focus of this parable is about the power of love and forgiveness, not the problem of sin and rebellion. Henry Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son” is my favorite view of this parable. Rembrandts painting places the focus on the Father, with all the light emanating from him and landing on both the elder and younger son.

    Atonement is about reconciliation of parts that have been separated from their whole, it’s bringing together again that which has been separated (sin), which in the original Aramaic language, the word for sin is “hataha”, which literally means “separated”.

  21. Todd S says:

    Eric, I thoroughly enjoyed your essay on this parable. Understanding the audience and the use of the common motif of the “two sons” is incredibly helpful. Additionally, it’s worth noting, that there is another son, the third son, the true representation of a son of the Father, he is the one narrating the parable. He is both son’s, the elder without the resentment, and the younger without the rebellion.

    If we follow the ancient stories of two son’s, the cliffhanger that Jesus leaves us with in the parable, is sadly completed similarly to the story of Cain and Able. The elder son, “Cain” and the elder son in the parable (Pharisees and scribes) are resentful, angry, and self-righteous. While the younger son’s sacrifice seems to be unfairly rewarded, the ancient Jews followed the bitter path of Cain, and crucified Jesus.

  22. Todd S., I absolutely love your Cain and Able analogy. It makes perfect sense that Christ would have nestled within this story an allusion to his coming sacrifice, which, of course, his intended audience (the scribes and pharisees) missed completely.

    I’m going to update essay to include your insight and then take full credit for it. After all, that’s what lawyers do. :-)

  23. (OP)MDavid says:

    100% agree with those who have noted that reading a given text requires making choices about which parts of a text to highlight (in the midrash traditon, close readings include exploring the “white fire” that exists between the words on the page). All that helps to reinforce, as I have noted elsewhere, and as many theories of textual interpretation have demonstrated, “decoding a text is the result of an interaction between the text and the reader that reveals as least as much about the reader and the reader’s context as it does the text itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a textual transaction. In fact, there is no way we could do otherwise.” I freely admit that my context impacts my reading of this text–just as everyone else’s context influences them. So in some ways, these texts serve as a mirror not a flashlight.

    But setting aside approach: J Mansfield–I said nothing about how specific parents should treat specific children (or about specific children themselves–re the girl on the bus, I imagine the story is more complicated and heartbreaking than appearances would suggest). And, Eric Facer, my focus isn’t on the “grievance culture” either (though I admit to not really knowing what that means to you). As I note at the end, if we view these three parables together as “parables of lost things” then the message that emerges is that each individual matters, and that stewards should exercise individualized care and love. That strikes me a something Jesus would teach, and a lesson these parables seem to support.

  24. Today I learned that prodigal meant “wasteful” and not “lost”. I am a bit disappointed with myself.

  25. Rachel says:

    But why would the younger son demand his inheritance. Isn’t that usually given when the father dies?

  26. Rachel, as I explained in my essay— —the son’s request would have struck Christ’s audience as unusual and probably impertinent, though it was not unprecedented. But what would have genuinely shocked them was the father’s acquiescence.

    A prudent patriarch refrained from passing on his property during his lifetime. As the Jewish scribe and sage, Ben Sirach (second century B.C.), wisely counseled: “While you are still alive … do not let anyone take your place. * * * * [I]n the hour of your death, distribute your inheritance.”

    But what would have genuinely surprised Christ’s first-century audience is that the father is not just breaking with convention when he grants the boy’s request; he accedes without even ascertaining his son’s future plans. Further, he didn’t simply divide his property between his sons; he divided his living or life, his “bios” in Greek.

    Unless we make a sincere effort to understand what Christ was trying to teach his particular audience, we cannot “liken the scriptures” to ourselves. We cannot to do this in the manner prescribed by Nephi, in my opinion, unless we make a sincere and diligent effort to see and hear these parables through the eyes and ears of the original audience, and acquaint ourselves with their culture, religious beliefs, political and economic circumstances, and even the topography and geography of where they live.

    If, in the alternative, we elect to simply read these stories with western eyes and in the context of our personal beliefs and circumstances, then the parable becomes our own, not the Savior’s.

  27. Todd S says:

    I was reading this morning the talk given by Dallin H Oaks in 2018 title, “The Paradox of Love and Law”.
    I simply was gobb smacked by his interpretation of the interaction between the Father and elder son in the parable of the Prodigal son.

    Oaks said; “Thus, when we read the Savior’s parable of the prodigal son, we should not fail to note that while the father showed great love for the returning prodigal, it was to the faithful elder son that he said, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” [20] This teaching shows the example and reality of the father’s love but reminds us that the father’s inheritance is for the son who has been consistently faithful.”

    What a self-absorbed, autocratic misinterpretation of this sacred parable. To suggest that the father’s “inheritance” is for the son that has been consistently faithful completely ignores the essence of the parable, and the resentful, angry, bitter spirit that was cultivated in the heart of the self-righteous elder son.

    What a joke, and you wonder why people are leaving the church.

  28. Todd S, President Oaks is hardly the first in or out of the church who has interpreted the parable in that way; it was common in my youth (in the 1970s) among my LDS and non-LDS friends to read it the way President Oaks describes it. So, if it’s a self-absorbed, autocratic misinterpretation, it certainly is not uncommon.

    But, to your implied point, that the returning son might also have some share of the remaining inheritance, it is unclear. In my reading of the parable this week I charitably hope he will, but, as so many commenters have already observed, I don’t have 1st century ears to hear, so I’m probably not qualified to judge.

  29. Todd S, I had not read that talk by Oaks. And I wish I hadn’t your synopsis of it. Thanks to you, I know longer have an appetite for my lunch.

    Paul, it isn’t necessary that you have first-century ears to hear; all that’s required is that you make “ a sincere and diligent effort to see and hear these parables through the eyes and ears of the original audience.”

    But the more I think about it and the more I read responses like yours, I now realize my suggestion was wholly unreasonable. After all, what I am suggesting would require people to read serious works of biblical scholarship and engage in critical thinking. Please forgive my insensitivity.

  30. MDearest says:

    This is an engaging discussion for me, thanks to the OP and comments. I’ve enjoyed following along as the grappling with nuance happens. I favor the perspectives from the scholarly scriptorians; in a different life I would be among them, but I think the ideas floated by the rabble and the gentry (my natural habitat) are worth equal consideration.

    I think the parables are a marvel, and this one may be the most marvelous— for the way ideas are communicated across centuries, language barriers, devious manipulators seeking advantage to control congregants, and all other unnumbered obstructions. The Lord left us these treasures coded into stories as a way to understand his meaning, none of which is explicitly spelled out. It’s like he tosses us these magic onions and says “Here ya go. Peel this.”

    This parable truly is a multi-lobed onion; the more you deconstruct, the more unexpected insights you can find. I have found the parable of the Prodigal Son to have multiple messages, some seem to be conflicting and need extra effort to reconcile. I especially love the perspectives from the brother, both his internal possibles, and what can be gleaned from observations of his actions and potential motives.

    I don’t think there’s one single perfect interpretation, though some are better than others. And at times it’s worthwhile to ask “better for what purpose?” Elder Oaks’ purposes are certainly made clear in his interpretation.

    I also think mining our sketchy understanding of social behavior in Christ’s time has diminishing utility the more closely you pick it apart. Perhaps the Author intends that his audience will bring their own experiences into their lens, and that’s quite workable, especially when the audiences talk it over amongst themselves.

    Yep, I do think the parables are a genius way to teach, communicate, and preserve your intent from meddlers who’ve done their best to twist them into service of their own agenda.

    Carry on, talk amongst yourselves.

  31. Re: Elder Oaks’ interpretation: I think there’re couple of ways of looking at it that make perfect sense. The first is for the reader to identify with *both* of the sons. It’s not necessarily an either/or scenario. We’re all prodigals–there’s no escaping that reality. But on the other hand, once we’ve entered the gospel covenant we must endure to the end in order to receive “all that the Father hath.”

    And the second is to view the older son as the Savior and the younger son as the rest of us. It is only the Savior who is worthy to receive the Father’s inheritance. That’s why if we desire to have a part in that inheritance we must take upon ourselves the name of the older son–for which, if we do, he will graciously share his inheritance with us.

    That said, I realize that the older son–as the Savior–would never be envious of his father’s joy over the return of his younger son. So that could be a glitch in that interpretation. Or it could just be the effect of a larger “cosmic” idea brought down to earth so that the hearers of the story might capture the most important elements of the narrative.

  32. Todd S says:

    Eric, I am terribly sorry for ruining your lunch.

    Jack, thanks for the alternative ideas with regards to Elder Oaks. I think the major issue with Oaks interpretation is it completely separates it from the context of the parable. Jesus is telling the parable to audience composed of fellow Jews, Pharisees and scribes included, that were quite upset with the attention he was drawing.

    Jesus intends to equate the elder son with the prevailing group of Pharisees, who were abusing the law and using it, not to turn their hearts towards their ailing neighbors, but instead to create status, esteem, and superiority for themselves. For Elder Oaks to suggest that the elder brother is being treated with superior blessings from the father, is to concede that, the Pharisees were, in fact, more holy than the sinners Jesus was attending to.

    The lesson imparted from the elder son is, at least, that his obedience had not produced its intended fruit; instead, it had produced bitterness, resentment, enmity and hostility, apparently enough to keep him from wanting to enter the house.

    The parable seems to be saying, more so, that we can be both lost and found to obedience and sin.

  33. (OP) MDavid says:

    You can put me in the camp that supports utilizing every available resource–scholarly and otherwise–to uncover the original context of scripture. That’s one of the reason’s I include the “Jewish Annotated New Testament” (which I cite directly in the above post) in my gospel study resources and part of why I went to Wesley Theological Seminary. So in that sense, I 100% agree with Eric Facer that there is a lot to be gained by seriously studying/thinking about the social and historical context of the scriptures. But I _also_ think (and Eric may disagree with me here, which is fine) that (1) a socio-historical critical approach is not the only way to faithfully read and interpret scripture, and (2) that a socio-historical critical approach is not inherently better (or more faithful) than other approaches (e.g., form criticism and/or canonical criticism offer some powerful tools and are just as faithful).

    Indeed, Christianity (and the LDS Church!) includes with in its tradition, a number of bold (even radical) re-readings of Hebrew Bible texts that by any objective measure are either decontextualized or ahistorical, or both (here is an article I did last year about how this occurs in a few different ways, and specifically within the context of Isaiah: And, rather than being viewed as faulty, those re-readings are a source of strength for many people. All that to say, that multiple ways of reading scripture should be seen (in my view at least) as additive not mutually exclusive–I’d add more on this point, but I think MDearest did a fabulous job saying what I might have said.

    The noted scholar Phyllis Trible observed, “interpretation of [scriptural] content is forever changing, since new occasions teach new duties and contexts alter texts, liberating them from frozen constructions.” I think parables are ground-zero for seeing how new occasions and contexts can break through frozen constructions…. and allow for “alternative readings” :).

  34. Todd S,

    Arthur Henry King once said (in so many words) that the parable of the prodigal son was never intended to be understood beyond what it meant to its immediate audience. And as such, the problem of envy is really its primary message.

    I think he’s right insofar as that interpretation goes. But even so, some of the Savior’s parables are so rich with timeless symbolism that it’s difficult not to believe that there’s more there than meets the eye. The Good Samaritan, for example, is dripping with motifs that have to do with the Savior’s atonement.

    And so, while there may be a risk of looking beyond the mark in our modern interpretations of the parables–the fact that some of them seem to reflect a timeless or even cosmic view of the gospel opens the door (IMO) to applying them effectively in contexts other than those in which the were originally delivered.

  35. Kevin Christensen says:

    Joseph Smith said that his key for reading parables was to look at the question that drew it out. In Luke 15. this is what starts the set of three parables.

    2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

    So we get the first two parables, the Lost Sheep, and rejoicing when it is found, the Lost Coin, rejoicing when it is found, and in both cases, Jesus gives an interpretation and application:

    I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance…

    10 Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

    The third parable intensifies things. Notice that the structure of the parables casts the role of the Father as the protagonist, the lost son as the object of concern (NOT the protagonist, as we might suppose), and the elder son as the antagonist, as representing the complaint that “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” The Elder and the Younger son receive exactly the same amount of attention in the parable.

    That means that concern about shares or waste or injustice entirely misses the point for exactly the same reason that that the elder son misses the point.

    Whereas the father:

    But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

    21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

    22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:

    23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:

    24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

    The best robe, the ring, the shoes, the feast all symbolize the depth of joy and the complete acceptance in a very different way than would an account that has the father day, “So,… you’ve come crawling back… I suppose I have room for a pig swiller.”

    Consider that the elder son’s language towards his father is transactional, rather than intimate, resentful, servant to employer or master rather than familiar

    Lo, these many years do I serve thee,

    And that he refers to “your son”, rather than “my brother.” And is “all that the father has” somehow not enough, unless someone gets less and suffers?

    Notice too, that the Father takes the initative to seek out the elder son:

    28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.

    Consider the account of Enoch, concerning the Father:

    and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?

    38 But behold, these which thine eyes are upon shall perish in the floods; and behold, I will shut them up; a prison have I prepared for them.

    39 And that which I have chosen hath pled before my face. Wherefore, he suffereth for their sins; inasmuch as they will repent in the day that my Chosen shall return unto me, and until that day they shall be in torment;

    40 Wherefore, for this shall the heavens weep, yea, and all the workmanship of mine hands.

    Just as the prodigal suffered, so the Father suffers with his creation, with his errant children, which is part of why

    62 And righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth, to bear testimony of mine Only Begotten; his resurrection from the dead; yea, and also the resurrection of all men; and righteousness and truth will I cause to sweep the earth as with a flood, to gather out mine elect from the four quarters of the earth, unto a place which I shall prepare, an Holy City, that my people may gird up their loins, and be looking forth for the time of my coming; for there shall be my tabernacle, and it shall be called Zion, a New Jerusalem.

    63 And the Lord said unto Enoch: Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other;

    I should add that one thing that the Father has that the elder son has refused is joy in repentance of the sinner, which means that the elder son is denying himself a most important part of the inheritance

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