Lent 4 • Luke 15:1–3, 11–32 • March 6, 2016
By Michael J. Redeker
The fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare (rejoice) Sunday. It is the midway point in Lent and has been viewed as a day of celebration as the mood of Lent is briefly lessened.
Luke 15 is filled with parables of rejoicing; the shepherd rejoices over finding the one lost sheep, the woman rejoices in finding her one lost coin, and then we have today’s parable where there is rejoicing over the return of the prodigal son.
Jesus addressed these parables to the scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling amongst themselves concerning the kind of people to whom Jesus ministered and received (v. 2). The progression of the parables leads up to today’s reading; a certain man had two sons, not one out of ninety-nine, and not one out of ten, but one out of two. Jesus fleshes out the purpose of his ministry and recipients of God’s grace as he addresses the Pharisees and scribes defining the characters in this, the lengthiest of the three parables.
15:1–3: Luke gives the setting and context in which Jesus delivered these parables. Two groups of people are present: Pharisees and scribes, and tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus. He welcomed them and would actually eat with them! This is table fellowship language, which is a sign of full acceptance. The table fellowship language also hearkens the hearer to eschatological themes and those who are received at God’s heavenly banquet as well. Could tax collectors, sinners, and Gentiles really be welcomed and present at God’s heavenly banquet? These verses set up the general circumstance of Jesus’s ministry rather than pointing to a particular incident. Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and scribes is the church’s response too.
15:11–17: The focus of the parable isn’t exclusively on the two sons, or the one son for that matter. The focus is on the father: a certain man had two sons. The father has a relationship with each of the sons.
The division of property between the two sons: a younger son would receive one third of the property. Βίος “property” also means “life” or “manner of life.” The estate is what supports the life of the family. Normally the disposition of the property would happen after the death of the father and not before. For more on this law and customs check commentaries.¹ At the very least the younger son is breaking down the solidarity of the family.
The son squandered his property in reckless living: this reflects the son’s attitude toward the family property and his spiritual life as well. What the son thought to be freedom leads him further away from the father. Now broke he looks for a way to sustain himself by taking a job feeding pigs and even longing to eat what the pigs eat! To the Jewish hearer he had become like a Gentile and outside of the covenant.
15:17–24: The son comes to his senses and confesses his unworthiness. However, one of the themes for preaching can be found in the action of the father, for the father’s welcome precedes the son’s confession. The father’s joy toward the son is shown in the activity of dressing him, providing a ring, and throwing a banquet for the younger son. His status is reversed, which is much more that he had even hoped for (v. 19). It is interesting that the father ended his proclamation declaring that his son was lost, but now is found. “There is a condition worse than death, to be lost; there is a condition better than life, to be found.”²
15:25–32: Does grace offend some people? That seems to be one of the points in this section. The older son wasn’t upset that his younger brother was back. He was offended at the grace the father showed the younger son by throwing him a party and restoring him to his previous status. In addition to the older son’s response, what might have been going through the thoughts and minds of family friends witnessing this turn of events? What might be their response? Is the father rewarding bad behavior? And does God’s grace and restoration toward those who repent still offend people today; maybe even within our own congregations?
One of the challenges for preaching on this parable is that it is well known, or at least familiar, to many of the hearers. They can just about finish the sermon before preachers even step into the pulpit. The preacher might want to preach this sermon from a different perspective then, from the perspective of the Pharisees and scribes who are receiving this from Jesus—remembering that God’s baptized people exhibiting pharisaical tendencies at times does not make us “Pharisees,”—the perspective of the younger son, the perspective of the older son, or the perspective of the friends who are asked to come to the banquet.
Since this is the time of Lent, and since this is also the Sunday to rejoice, it would be fitting to preach this parable from the perspective of, not “the prodigal son,” but rather “the forgiving Father.” In addition, the preacher should simply let the parable speak for itself. It might be tempting to get into a lot of detail, and some of this might be necessary for the sermon; however, that richness of detail might be best served in a Bible study.
¹ John Noland, Luke 9:21–18:34 35B Word Bible Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1993), 782.
² Fred B. Craddock, Luke Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1990), 187.