Last evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host studied Jesus’ parable of the lost or prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) guided by The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups’s questionnaire for beginning groups. I used the questionnaire and other material in The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups by permission of Serendipity House, Littleton, Colorado 80160.
LK 15:11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
LK 15:13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
LK 15:17 “When he came to his senses, he said, `How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
LK 15:21 “The son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. ‘
LK 15:22 “But the father said to his servants, `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
LK 15:25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 `Your brother has come,’ he replied, `and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
LK 15:28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, `Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
LK 15:31 ” `My son,’ the father said, `you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'” (NIV; all Biblical quotations are in the NIV)
The questionnaire, which I’d distributed the previous week, was divided into two parts, Looking into the Scriptures and My Own Story. Between sharing our answers to the two sections, we discussed two of the DIG questions asked about the parable in The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups.
Looking into the Scriptures
This section contained four multiple-choice (1-4) and four Yes-No (5-8) questions.
1. Why do you think the prodigal son decided to leave home? – We divided between “to get away from his father’s values,” “to try to make it on his own,” and “to get away from his older brother.”
2. What was it that caused the prodigal son to come to his senses? – Our most popular choice was “hunger pangs.”
3. When the prodigal son returned home, what was his father’s attitude? – Our unanimous choice was “welcome home, son, I love you.”
4. When the older brother (who had been good) heard music and dancing, what was his attitude? – Our most popular choice was “it’s unfair.”
5. Do you think the father was wise to give his son his inheritance when he knew his son would probably blow it? – We divided between “Yes” and “No.”
6. If the father had a pretty good idea where his son had gone, do you think he should have gone after him? – We divided between “Yes” and “No.”
7. Do you think it was wise for the father to “kill the fatted calf” and throw a party when his son came home? – Our unanimous choice was “Yes” but we discussed what was unwise about his doing so.
8. Do you think that father split his inheritance a second time so that the prodigal son would have some spending money? – We divided between “I hope so” and “I hope not.”
5. What’s Jesus’ point with this parable? What does the story teach about sin, repentance, and God’s love? Could you make a case for retitling this parable “The Waiting Father” or “The Elder Brother”? How so?
After our discussion of the question, I shared Darrell L. Bock’s and Joel B. Green’s comments on the parable’s title. “This parable is often called ‘The Prodigal Son,’ but it is really about different reactions to the prodigal. The key reaction is that of the father, who is excited to receive his son back. Thus a better name for the parable is ‘The Forgiving Father.’ A sub-theme is the reaction of the older brother, so that one can subtitle the parable with the addendum: ‘and the Begrudging Brother.’” (Bock, The NIV Application Commentary: Luke, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996, page 412) and “Whose parable is it? The traditional answer, that it concerns a father with two sons, has much to commend it. Most importantly, the parable begins by naming ‘a man who had two sons,’ and goes on to underscore his conciliatory responses to the insulting behavior of both sons. Three telling observations suggest that this is not the case, however…. Finally, the larger co-text of this well-crafted parable in ch. 15 highlights the critical motif of ‘celebration,’ the joyous repast of what was lost (cf. Vv. 6, 9, 23-24, 27)…. Hence, as important as the father is to the parable, center stage belongs to the younger son” (Green, The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997, page 578; )
6. In summary, how [does this parable] answer the Pharisees’ objection in verse 2? What does Jesus want to teach the Pharisees in verses 25-31? In light of the context (v. 2), why does Jesus leave the story open-ended as to how the older brother responded to his father’s plea?
After our discussion of the question, I shared Alfred Plummer’s closing comment on the parable: “Not the least skilful touch in this exquisite parable is that it ends here. We are not told whether the elder brother at last went in and rejoiced with the rest. And we are not told how the younger one behave afterwards. Both these events were still in the future and both agents were left free. On purpose of the parable was to induce the Pharisees to come in and claim their share of the Father’s affection and of the heavenly joy. Another was to prove to the outcasts and sinners with what generous love they had been welcomed.” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1922, page 379)
My Own Story
This section contained four multiple-choice questions.
1. By temperament and experience, whom do you identify with in this story? – Our most popular choice was “the father.”
2. If you had to compare your spiritual journey to the prodigal’s journey, where are you now? – Our unanimous choice was “enjoying the fattened calf and the party.”
3. When it comes to spiritual things, what is your response to God’s “party”? – We split between “party lover: I’m ready, let’s party” and “wallflower: I’m there, but I can’t dance.”
4. What is the lesson for you in this parable? – We split between “you’ve got to let your children go, even though you know they will probably blow it,” “God’s love has no strings,” and “love overcomes mistakes.”