The third parable, unlike the first two, has several possible focal points. Judith Lieu says:
The third parable, although picking up the themes of lost and found (vv.24,32), is far more than a variation on the earlier two, and the profound influence it has had on literary and artistic imagination shows how difficult it is to limit to a single message. This is reflected by the different titles it has been given, each seeking to pinpoint the central focus of the story – ‘the prodigal (or spendthrift) son’, ‘the lost son’, ‘the loving father’, ‘the two sons’. The first two of these proposed titles bring out the continuity from the earlier parables in the chapter, with ‘prodigal’ emphasizing that in this case the son is responsible for his ‘lostness’. The third recognizes that the father, in response to both his sons, far more than the sheep-owner or the woman, can be seen as in some ways representing God. The last seeks to restore the final scene (vv.25-32) from being an insignificant appendix to the main story: the theme of two sons or bothers is a common one not only in the biblical tradition but also in many other cultures, while the contrast between two types of response is a frequent one in Jesus’ parables (Luke 18.9-14; Matt. 25.1-13 and especially 21.28-32).1
One obvious difference between the three parables is the starting point. The first two begin after the loss had occurred; the third begins when everything is "accounted for." At the most basic level, no one went looking for the son since, as Lieu notes, “the son is responsible for his ‘lostness.’” A significant contrast to the other two parables is the timing of learning what is "missing." The father knew his son left. In the others the loss was discovered after it occurred.
The third parable also differs as it gives details how and when what is "lost" came to be "missing". Given these circumstances going out to “find” him would likely not change anything unless the son had a change of heart, which, as the parable shows, would also cause the son to return on his own. At this level, the father can only hope the change will occur and wait for his son's return.
However, as Lieu notes, the Prodigal Son parable is more complex than the other two and presents different ways in which to approach the meaning. For instance, when the son was in a far country, he spent everything. When this occurs the son is in a situation much like his father's: he has "lost" something but he knows the reason and the time the loss occurred.
At this point in the parable, Jesus introduces a second decision the son makes:
So he went and hired himself out to[a] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. (Luke 15:15) 2
Note: [a] Luke 15:15 Greek joined himself to
Most translations like the ESV, suggest the son "hired" himself. In fact the word Jesus used describes a more significant arrangement:
And he went and cleaved (ἐκολλήθη) to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his farm to feed swine. (Luke 15:15 DRA)
The word used means “to glue together, to join or fasten firmly together; to join one’s self to, to cleave to” [κολλάω]. Note how the word is used in the letter to the Corinthians:
Or do you not know that he who is joined[a] to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him (1 Corinthians 6:16-17)
Note: [a] - 1 Corinthians 6:16 Or who holds fast (compare Genesis 2:24 and Deuteronomy 10:20); also verse 17
The referenced verses:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. (Deuteronomy 10:20)
As seen from these verses, the type of commitment made with the citizen of another country is described as one on the level of marriage or one’s commitment to the LORD God. After the initial separation from his father, the son did something else which could be seen as renouncing his father’s family, an act which may have caused a second, more permanent separation. This is evident as when the son comes to his senses and recognizes he may have lost his position as a member of the family and is no longer a son:
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ (Luke 15:18-19)
Therefore, at this level, it is the younger son who went (from a field in distant country) to look for what he assumed he had lost (his position as a son) and like the woman’s coin, he found it in the house (where he had first left it). Here the meaning is the father's love and commitment to his family overrides both the ill-advised choice to leave and to cleave to another person in another country, when the son has a change of heart and wants to return to the family.
And the parable continues…
The older son like the younger returns to the house from a field:
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. (Luke 15:25)
When the father learns the other son is “missing” (from the house where he belongs), like the sheep-owner and the woman, he goes to find him:
But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him.(Luke 15:28)
The father recognizes the older's son choice, is made in anger and immediately goes to find what was lost: the oldest son's joy of a restored family. Unlike the the younger son's change of heart which requires time to "come to his senses" the older son can have an immediate change of heart, drop his anger and join in the rejoicing simply because the father makes this request.
Thus the element of going after what was lost which is not present in the father seeking the younger son, is present in two other ways in this parable:
- The Prodigal Son went looking for his status as a son.
- The father went looking for the other son who was missing from the house of celebration.
1. Judith Lieu, The Gospel of Luke, Epworth, 1997, p. 120
2. ESV except as noted.