Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 01

2 05 2009
Terry O'Quinn
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Luke is in the habit of telling short parables in pairs (11:31-32, 12:24-27, 13:18-21, 14:28-32). In chapter 15 the lost sheep and coin form such a pair as seen by their similar structures and language.

At first the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) may seem to not be directly connected. Its not in the doublet, and unlike the first two parables, there is a bit of a break (“then Jesus said” – though no change in scene or audience). And yet by the end no one can doubt that this is a direct continuation. The father’s closing words to the older son are strike the same key words as the first two parables: “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and have been found” (v32).

A big question today though is whether any of these three parables should be used in evangelism. I think its a bit of a “bug bear”. The prodigal has been a classic evangelistic text, yet more recently there has been a move to see it as all about the older brother. Answering this question is really important for preaching Luke 15 and for evangelism. But it is also a great case study for how to read the bible in general and Luke in particular…

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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7 responses

2 05 2009
dan cole

Thanks for this Bruce – I’m looking forward to your comments on this parable…

I agree that it is important to see the links to the previous two parables as providing a common theme. However, I also think that it’s important to recognize that such ties also exist to the following parable (of the dishonest manager), especially in the nuanced use of διασκοριζω (squander) for both the younger son (15:13) and the manager (16:1).

Not only does this indicate that grouping texts must be done on stronger grounds than purely co-referential ties, but it may also provide some evidence that (at least) Luke thought that a sizable implication of Luke 15:11ff stemmed from the character of the younger son.


5 05 2009
Bruce Lowe

Thanks Dan for checking in and commenting. Had a busy weekend an have only now got to reply. I love what you say about the connection forward. I had been wondering about the culture of reciprocity in the way the younger son failed to get any help from those he had “befriended” and given his money to. I think its there again later in the parable as the old son complains about what he hasn’t got from his father. Then (as you allude to) it is everywhere in the parable which follows. I think you are definitely onto something which may help us greatly with the “painful parable” of Luke 16!!!

3 05 2009

I think it would be tough (and unwise, IMO) to use the prodigal son in evangelism. I would hate to perpetuate the stereotype among westerners that things were all good between them and God until they screwed it up somehow, and that their appropriate response is now to “come back” to God — when the reality is that they were born at enmity with God and live at enmity with him. Is the prodigal son parable applicable outside of that particular moment in salvation-history? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


5 05 2009
Bruce Lowe

thanks again for your interaction. See below for my comments after Mike.

4 05 2009
Mike Doyle

Some of the best evangelistic talks I’ve heard are on the prodigal Son.

I suspect the context does push us to see the older brother playing a much more central role in the meaning of the parable than what we normally give him.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t – or shouldn’t – be evangelistic. In fact, I think it helps evangelism in a context where most people think they are either religious, or “good” – which I suspect is most of Australia.

It is important (I think) to realise both sons have rebelled. The first in an outward and obvious manner. The second Son has rebelled inwardly. Whilst he has remained at home, he’s not really submissive to his father. In fact, he refuses to enter the house when his brother returns, and puts himself outside the family (“This Son of Yours” – v30). Like the younger brother – the father comes out to the older Son to convince him to come back. And the narrative tension in the story is that we don’t know if the Older Son returns. Just like the Jews Jesus is teaching.

So the story paints of a picture of two sons who have rebelled – one by leaving home, one by staying at home. The first, and younger son returns. The older one – we don’t know.

Which son are you? Have you rebelled inwardly? Or outwardly? No matter which son you are, God desperately wants you to come home.

@Laura – it’s good of you to point out that very real danger. I think it’s particularly a problem when the evangelistic talk only focusses on the first son, and not the second son. I think a good evangelistic talk from this passage shows both sons have rebelled against God – even if you think you’ve been a good boy and remained at home.


5 05 2009
Bruce Lowe

Mike & Laura,

I won’t say too much yet because I wrote this and two further posts together. They are scheduled to appear soon, so maybe we can interact further when they do.


5 05 2009
Jason Yum

This is in response to both Mike and Dan above.

I believe you that the prodigal son parable must be tied to both the two previous parables (lost sheep and lost coin) as well as the two following ones (dishonest manager and rich man and lazarus). A while back I had opportunity to write a paper on the dishonest manager parable for one of Bruce’s classes. In my research I came across the connection of the key term “house” (oikos) in all 5 parables. The sheep is brought back to the shepherd’s house, the woman searches her house, the prodigal son returns to his father’s house, the unjust steward or house manager (oikonomos) does what he can to be invited into people’s houses, and the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house.

In agreement with Dan, I feel that all 5 of these parables, including the Prodigal Son are, all about coming home to God’s house. It’s about belonging in the household of God and all the goodness that that entails. So I feel like this parable can definitely be an evangelistic one since all need to hear the invitation to belong fully to God’s house.


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