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NT Lesson 18: Three parables that are the same but aren’t

Posted by BrianJ on May 30, 2007

I taught this lesson Sunday and asked the following question (because I didn’t have a good answer myself, not because I already had the answer):

Why does Jesus tell three parables in Luke 15 that all apparently have the same moral: joy comes in finding what was lost?”

The class helped to identify something that makes each story unique:

1) Parable of the Lost Sheep: the sheep is lost because it wandered away. It did not try to escape (sheep are just not smart enough to have such thoughts).

2) Parable of the Lost Coin: the coin is lost because of neglect—it’s not like the coin jumped out of the woman’s purse and hid itself under the rug. Rather, the woman misplaced it, or put it somewhere unsafe.

3) Parable of the Two Sons: the younger son is lost because he openly rebelled against his father. (The older son is arguably also lost and for the same reason.)

Jesus doesn’t tell the same story three different ways, he tells the same moral with three different situations. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter why a person is lost—was it their own stupidity (ala sheep), a neglectful bishop (ala coin), or open rebellion (ala prodigal son)—only that they be sought and found.

8 Responses to “NT Lesson 18: Three parables that are the same but aren’t”

  1. Ben said

    There are some differences. Note that the moral is explicit in the first two (“there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”), but no explanation is given in the third.

    The means is also different. In the first two, someone goes looking for the lost, whereas in the third, the lost returns home of his own accord.

    Given that Jesus was addressing a hostile(?) audience of scribes and Pharisees, were they intended to see themselves as the blameless elder brother in that story? Is the reader supposed to see the scribes and Pharisees as the elder brother?

  2. JrL said

    “only that they be sought and found”

    But as Ben says, the prodigal wasn’t found, he came back. I’ve used the three parables to teach about what we need to do regarding three groups of Church members. We need to go out and find those who’ve wandered off. We need to sweep away the things that make us blind to others who are with us but we aren’t helping as we should. (Is this the “clerks and secretaries” parable?) And we need to be prepared to welcome those who left deliberately, and make the decision to return.

  3. BrianJ said

    Ben: “Note that the moral is explicit in the first two, but no explanation is given in the third.” That point came up in class. My thinking is that the third parable is left open for dramatic purposes: the reader is left wondering, “Does the elder brother go inside? Is he repentent? Does he rejoice?” Do you have any other thoughts on why it is left this way?

    The question of means is one I wondered about, but at the last minute decided not to include in the post; I see now that I should have, so thanks for bringing it up. What does it possibly mean? Is Jesus trying to say that some types of lost souls are to be sought out, while others (the rebellious) are to be left alone until they “make the first move”? I’m not comfortable with that reading, but I should be. Any ideas?

    “…were [the Scribes and Pharisees] intended to see themselves as the blameless elder brother in that story? Is the reader supposed to see the scribes and Pharisees as the elder brother?’

    Excellent question. I would say “yes” to the first, and “no” to the second. “No” because I think that in every parable or response to the Pharisees, we are supposed to see ourselves as Pharisees—supposed to ask, “How am I like that?”

  4. BrianJ said

    JrL: thanks for the correction. “sought and found” should have been “received with joy when found.”

    Nevertheless, there is some element of seeking in the last parable. The father sees his son when he is still some distance away, implying some amount of searching or watching for. And he goes running out to meet his son as soon as he sees him, not waiting for him to return. One could argue that the reason the father didn’t go searching for his son is that he had no idea where to look, though I think that starts to push the story beyond the story’s intent.

  5. nhilton said

    I noted that there is a percentage difference of 1%, 10% and 50% in each of the parables in ch. 15 & 10% again in the ten lepers parable in Ch. 17. I think this incremental change with the same resounding response echos the worth of a single soul sentiment. Additionally, we move in various degrees of value: sheep, coin, son.

  6. Rob Osborn said

    Think also that for the sinner- the lost sheep, when he becomes found he literally finds his life-his true purpose. I think the parables all link being found with finding purpose in things. i look at my son and sure he enjoys life but he has no sense of purpose because he doesn’t really understand the “big picture”. True happiness will come when he finds out the real picture to life and becomes “found”.

  7. BrianJ said

    nhilton: the progression in percent is indeed interesting. I am skeptical that there is a progression in value, however: I think a sheep costs much more than a silver coin (which was the equivalent of one day’s wages). I may be wrong. Either way, I think you draw an important point: Jesus uses various values and various percents of the whole but all of them yield a similar conclusion. Thus, we cannot go away thinking, “Sure, the worth of X souls is great, but when we factor in Y and Z then not so much.” No, Jesus would have us value all souls, great or small. (Ignoring, of course, whether we could or should be judging souls as “great” or “small.”)

    Rob: thanks very much for reminding us of how this looks from the perspective of the one who was found.

  8. nhilton said

    The next lesson, #19, clearly gives the thesis: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10

    Per #6, I loved Rob’s “i look at my son and sure he enjoys life but he has no sense of purpose because he doesn’t really understand the “big picture”. True happiness will come when he finds out the real picture to life and becomes “found”.” I think of this in context of Moses’ “big picture” experience and how he then saw himself as “nothing.” Ironically, when we see ourselves as nothing and God as Everything we suddendly become found because God’s love for us (nothing) is profound simply because of his “everythingness.” It is his valuing of us that makes us valuable. Did that make sense? Our relationship with our children is similar as we show them love they feel loved and thereby develop a sense of self-valuation–from infancy, I mean. In feeling their nothingness (perhaps helplessness is a better word here) they come to rely on us for everything. This, in one sense, is what I believe Christ asks us to do by becoming like little children.

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