Luke Chapter 15:11-32 The Prodigal Son

This is a very long piece of Greek. I try not to do sections that are too long so I can keep the posts moving along, but this is all a single story, and breaking it into arbitrary pieces would only complicate matters.

This follows hard on the heels of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. All three are unique to Luke, and most likely created by him. There is no sound historical reason to doubt or question that he is the author. The idea of an “L” source is just creating bodies needlessly, and there is no evidence of any such thing. At some point it will be necessary to take a step back and attempt to create a likely series of events that occurred after Jesus’ death. The interesting thing is that what happened after his death is more important than what actually happened when he was alive. We have nothing written about him before the 50s, which comes from Paul. It is key to note that Paul showed pretty much no interest in anything Jesus did before rising from the dead.

The common theme of these three stories is repentance. The lost is found. This is a very important, indeed crucial topic. As such, it’s probably best to save the discussion & comparison for the chapter summary. With that expectation, here is the



11 Εἶπεν δέ, Ἄνθρωπός τις εἶχεν δύο υἱούς.

12 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ νεώτερος αὐτῶν τῷ πατρί, Πάτερ, δός μοι τὸ ἐπιβάλλον μέρος τῆς οὐσίας. ὁ δὲ διεῖλεν αὐτοῖς τὸν βίον.

(11) And he said, “There was a certain man who had two sons. (12) And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share being thrown on me (= inheritance, apparently) of the things existing (= your possessions, apparently). He (the father) divided his life to them.

Have to note the Greek vocabulary here. I’ve given the literal translations along with the “standard” meaning in parentheses. “Share being thrown on me” is rather colorful. But the word meros means portion or share, usually used with the allotment of land given to someone, as when a colony was founded and the land divided, or the portion of an inheritance. It’s the “being thrown upon me” that is a bit…odd, but the Greek word is that for “to throw”. And here is where the Greek verb tenses get a little funky. “Being thrown” is a present participle, so the published translations say something like, “that comes/falls to me”. Maybe it’s just me, but I think of the estate being divided at the death of the father, so I would put this in the future. But this may be my lack of understanding of how inheritance worked at the time. Next, the things divided are ousias; this is a participle of the verb “to be”. It gets used a lot in philosophy for “existence”, but it does stretch to “possessions” in pagan Greek as well. So not too much of a mental leap. One thing I note is that Greek uses a lot of participles when we would use nouns. A participle is the -ing form of a verb. So, rather than being just something static, possessions, the thought behind is active, existing. These things don’t just sit there and exist; they are performing an action by existing. Finally, “divided his life”. That is, the father divided the things that make up his life; hence, his possessions. We call it the estate. Peeking at the Latin, we have substantia, which = “resources”. The cognate shows it means ‘things of substance’, but the form of the word is a noun, so much closer to our way of thinking. Actually, can’t recall where I read it, but someone commented that using the Latin Bible for a millennium or more really had a profound impact on the Western Church, and that much of the theological history of the Western Church was the result of translating Greek thoughts into Latin language. The two languages do look at the world differently.

11 Ait autem: “ Homo quidam habebat duos filios.

12 Et dixit adulescentior ex illis patri: “Pater, da mihi portionem substantiae, quae me contingit”. Et divisit illis substantiam.

13 καὶ μετ’ οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας συναγαγὼν πάντα ὁ νεώτερος υἱὸς ἀπεδήμησεν εἰς χώραν μακράν, καὶ ἐκεῖ διεσκόρπισεν τὴν οὐσίαν αὐτοῦ ζῶν ἀσώτως.

“And after not many days gathering all the younger son went abroad to a distant country, and there he squandered his existing things in a life unsaved.

The last word is interesting. It’s from the root of “to save”, and is very close to the word for “saviour”. But it has the a- prefix, which is negation, such as a-moral. It’s an adverb, describing how he was living: in a manner not saved, or perhaps ‘not safe’. The ESV translates as “reckless”, and that’s much better than “riotous” or “loose”. The Latin is luxuriose, which probably needs no translation. Again, a difference in the way the two languages approach the concept. 

13 Et non post multos dies, congregatis omnibus, adulescentior filius peregre profectus est in regionem longinquam et ibi dissipavit substantiam suam vivendo luxuriose.

14 δαπανήσαντος δὲ αὐτοῦ πάντα ἐγένετο λιμὸς ἰσχυρὰ κατὰ τὴν χώραν ἐκείνην, καὶ αὐτὸς ἤρξατο ὑστερεῖσθαι.

15 καὶ πορευθεὶς ἐκολλήθη ἑνὶ τῶν πολιτῶν τῆς χώρας ἐκείνης, καὶ ἔπεμψεν αὐτὸν εἰς τοὺς ἀγροὺς αὐτοῦ βόσκειν χοίρους:

16 καὶ ἐπεθύμει χορτασθῆναι ἐκ τῶν κερατίων ὧν ἤσθιον οἱ χοῖροι, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδίδου αὐτῷ.

“Having squandered all of his (money), there became a strong famine upon that country, and he began to fall behind (= to be left behind = to want, as in being at the end of the line and there’s nothing left). (15) And going/departing he glued himself to a citizen of that country, and the citizen sent him to his fields to feed the swine. (16) And he wished to eat of the husks of which the pigs fed, and no one gave anything to him.

I like the “glued himself”. I also could have chosen “cemented himself”; the concept of “attaching” is pretty clear. Second, the man was probably a pagan. There are two clues for this. First, if the man is raising swine, chances are, he was pagan. This is interesting, because Luke is supposed to be the pagan of the four (but I suspect Matthew was, too). The idea of feeding pigs would have been the lowest of the low to Jewish sensibilities, since pigs were unclean. I suppose Jews may have owned pigs, but I don’t think we’re supposed to go that direction. Rather, ties in with second clue, which is the “far country” in Verse 13. If one left Judea or Galilee and went any distance– even a short one, really– one would pretty much be in pagan territory. There were places that had large Jewish populations, like Alexandria and Babylon, but still the territory would have a pagan majority. Finally, is he working for free? Why does he not have a paycheck to purchase food? Wasn’t that the point? Or even if he were working for room & board, he should, theoretically, be recompensed for his labor. That’s kind of how it works, and that is why he got himself a job. Now, maybe the board provided was insufficient to keep him full; in times of famine, one would expect a surplus of labor, which would drive down the wages labor can command. This would mean that the wage paid may not have been sufficient for keeping a working person. And the odd thing is that slaves actually fared better than hired hands. Slaves represented an investment of capital, and the owner understood that it worked to his favor to maintain the slave at a level that kept the slave productive. A hired hand, OTOH, was completely expendable. Hire them when needed, fire them when not.

14 Et postquam omnia consummasset, facta est fames valida in regione illa, et ipse coepit egere.

15 Et abiit et adhaesit uni civium regionis illius, et misit illum in villam suam, ut pasceret porcos;

16 et cupiebat saturari de siliquis, quas porci manducabant, et nemo illi dabat.

17 εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν ἔφη, Πόσοι μίσθιοι τοῦ πατρός μου περισσεύονται ἄρτων, ἐγὼ δὲ λιμῷ ὧδε ἀπόλλυμαι.

18 ἀναστὰς πορεύσομαι πρὸς τὸν πατέρα μου καὶ ἐρῶ αὐτῷ, Πάτερ, ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου,

19 οὐκέτι εἰμὶ ἄξιος κληθῆναι υἱός σου: ποίησόν με ὡς ἕνα τῶν μισθίων σου.

“Coming to himself, he said, ‘How much abundance of bread the hired hands of my father (have); but I in hunger in this way am destroyed (I perish). (18) Standing, I will go to my father and say to him, (19) “Father, I have sinned against the sky and before you, I (am) no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hirelings”.’

The ‘coming to himself’ is an interesting usage. It sort of took me by surprise that the Greek would use an expression like this; it seems too modern. The Latin is “reversing to himself”, or “turning back to himself”, which is similar if not quite exact. Also, the word for ‘hireling’ is also the word often used for ‘reward’. Perhaps the common ground is ‘recompense’; so those recompensed will be paid, or they will receive their recompense in the sky as in Mt 5:12. “Great is your recompense in the heavens”. Looking at this from Matthew, the shading of recompense/reward becomes very clear. The concept behind “great is your reward in the heavens” carries a rather different set of connotations. And, BTW, the Latin for “hirelings” is mercennarii, the root of “mercenary”. It simply means “doing it for pay”.

17 In se autem reversus dixit: “Quanti mercennarii patris mei abundant panibus, ego autem hic fame pereo.

18 Surgam et ibo ad patrem meum et dicam illi: Pater, peccavi in caelum et coram te

19 et iam non sum dignus vocari filius tuus; fac me sicut unum de mercennariis tuis”.

20 καὶ ἀναστὰς ἦλθεν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ἑαυτοῦ. ἔτι δὲ αὐτοῦ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος εἶδεν αὐτὸν ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη καὶ δραμὼν ἐπέπεσεν ἐπὶ τὸν τράχηλον αὐτοῦ καὶ κατεφίλησεν αὐτόν.

21 εἶπεν δὲ ὁ υἱὸς αὐτῷ, Πάτερ, ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου, οὐκέτι εἰμὶ ἄξιος κληθῆναι υἱός σου.

22 εἶπεν δὲ ὁ πατὴρ πρὸς τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ, Ταχὺ ἐξενέγκατε στολὴν τὴν πρώτην καὶ ἐνδύσατε αὐτόν, καὶ δότε δακτύλιον εἰς τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ καὶ ὑποδήματα εἰς τοὺς πόδας,

23 καὶ φέρετε τὸν μόσχον τὸν σιτευτόν, θύσατε καὶ φαγόντες εὐφρανθῶμεν,

24 ὅτι οὗτος ὁ υἱός μου νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἀνέζησεν, ἦν ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη. καὶ ἤρξαντο εὐφραίνεσθαι.

“And standing he came to his father. Yet while he was still far away at a distance his father saw (him) and was moved to compassion and running fell upon his neck and kissed him. (21) The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against the sky and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ The father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring forth a robe first and dress him, and give rings to his fingers and sandals to his feet. (23) And bring the fatted calf, sacrificing eating we will rejoice. That this my son was dead and is (now) up living, was lost and is found’. And they began to celebrate. 

A number of things in here. First, in Verse 21, a minority of mss traditions add “make me as one of your hirelings”, which was in the speech the son practiced in Verse 21. The ESV, NIV, NASB, and KJV all exclude this extra bit of wording. It’s easy to see how it got into the text; some scribe somewhere was sort of going by wrote from what he had written a few verses before, and just kept going and added the part about the hireling. Or, it got truncated. Generally, the majority opinion represents the most likely explanation, and that could easily hold here. Offhand, I would say that the second set of circumstances would be more likely, so I would tend towards it getting left out rather than added to; however, that then requires explaining how the left out became the majority opinion and is found in the largest number of mss traditions. So, once again, I will plead agnostic on this; textual stuff is the realm of specialists, and I do not have the chops to have an opinion that’s worth anything.

Still, it’s an interesting style point to note how we get the practice speech and then the actual speech separated by a few verses. What does this say? Most notably the reader/listener really understands what the son’s message to the father is. That he is not worthy to be called son. This would be an argument in favor of the shorter version that we have here: this ends the son’s address to the father with “I am not worthy”, thereby giving this part of the message a greater rhetorical impact. And this then becomes more or less the theme of this whole parable. Despite not being worthy, we can all still be reconciled with God. This is a significant part of the Christian message, albeit one that some, perhaps, would like to ignore. We’ll get back to that when we discuss the overall message of this parable at the end of this section.

Just a bit on “up living’. The word here was coined by Luke; at least, this is the only recorded use of the word in any sort of literary context that has survived to our day. It is composed of the word “to live” with the prefix “ana”, which means “up”. So, “up to live”. The Latin is revixit, literally “to live again”, or, actually, “to re-live”. Can we stretch this to “resurrection”? It’s not out of the question. Is this a reference to being saved? Most likely, since he was lost but now has been found. More on this in a bit.

20 Et surgens venit ad patrem suum.

Cum autem adhuc longe esset, vidit illum pater ipsius et misericordia motus est et accurrens cecidit supra collum eius et osculatus est illum.

21 Dixitque ei filius: “Pater, peccavi in caelum et coram te; iam non sum dignus vocari filius tuus”.

22 Dixit autem pater ad servos suos: “Cito proferte stolam primam et induite illum et date anulum in manum eius et calceamenta in pedes

23 et adducite vitulum saginatum, occidite et manducemus et epulemur,

24 quia hic filius meus mortuus erat et revixit, perierat et inventus est”. Et coeperunt epulari.

25 ην δὲ ὁ υἱὸς αὐτοῦ ὁ πρεσβύτερος ἐν ἀγρῷ: καὶ ὡς ἐρχόμενος ἤγγισεν τῇ οἰκίᾳ, ἤκουσεν συμφωνίας καὶ χορῶν,

26 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος ἕνα τῶν παίδων ἐπυνθάνετο τί ἂν εἴη ταῦτα.

27 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὅτι Ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἥκει, καὶ ἔθυσεν ὁ πατήρ σου τὸν μόσχον τὸν σιτευτόν, ὅτι ὑγιαίνοντα αὐτὸν ἀπέλαβεν.

28 ὠργίσθη δὲ καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν εἰσελθεῖν. ὁ δὲ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐξελθὼν παρεκάλει αὐτόν.

29 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν τῷ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ, Ἰδοὺ τοσαῦτα ἔτη δουλεύω σοι καὶ οὐδέποτε ἐντολήν σου παρῆλθον, καὶ ἐμοὶ οὐδέποτε ἔδωκας ἔριφον ἵνα μετὰ τῶν φίλων μου εὐφρανθῶ:

30 ὅτε δὲ ὁ υἱός σου οὗτος ὁ καταφαγών σου τὸν βίον μετὰπορνῶν ἦλθεν, ἔθυσας αὐτῷ τὸν σιτευτὸν μόσχον.

31 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Τέκνον, σὺ πάντοτε μετ’ ἐμοῦ εἶ, καὶ πάντα τὰ ἐμὰ σά ἐστιν:

32 εὐφρανθῆναι δὲ καὶ χαρῆναι ἔδει, ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἔζησεν, καὶ ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη.

“And his older son was in the field. And as he was coming nigh to the house, he heard symphonies and choruses, (26) and calling one of the boys (slaves) he asked what these things would be. (27) He (the slave) said to him (the elder), ‘Your brother arrived, and your father sacrificed the fatted calf, that healthy he received him back’. (28) He was angered and did not wish to come in. His father coming out called to him. (29) He (the son) answering said to his father, ‘Look, how so many years I slave for you and never circumvented your commandments and never did you give me a kid so that with my friends I may have celebrated. (30) But that your son came, he who having eaten your possessions with harlots returned, you sacrificed for him the fatted calf’. (31) He (the father) said to him (the elder), ‘Son, you always are with me, and all that I have is yours. (32) But look, rejoice and be happy that your brother who was dead and now lives (again; same verb as in Verse 23) and was lost, and has been found’.”

First, I just want to note that this is the end of the chapter. There is no further lesson, no explanation of the lesson, and no rebuttal by a Pharisee. Rhetorically and stylistically, this is the last word on the topic. It just stands.

And this lesson is similar to that of the Lost Sheep. There the shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness to find the one lost. Now, a sheep may have been an expensive loss, but I doubt the cost-benefit analysis on regaining the one outweighs the potential of the loss of the 99. The latter are left to fend for themselves. In similar manner, here the older brother is miffed that the younger is restored to good graces and– to the elder’s mind– so easily. In these stories the good people, the just (dikaios) as they are called here, seem to get short shrift. And, unfortunately, this is one of the hardest lessons for some Christians to learn. With whom do we identify in this story? Perhaps you were the riotous youth, but I was generally the sober one, studying and learning Greek whereas my older brother was, shall we say, a bit of a party animal. So yeah, I understand the chagrin of the just. We want the rotten kid to suffer. At least some, and even if we never admit it to ourselves, let alone anyone else. This is the innate and slightly counterintuitive appeal of Calvinism. All those “good folk” are convinced of which side they are on, so why bother with the reprobates? They’re just damned, and there’s nothing we can do for them. And since all God’s friends are rich, well, it’s easy to tell who’s on which team.

Many cultures in the ancient world had a concept that one’s soul would be judged post-mortem, and that the judgement would be something of a balancing act. Did your good outweigh your bad? The Egyptians believed our heart would be put on one side of the scale, and a feather on the other. If your heart outweighed the feather, you flunked the test. Catholicism is sort of in the mindset of the good/bad scale. Do something wrong, and you have to do penance for it, and it’s usually impossible to atone for all your sins in a single lifetime. Hence, the need for Purgatory, which the nuns assured us, we would all experience. Now, that’s not to argue for or against Purgatory, but it demonstrates very effectively the mindset of the ancient world. It’s also one of the most egregious things that Martin Luther saw as wrong with Catholic thinking. And there is good reason to argue that this was not the intent of this story, or that of the Lost Sheep. The Latin says do penance. The Greek says, be penitent, or repent. I can assure you that the penance that must be done for one’s sins was meted out at the end of confession. There are Mediaeval handbooks of penance that were intended as how-to manual for priests. Sin X should be atoned by Penance Y. That is not the message here.

Interestingly, this concept described here better reflects the Jewish attitude than the pagan attitude. After all, repentance was the word that the Baptist used in Mark. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when devout Jews spend the whole day in Temple praying and asking forgiveness. [Full disclosure: I have never been in a Temple on Yom Kippur, so I cannot specify exactly what happens. That is the inference I’ve drawn from things I’ve heard.] 

The point here is that Jesus tells us that we don’t need to make up for all those misdeeds by trying to counterbalance them with good works, or works of penance. Rather, we need to repent, to be penitent. The word in Greek literally means “change (as in redirect) your mind”. When you have that change of mind, Luke says, and of heart, you will be given your full reward. 

25 Erat autem filius eius senior in agro et, cum veniret et appropinquaret domui, audivit symphoniam et choros

26 et vocavit unum de servis et interrogavit quae haec essent.

27 Isque dixit illi: “Frater tuus venit, et occidit pater tuus vitulum saginatum, quia salvum illum recepit”.

28 Indignatus est autem et nolebat introire. Pater ergo illius egressus coepit rogare illum.

29 At ille respondens dixit patri suo: “Ecce tot annis servio tibi et numquam mandatum tuum praeterii, et numquam dedisti mihi haedum, ut cum amicis meis epularer;

30 sed postquam filius tuus hic, qui devoravit substantiam tuam cum meretricibus, venit, occidisti illi vitulum saginatum”.

31 At ipse dixit illi: “Fili, tu semper mecum es, et omnia mea tua sunt;

32 epulari autem et gaudere oportebat, quia frater tuus hic mortuus erat et revixit, perierat et inventus est” ”.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 27, 2019, in Chapter 15, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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