In my two sermons on Luke 15:11-32, I didn’t have time to discuss the two similar-sounding short parables that preceded the parable of the prodigal son and his brother. If I did, I might have explored the intriguing question that Michael Wilcock explored in his Bible Speaks Today commentary on Luke.
He argues that it wasn’t Luke’s (or Jesus’) style to tell three parables that make the exact same point. From Wilcock’s perspective, therefore, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son are not all saying essentially the same thing, with the prodigal son adding the twist of the older brother’s resentment. Luke (and Jesus) must be up to something else.
What is that something else? Wilcock argues that Jesus is saying (or Luke is arranging these parables to say) something about the Trinity. It certainly seems clear enough that the lost sheep is about the work of the Son and the prodigal son is about the work of the Father. Is it possible that the lost coin highlights the work of the Spirit?
He thinks so, based on what Jesus has already said about the Spirit in Luke’s gospel and the placement of Luke 15 in that context. He also offers this (I’ve put the author’s footnoted references in brackets):
The upshot is that the symbolic meanings often attached both to ‘woman’ and to ‘lamp’ elsewhere in Scripture may well be the meanings we are intended to see in this parable. The church in Old Testament and New is the Lord’s bride [Is. 54:5; Ezk. 16:8; Eph. 5:23ff.], and as a community through which the Spirit reveals God’s truth it is also a light [Mt. 5:14ff.; Phil 2:15]; in the picture-book of Revelation the symbols of woman and light are both used to depict the people of God [Rev. 1:20; 4:5; 12:1-17; 19:off.; 21:9ff.]. If Luke 15:8-10 is meant to have this added significance, we may see in it the Spirit of God lighting the church’s way as she sets about the divine work of seeking the lost.
He goes on to cite a C. H. Spurgeon sermon that makes the same point. Spurgeon said,
We have sometimes heard it said—here is the prodigal received as soon as he comes back, no mention being made of a Saviour who seeks and saves him. Is it possible to teach all truths in one single parable? Does not the first one speak of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep? Why need repeat what had been said before? It has also been said that the prodigal returned of his own free will, for there is no hint of the operation of a superior power upon his heart, it seems as if he himself spontaneously says, “I will arise, and go unto my Father.” The answer is, that the Holy Spirit’s work had been clearly described in the second parable, and needed not to be introduced again.
I’ll be honest: While I was skeptical at first, I buy into it now. I think we should read Luke 15 in Trinitarian terms. It’s certainly true, just in terms of Christian theology, that if the parable of the prodigal son as an allegory for salvation, the younger son doesn’t come to his senses apart from the active work of the Spirit, even if that work is invisible to him. God the Holy Spirit is working through the famine and hardship to get the young man’s attention and enable him to repent.
Wilcock goes on to talk about how the parables reveal different aspects of humanity’s lostness: our mindless wandering away from God, our lifelessness and helplessness (as represented by the silver coin) apart from God, and our active rebellion against God.
Anyway… Good stuff from a good commentary series. The New Testament series editor, by the way, is the late evangelical Anglican John Stott.
1. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke, ed. John R. W. Stott (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), 152.
2. Ibid., 153.