Syntactically, Jesus structures all three parables in the set to feed into that final scene. If the question is, “Why do I eat with the sinners and tax collectors?” The answer comes in the third parable: Because “it is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for” these sinner and tax collectors (like the younger brother in the parable) were spiritually dead and now are alive; they were spiritually lost and now have been found. You (Pharisees) are acting like the older brother: hyper-critical and selfish while sinners joyfully receive God’s grace by faith.”
Does Jesus care about syntax? We need only to look at the parable of the prodigal son to see that He does. We tend to read His parables as their own, isolated units. Yet, often more is going on outside the parable than inside it. Take the example of the prodigal son parable (Luke 15:11-31). You must cycle through 3 different “intents” to determine the single meaning:
The parable’s intent;
Jesus’ intent in telling it; and,
Luke’s intent for including it.
The first two are important, but the third—Luke’s intent—is our final destination. To get there, Jesus’ syntactical arrangement is vital.
Does Jesus care about syntax? The arrangement of His parable-set in Luke 15 suggests He does.
The Prodigal Son
The prodigal son in Luke 15:11-31 often is viewed as one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture: A heartwarming story of heart-felt repentance, glorious renewal, and jubilant restoration. It’s about a wayward son who realizes the unconditional love of his father. It’s about music and dancing and happy times . . . but is it truly about happy times?
A closer look reveals a rather sad ending, not a happy one. We do see repentance, renewal, and restoration of the younger brother. Yet, when we ask ourselves (1) “What is Jesus’ purpose in the story?” and (2) “What was Luke’s purpose for including it?” we discover Jesus’ purpose is not to highlight the happy times. Quite the opposite: His purpose was to uncover the jealousy of the older brother. You see, everyone in the whole chapter is happy and excited except for one person: the older brother. He’s angry, jealous, critical, and unforgiving. To see it, you must consider the syntax.
The Prodigal Son’s Context
Luke 15:1-2 provides the context. Jesus was talking to sinners and tax collectors. The hyper-critical Pharisees begin grumbling about Jesus eating with such sinners. Jesus responds with three parables, but it’s really one story.
First, a sheep that was lost and then found. There was great rejoicing. Next, a coin that was lost and then found. There was great rejoicing. Finally, a son who was lost and then found. There was great rejoicing . . . but then the scene turns ugly: The closing scene of a jealous, hyper-critical, bitter older brother leaves a lasting impression. That the situation is left unresolved is equally troublesome.