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BT Vol. 60, No.

3, July 2009: 158-164


Rhetorical Structure and the Section Headings of Luke 15

The author is a translation consultant with Wycliffe Bible Translators based in the U.K.

Luke 15 evidently constitutes a thematic whole in which Jesus teaches on the
subject of the lost.1 Within this broader segment of gospel text further subunits
have been identified, the principal of which are three parables each relating to the
chapters overall theme. These three are the parable of the lost sheep, of the lost
coin, and that concerning the prodigal son.
Form-critical studies analysed the main body of Luke 15 after the introductory
verses (vv. 1-3) to be composed of two short parables of similar construction
(vv. 4-7 and vv. 8-10), and a final longer parable (vv. 11-32).2
Commentaries on the Gospel of Luke also give distinct support to a basic
threefold structure for the bulk of the chapter. Leon Morris speaks of three parables,
with the first two forming a twin pair.3 I. Howard Marshall accepts the standard
form-critical analysis of two short and one long parable.4 The same basic threefold
division is to be found in Nolland,5 Bock,6 and Green.7
In accordance with this scholarly understanding, major English versions of the
NT commonly divide the chapter into three sections, each with its own heading.
NRSV, ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV, GNB, NLT, and CEV all place the first heading
concerning the lost sheep at the beginning of the chapter, the second concerning

1 On the literary unity of the chapter, I. Howard Marshall states, There can be no doubt that ch. 15
forms one self-contained and artistically constructed unit with a single theme (The Gospel of Luke:
A Commentary on the Greek Text [Exeter: Paternoster, 1978], 597).
2 William R. Farmer, Notes on a Literary and Form-Critical Analysis of Some of the Synoptic
Material Peculiar to Luke, New Testament Studies 8 (1961-1962): 90-102; Joachim Jeremias, Tradition
und Redaktion in Lukas 15, Zeitschrift fr die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 62 (1971): 172-89.
3 Leon Morris, Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Leicester: IVP, 1989), 260-61.
4 Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, 597-98.
5 John Nolland, Luke 9:2118:34 (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, 1994), 769.
6 Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Volume 2: 9:5124:53 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). Bock speaks of a
trilogy of parables (1294).
7 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 568.
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the coin before v. 8, and the last before v. 11 concerning the prodigal.8 The same
division and headings are found in the fourth edition of the UBS Greek NT.9
This article questions such a threefold division of the chapter. It is argued
that both the presence of textual indicators and an appreciation of the rhetorical
structure point to a different analysis of the several subsections within the larger
literary unit. Moreover, once these features of the text are understood they will be
seen to assist greatly in the interpretation of the contents of the chapter.
Textual indicators
The text of Luke 15 itself provides two important clues as to how the author
originally intended this extended teaching on the lost to be subdivided. First,
Christs words are prefaced with the speech introduction he spoke to them this
parable, saying . . . (v. 3). The Greek singular this
parable might conceivably be taken as referring solely to that of the lost sheep
(vv. 4-7). But there is no discernible reason why this alone of all the contents of
the chapter should specifically be designated a parable. Earlier in his gospel Luke
had employed the same singular parable in contexts where clearly more than one
item of parabolic material was intended, such as 5.36-38 and 12.35-40. In the first
instance, under the label of parable, Jesus speaks of sewing a patch of new cloth
on an old garment (v. 36), and then pouring new wine into old skins (vv. 37-38).
Though employing separate figures the two evidently relate to the same theme.
In the second passage parable relates to the servants waiting for their master to
return (vv. 35-39), and then the house-owner not knowing the time the thief would
break in (v. 40). Again the two can be seen to treat a similar subject matter. From
these cases we see that for Luke the term parable may in fact embrace clearly
distinct, though closely associated, units of parabolic teaching. On the basis of this
usage it is not improbable that the appearance of parable in 15.3 is intended to
cover more than merely the story of the lost sheep that immediately follows, and
perhaps also more than the lost sheep and lost coin together. Since the prodigal
son continues the same basic lost-found theme, with only the barest of pauses, it
is possible that Luke intended his readers to understand the whole of vv. 4-32 to
constitute this parable that Jesus spoke.
So both the theme and possibly the introductory singular parable in the
opening point towards interpreting the chapter as a unified whole. Yet within the
larger discourse the author marks an unmistakable disjuncture. This comes at
v. 11 with the narrative intrusion and he said ( ), marking the transition
from the lost sheep and lost coin to the prodigal son. This is the only non-direct
speech material in the whole of vv. 4-32. It therefore evidently forms the most
significant disjuncture in the text following the introductory verses. Yet this brief
clause hardly constitutes a major new departure in the text. The verb stands without
an independently expressed subject, the speaker continuing to be Jesus from v. 5
(also ), and lacks any direct object (not, for example, another parable,
or suchlike). Since Jesus remains the sole locuteur the speech margin (the speech
introduction) and he said is strictly semantically redundant and functions purely
8 NJB is similar to the majority of versions except that it gives one overall heading The three parables
of Gods mercy at the top of the chapter before giving a separate heading at the beginning of each of the
three parables.
9 Barbara Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1994).
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60, NO. 3 (JULY 2009)

as a discourse marker. This temporary departure from direct speech serves to

separate vv. 11-32 from the foregoing verses.
From the above we see that according to the most prominent textual indicator
( ) the teaching of Jesus in this chapter has primarily a twofold structure:
vv. 4-10 and vv. 11-32. It is only as subordinate to this initial binary segmentation
that further subdivisions may be made.
Moving down to lower level textual breaks, the first half of the discourse
(vv. 4-10) has an obvious division between v. 7 and v. 8. The story concerning
the lost sheep and that concerning the lost coin form distinct subunits. This can
be said not only on the basis of the different nature of what was lost, but also on
the parallel structure existing between each story. The opening of each employs
similar language: What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of
them, does not . . . ? (v. 4); Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses
one coin, does not . . . ? (v. 8). Both include the seeking, finding, the invitation
to friends and neighbours to rejoice, and the statement of having found what was
lost (vv. 5-6; cf. v. 9). The conclusion of each clearly corresponds with the other,
containing in the same way (), I tell you, and heavenly/angelic joy
over one sinner who repents (v. 7; cf. v. 10).
Besides the similar structure of the two stories, there is one small but not
insignificant textual indicator of disjuncture, which is the or () at the beginning
of v. 8, marking the point at which Jesus turns from the lost sheep to the lost coin.
By this means the two subunits are separated, yet since this or actually appears
within the direct discourse, it is not as marked a break as and he said in v. 11.
From this it may be concluded that the two initial parabolic stories relate together
closely and that what follows in vv. 11-32, although on the same general theme,
is not so nearly connected. One evident feature of development after the break of
v. 11 is the movement of what was lost from the nonhuman to the human, which,
as shall be seen, is a key difference between the two halves of the chapter.
Considering now the material in the second half (vv. 11-32), the so-called
parable of the prodigal son, we discover that there is good reason to divide this
also into two parts. While the division of vv. 4-10 is self-evident, this time it is less
so seeing that the passage relates one continuous narrative. Nevertheless, within
the longer narrative a definite point of disjuncture is discernible. This time it is
not on the basis of any particle such as or, but a division in the text (of vv. 1132) is created around a corresponding pair of comparative adjectives. The brief
opening clause of this story says A certain man had two sons (v. 11). We are
immediately introduced to one of these two (v. 12), the younger ( ).
The narrative then continues solely with the matter of the straying younger son,
with no mention at all of his brother (vv. 12-24). With v. 24 the problem of this
lost son is resolved, he is welcomed back by his father and the celebration begins.
Then in v. 25 we are presented with the second of the two sons, the elder (
). The remaining verses deal with this other son and the fathers
appeals to him (vv. 25-32).
As the first half of Jesus teaching in this chapter is divided into two, so we
conclude the same to be true of the second half. Definite formal textual reasons
have been seen to exist which both divide the former into separate subunits relating
to the lost sheep and the lost coin and the latter into subunits relating to the younger

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son and the elder son. We may therefore lay out the overall structure of this chapter
as follows:
Introduction (vv. 1-3):
1st Part (vv. 4-10):

Jesus said to them this parable

The lost sheep (vv. 4-7)
The lost coin (vv. 8-10)

2d Part (vv. 11-32):

The younger son (vv. 12-24)

The elder son (vv. 25-32)

In that the above looks to explicit textual features for guidance, such an analysis
is preferable to the common segmentation of the chapter into three separate
Rhetorical structure
Alongside the textual indicators we now consider the rhetorical structure of Jesus
teaching in this chapter. Studies in rhetorical analysis in recent years have shown
that the patterned arrangement of material is a prominent feature in all genres in
both Old and New Testaments.10 Inverted, or chiastic, ordering (ABC/CBA)
is common, yet this is not the only type of pattern employed. Non-inverted, or
linear, repetition of various kinds is also widely used, such as the sequences
ABC/ABC and AA/BB/CC. Patterns like these are found at all levels, whether
created by individual words and phrases, or by complete sentences, paragraphs, and
pericopes. A whole variety of such rhetorical arrangements has been detected in
the teaching of Jesus.11 Here is a higher level example12 from Luke 1314, showing
two symmetrical series:

Confrontation with religious leaders:

Setting: the Sabbath
Event: healing of a crippled woman
Accusation: Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his
ox or donkey from the manger and lead it away to give it
water? And ought not this woman . . . be set free on the
Sabbath day?
Response: His opponents were put to shame


Two parables:
The small becomes great


Parable on entering the kingdom:

The in are out, the out are in


10 For an introduction to such rhetorical structures in the Bible, see John Breck, The Shape of Biblical
Language (New York: St. Vladimirs Seminary, 1994); Victor M. Wilson, Divine Symmetries: The Art of
Biblical Rhetoric (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1997); and Roland Meynet, Rhetorical
Analysis: An Introduction to Biblical Rhetoric (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).
11 See, for example, Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language, 129-81; 204-29.
12 Based upon Wilson, Divine Symmetries, 208. Wilson demonstrates that the similarities between these
two sections are due to their occupying corresponding positions in the large-scale chiasmus in which Luke
arranges the entire gospel.
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60, NO. 3 (JULY 2009)

Confrontation with religious leaders:

Setting: the Sabbath
Event: healing of a man with dropsy
Accusation: If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into
a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath
Response: They could not reply to this


Two parables:
The humble are exalted


Parable on entering the kingdom:

The invited are out, the outcast are in


One important aspect of this manner of structuring lies in the fact that
corresponding elements within the pattern frequently require interpretation in
association with each other. The second element may sometimes be a straightforward
equivalent of the first element that it parallels. But more often than not, it will
expand upon, or identify, or contrast, or provide the grounds for, some aspect of
its parallel. Here are two short examples:
Matthew 6.24

No one can serve two masters,

for he will hate the one and love the other,
Or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.


Here the indefinite two masters in A are explicitly identified as God and
mammon in A.13
John 15.26

When the Paraclete comes,

whom I will send to you from the Father,
the Spirit of Truth
who proceeds from the Father,
he will bear witness to me.


The undetermined role of the Paraclete in A is explained in forensic terms

(testifying) in A,14 thus lending support to the translation Advocate (NRSV,
REB) rather than Comforter (KJV, ASV) or Helper (ESV, NKJV, GNB).
Coming now to Luke 15, how are we to analyze the rhetorical structure of the
teaching of Jesus concerning the lost? The basic elements we are working with are
one thematic whole, divided on the basis of textual evidence into two parts, with
each part further subdivided into two, like so: Part 1 [a + b] / Part 2 [a + b]. Viewed
in this way the rhetorical structure AB/AB suggests itself, where A = vv. 4-7 (the
13 See Meynet, Rhetorical Analysis, 86.
14 See Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language, 226-29.
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lost sheep), B = vv. 8-10 (the lost coin), A = vv. 11-24 (the younger son), B =
vv. 25-32 (the elder son). If this were actually the original design of the material
then we would expect there to be some point of correspondence between A and A,
and B and B. Taking the A elements first, we do in fact see such a relationship with
respect to that which was lost. In A the sheep strays from the rest of the flock, in A
the younger son leaves home for a distant land. Both units are structured around the
lostfoundrejoicing sequence, explicitly so in the first case, yet certainly implied
in the events narrated in vv. 11-24 and made explicit in the fathers words he was
lost and is found ( , v. 24, echoing the earlier
. . . in v. 6).
The foregoing correspondence between A and A invites a similar comparison
between B and B. In A the lost sheep strayed and had to be brought home (
, v. 6), but one of the major differences in B is that the coin was actually lost
in the house ( , v. 8). The connection with B now becomes apparent.
We see that just as the coin was lost at home, so was the elder son, who had never
physically strayed.15 In the two subunits of the first part of Christs teaching both
the sheep and the coin are lost. In the second part the first son is explicitly lost,
and when paralleled with B, B shows implicitly that his brother too is lost in the
same way as the coin. The lost state of the elder brother is left implicit, no doubt
because the story has reference to those whom Jesus is addressingthe Pharisees
and the scribes (v. 2). The characters of the younger son and older son have
application to the situation that provoked the parable, which was the grumbling
by the Pharisees and scribes against Jesus welcoming sinners. As the younger
son portrays the latter, so the elder portrays the former.16 In the typical fashion of
Christs parabolic teaching the implications are left for the audience to work out
for themselves. The first half of the chapter, however, leaves us in no doubt. It is
in the light of the lost sheep and lost coin that we interpret the younger son and the
older son to represent the sinners and the Jewish legalists, and more importantly,
the point is that both are equally lost.17
Although the chapter has now been structurally analysed, it would be unfair
to the elder brother to stop without some further comment. Jesus said of his
own ministry that the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost [
] (Luke 19.10). In AB it is not only the lost sheep that is sought by
its owner but also the lost coin. Moreover, in the way the parable goes, it is not
only the sheep that is found but also the coin. Likewise in AB the father openly
welcomes both sons. He runs out to the younger when he is still a long way off
(v. 20), and he goes out to the elder when he is standing outside the house (v. 28).
It is noteworthy at this point that the language describing the elder son approaching
the house echoes that of the sinners coming to Christ. The chapter began with the
tax collectors and sinners drawing near [] him to hear [] him
(v. 1). Jesus welcomed them and ate with them (v. 2). The big brother drew near
[] to the house and heard [] music and dancing (v. 25). The father
welcomed him and invited him to go in and eat. Following the fathers appeal to
15 The same connection between the coin and the elder son is noted by Meynet, Rhetorical Analysis,
16 For a defence of this interpretation, see Greg W. Forbes, The God of Old: The Role of the Lukan
Parables in the Purpose of Lukes Gospel (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 148-50.
17 In another place Jesus had said precisely of the Pharisees and the scribes (Matt 15.2) that they were
near to God in the utterances of their mouths, but far from him in their hearts (Matt 15.8 quoting Isa 29.13).
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60, NO. 3 (JULY 2009)

his elder son, the parable ends. No response of the son is given. Whether he joins
the celebration is his decision, but the fact is that he is as welcome as his younger
brother. Would the scribes and Pharisees get the message? The only thing that
was stopping them from entering the joy of the Father was their own unrepentant
hearts. The encouragement from the first half of the chapter is that remarkably the
owner did eventually find the lost coin!18
We see, therefore, that the teaching of Jesus in this chapter is artfully structured,
with the two short preliminary stories (AB) serving to provide the key for the
interpretation of the main story (AB).
Section headings
The analysis presented here has demonstrated that the usual threefold division of
the text is inappropriate and does not facilitate a correct understanding of what
Jesus is teaching. What are the alternatives? REB has one heading for the whole
chapterFinding the Lost. This is not perhaps as misleading as three headings,
but is much too general to help bring out the parallels between the first and second
parts of the chapter.
NCV employs two section headings. The first, combining subunits A and B,
is placed at the beginning of the chapterA Lost Sheep, a Lost Coin. A second
heading is placed before v. 11. For this latter NCV has the correct location, but the
content of the heading, The Son Who Left Home, is inadequate since it leaves out
the other son completely. An improvement upon this would be another combined
heading, as with the sheep and coin. A number of possible alternatives come to
mind, such as Two Sons, A Man with Two Sons, The Younger and Older
Son, or A Younger Son, an Older Son. Yet this might still not be sufficient for
enabling the reader to appreciate the intended parallels.
Perhaps the best solution would be to place separate headings at the beginning
of each of the four subunits ABAB. It would admittedly be unusual for a section
heading to appear in the middle of a parable, and it could be argued that this would
make an unnatural interruption in the flow of vv. 11-32. Yet on the other hand this
would go much farther to help bring out the connections between the related parts.
Four suggested headings that would make the parallels explicit are: A Lost Sheep
Brought Home; A Coin Lost at Home Is Found; A Lost Son Is Welcomed
Home by His Father; A Son Lost at Home Is Welcomed by His Father.
The foregoing has highlighted the importance of studying the biblical texts
own discourse markers and rhetorical structure for determining the most appropriate
textual division and the positioning and content of section headings.

18 One wonders if the description of the search for the coin involves more effort than that for the sheep.
The woman must sweep out the house and search carefully () before finding it.
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