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The Prodigal Son

Posted on: March 31, 2013


One of the dilemmas for the writers of the Christian Gospels was the question, Why did Jesus speak in parables? In the Gospel of Mark the answer is that only the inner circle of disciples know the secret of the Kingdom of God but to outsiders the secret is like a riddle. According to Mark, a parable is like a riddle that needs to be decoded.

The Prodigal Son parable occurs in the Gospel of Luke. So, what did Luke think parables were about? Luke generally follows Mark, thinking that parables are riddles needing to be decoded. Yet, in contrast to Mark, Luke has a different decoder ring - or perhaps a different password - to employ.

In Mark parables distinguish between the people who follow Jesus and receive his instruction and those who do not follow him and cannot understand. Those on the outside who do not understand are those who will cause the suffering of the Son of Man. That’s Mark’s decoder ring, so to speak, but Luke has a different one.

In Luke parables are about the gospel of Jesus directing attention to the poor, the outcast, and the lost. The Prodigal Son is a parable found only in Luke, and it appears coupled with two other parables about finding the lost: the lost sheep and the lost coin. In the Prodigal story Luke emphasizes how the love of God restores even the greatest of sinners, like the son who insulted the father and lived a wasteful life. In Luke, God’s love is directed to the outcast, and Luke encourages the followers of Jesus to seek and to save the lost. That is Luke’s great theme; that is, if you like, Luke's “decoder” ring.

Now, let's ask a third question. If parables for Mark are about insider information and for Luke about the restoration of the lost, what is a parable for Jesus? When Jesus told a parable, what was he up to?

In the academic world a distinction is made between an example parable and a challenge parable. For a writer like Luke, a parable is an example. It illustrates the meaning of the gospel. However, many scholars think that the historical Jesus told challenge parables. The intention of Jesus was to challenge common social prejudice of his day with a different vision of the world. The world that unfolds as the "Empire" of human beings is challenged by a vision Jesus holds as the "Empire" of God. The decoder ring Jesus wears in this sense is the Empire of God.

With Luke, the parable of the Prodigal Son is an example that illustrates how the love of God is like an equalizer in our life. It is common in our life to think that people who have success - whether they have achieved wealth or a prestigious position in society - also have the blessing of God. If you are successful, it seems, you must be doing something right and God clearly has blessed you. Even in the Bible, this kind of thinking is expressed. In Proverbs 12:2 we read, “The good obtain favour from God, but those who devise evil are condemned.” But in the parable of the Prodigal Son we are offered another form of thinking, another way to understand the love of God.

It seems with the Prodigal Son, this is what Luke wants us to hear. If we are successful, then in fact we do not really need the blessing of God; it is the poor and the suffering who do. If we are successful and have wealth and comfort, the last thing we should do is despise someone dispossessed who needs this comfort, too. The love of God, in Luke, is an equalizer: it gives where giving is needed, heals where healing is needed, forgives where forgiveness is needed. If we are not in the position of the dispossessed, then the response required from us is not to act like the older brother who has everything and never lost but like the father who also has everything but holds compassion for the one who is lost. If you really know the love of God, I think Luke is saying, you will also be a living example of that love. As Luke says at 19:10, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” 

As admirable as Luke's interpretation might be, it is probably not the direction the historical Jesus was taking with this parable. The second way is to see the parable is as a challenge. This is likely closer to the intention Jesus would have had.

The father in the story is suppose to be the patriarch of the family, and since this is a family during the first century of the Roman Empire, we cannot hold the idea of a good Canadian father. This is a patriarch who holds a position of dignity and respect. Not only that, this patriarch has lots of servants and lots of land; so, this is a wealthy patriarch of an ancient family.

Normally, in the ancient world, such a powerful figure would not have a close relationship to his sons. The patriarch’s job is to engage in the commerce of society, to represent the family in the world, and to guard the honour of the family in relation to their fellow class members. The care and love of children is an inside job fulfilled by the mother at home or, in the case of such a wealthy family, a hired caretaker or maybe even a slave.

The younger son comes to this patriarchal figure and asks for his inheritance even before his father is dead. We who hear this story should likely feel in our throat a “gulp”; I know for sure I would not have the nerve to ask my father in advance for my inheritance. We might also notice the Greek words used in this request that make the picture even more daring. This young son says in Greek, “Father, I want my share of your being; I want your life for me.” If we were to put this in modern English, the son told his father to drop dead. Basically he says, “Be dead to me that I might have my inheritance.” We should not expect the father to give it to him, but the father does. Wow! Our response should be, “What kind of father does that?”

Now, this is a Jewish story, and we learn quickly that the son goes out among gentiles to enjoy the good life as only rich Romans could. Stupidly, spends his last dime before he knows it. As a Jew he ends up with in the worst case scenario: feeding pigs. He decides he would be better off his father's slave and goes home.

Now, we should imagine that his father would be none too pleased, but instead the younger brother can’t even finish his sentence of repentance. He want’s to say that he’d like to be his father’s slave, but his father does not let him say it. Instead, he is feasted in a grand party. He is given sandals, which means exactly that he is not a slave; he is given a ring signaling his household authority; and a fatted cow is slaughtered for him, meaning that his dad is not just having a family meal but in fact has invited the whole village. Remember, there was no refrigeration; once meat is cooked you have to eat it, and there is enough meat for a very large gathering.

Now, enter the older brother. He did not even know a party is going on. He has to ask a slave what’s happening, and his response to his brother is absolutely opposite the father. The father has treated the younger son in a way the older son has never known. And the older son thinks that this younger son, profligate and embarrassing, has ruined the family reputation. It looks like this "younger son" is even going to have his inheritance restored.

Now the punchline of the parable is stated: the father says “my dear child” - as if he were talking to a little boy and not to an older man who has worked “all these years” (the older son is at least middle aged). The father is not offended by the older son any more than he was by the younger one. The father adds, “All that I have is yours.” The parable ends with us, the listener, standing beside the older son and learning that in fact the younger one does not have his inheritance restored. He has nothing. He is our property and our inheritance. Do we see him as our slave or do we see him as our brother?

This second interpretation is not the way Luke read the parable and likely not what Luke was thinking, but it is a way to read the parable. It might be, in the original Jewish context, closer to the way Jesus was telling it. The parable asks us, can you drop the pretense of yourself. Can you set aside your pride, your sense of dignity, and your honour? Can you look at that son or daughter of your mother and father not as their child but as your sibling - your brother or your sister, your equal? Do you need self-recognition first before you are willing to love and forgive. Or can you break down the wall of your own self importance? Can you overcome the greatest stumbling block to love and compassion: your own ego. That could be the challenge of this parable.

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