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The third parable of Luke 15 is a more elaborate treatment of the seeking-of-sinners theme. The parable's popular title "prodigal son" probably puts the focus in the wrong place. Actually the story gives more attention to the father and his reaction than to the son's return. The father's response to the elder son's resentment also shows how central a character he is in the parable. So a better title might be "the parable of the forgiving father" or "the parable of a father's response to his two sons."
The parable is unique to Luke and is almost allegorical. The father pictures God. The prodigal symbolizes the lost, especially the tax collectors and sinners of verse 1. The elder brother represents the self-righteous leadership, the Pharisees and scribes of verse 1 or anyone else who claims to serve God and yet is harsh toward the possibility of forgiveness for sinners. The situation described is not all that unusual, as shown by a short letter from a man named Antonios Longus to his mother, Neilus (Preisigke 1922:72-73): "I am writing to tell you I am naked. I plead with you, forgive me. I know well enough what I have done to myself. I have learned my lesson." These sentiments parallel those of the prodigal on his return. Because of the basic nature of parent-child relationships, as well as sibling rivalry, the story has a human poignancy that makes it one of the most touching of all of Jesus' parables. The major issue is repentance before God and God's willingness to forgive. The parable is Jesus' final defense of the offer of good news in the face of official criticism of his association with sinners.
The parable opens with the younger son's request to have his share of the estate. Since the boy is still single, he is probably in his late teens. The Greek term for the inheritance is suggestive, "the life" (ton bion). He wants his portion of what his father's life will leave him. In a Jewish context the younger brother would receive half of what his elder brother received (Deut 21:17). In Jewish thinking a father should not divide the estate too early. Sirach 33:19-23 begins, "To son or wife, to brother or friend, give no power over yourself while you live; and give not your goods to another so as to ask for them again." Nevertheless, in this parable the father grants the son's request. It pictures God letting a sinner go his own way.
Having divided the living or the property (NIV) between the two sons, the father watches the younger son depart. On his own, the son loses everything in wild living. No other details are given. In fact, the text says he scatters (diaskorpizo) his resources: he squandered his inheritance and throws his money away. Following his financial failure comes natural disaster. Famine strikes the land, and he is in need. Finding a job, he ends up feeding swine, a job of great dishonor for a Jew (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8; Is 65:4; 66:17; 1 Maccabees 1:47; Jeremias 1972:129). Now as a Jew working for a Gentile and caring for swine, he can sink no lower. It is clear that he has taken whatever job he can get.
Though employed, he still suffers. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating. These pods were either sweet beans from a carob or locust tree or else bitter berries. No one has anything to offer him. Even unclean animals are better off than he is. Here is the lostness of the sinner.
The son reflects on his condition and realizes that his father's servants have it far better. Thus the sinner discovers his desperate situation because of sin. To be outside of God's family is to be utterly alone.
The son devises a plan of action. He will confess his sin before his father: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men." This expresses the humility of one who turns to the Father. Sinners have nothing to rely on except the Father's mercy. They recognize that they have failed and can claim no blessing.
So the son comes home. The father's reaction is telling: But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The action breaks all Middle Eastern protocol; no father would greet a rebellious son this way (Jeremias 1972:130). But as is often the case in Jesus' parables, the twist in the story makes the point. Literally, the father drapes himself on his son's neck (v. 20, epepesen epi ton trachelon). He is pleased and thrilled to see his prodigal return.
The son proceeds with his confession, but the father interrupts. The son is satisfied to be a slave, but the father will restore him to full sonship. So the father orders the servants to bring the best robe, a ring for the son's hand and sandals for his feet. A fattened calf is prepared, and a party will be held. Fatted calves were saved for special occasions like the Day of Atonement. This is not just any party; it is a rare and complete celebration. There will be rejoicing for the lost son, now found (vv. 7, 10).
The note of joy about the son's return is crucial in the passage, as is the father's restoration of sonship privileges. The son has come from destitution to complete restoration. That is what God's grace does for a penitent sinner.
The elder son has been laboring in the field, so he has missed all the action. Returning home, he hears the commotion of music and dancing. In fact, the word used for "music" is the Greek term from which we get our word "symphony"; but in ancient Greek symphonia was a broad term for music or singing. There is a real celebration going on. One of the servants explains to the older brother what is taking place. The servant gives an accurate summation: celebration and a fatted calf for a returned brother who is safe and sound.
Enraged, the elder brother does not go in to join the festivities. Here is one of the parable's great ironies, made graphic by Jesus' use of literary space. The brother who had been on the outside is now on the inside, while the brother who had been on the inside is now on the outside. Again Jesus' words echo, "The last has become first, and the first has become last." The repetition of this theme shows how important it is not to be in the wrong place in the line!
The father's compassion does not cease. He comes out to the angry brother and tries to calm him down. The elder brother pleads his faithfulness despite the lack of celebration for him at any time in the past. Not even a "kid" has been butchered for him. (The contrast he draws is as if steak were now served for the returning son while a fast-food meal has never been served for him.) The elder makes a serious complaint—"I am worthy," he pleads; "you are ungrateful. This is unfair!" What parent has not heard such a complaint from one child about another? The elder's problem is his self-righteous, self-directed focus. There is no joy that his brother has come home. The elder is too self-consumed with issues of justice and equity to be caught up in the joy. (The scene recalls the synagogue leader's complaint that someone had been healed on the sabbath.)
Other things are more important to this elder brother than showing forgiveness and compassion. His anger is so great that he refers to his own brother as "this son of yours." He speculates that the brother has wasted his money on harlots. As far as the elder brother is concerned, there is nothing to praise here.
The father has a ready reply aimed toward reconciliation between the brothers. He accepts his elder son and acknowledges that all the father has belongs to him. There is no reason for jealousy. In a sense the elder son has always had access to celebration: the animals are his! But there is one other fact. The father says, "We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." Note the reminder that the returning son is a brother. Justice means that the son should be received back with joy and celebration. The focus should be outward, on the transformation that has occurred. The sinner should be welcomed back into God's family with joy.
The parable has two major points. First, repentance means an absolute reversal of status. The lost son has become a family member again. The father's acceptance of the penitent son is total. This is God's grace. This is why God pursues sinners. Second, others should have joy when the penitent returns. Reconciliation involves not only God and the individual but also the individual and the community.
The story is left hanging. The elder brother is left to contemplate the father's words. We do not know if he comes in to celebrate or not. In literary terms, this is an open ending. What will he do? Jesus' listeners are to contemplate their own response as well. The parable is truly a story of reversal. It is hope of such a reversal that causes Jesus to seek the sinner. The potential of God's grace drives him to love others and actively pursue them.