Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
Having spent over 30 years in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus, Kenneth E. Bailey has written an insightful book on Luke 15, using cultural clues from the Arab world in the Middle East to interpret this great chapter. His powerful book, Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (Concordia Publishing House, 1992), is the basis of much of the comments I will make here. (see Inheritance Practices in the First Century Era).
The parable of the Prodigal Son, the subject of this Sunday's lectionary, follows the two parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. This third parable, however, is more than twice the length of the first two combined. Luke provides in verses 1-2 the context in which Jesus tells these parables. The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling because "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." We must keep that context in mind as we look at the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Unlike the first two stories, the parable of the Prodigal Son has two interrelated subplots. It begins with a father and two sons. The audience listening to Jesus would immediately remember from the Old Testament numerous stories of two brothers, the most memorable being the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob, the younger son, receives the blessing through deception and becomes the favored one through whose seed God will accomplish His purposes in the world.
Will this parable of Jesus be another Jacob story? The audience will have to wait and see. But to begin with, the younger son in the parable asks for his share of the inheritance. Since the son is unmarried, he is probably in his early twenties and the father is in the prime of his life. The father listens to the son and grants his wish, dividing his property between the two sons. Even more shocking, the younger son quickly, and perhaps quietly, converts his inheritance into cash and leaves for a far country. Although in Jewish tradition a son was allowed to obtain possession of his inheritance, he had no right to dispose of it as long as the father was alive. In the culture of Jesus' day, which was acutely sensitive about issues of honor and shame, the conduct of this boy would be seen as most reprehensible. In effect he is wishing his father were dead. He has deeply dishonored his father. No wonder he has to leave quickly ("after not many days") and go somewhere far. He cannot continue living in the village where his home was. He has rejected his father, the extended family, and the community that nurtured him.
The father at this point would be expected to give his son a thrashing and put him in his place. But not this father, who of course represents God. This father allows the son to make his decisions and live with the consequences. The outcome will be painful not only for the son but also for the father. God in His love and grace has empowered human beings with freedom of choice even though the results have often been disastrous for humanity and painful for God.
In the far country the son wastes his money. The word prodigal, which means wasteful, comes from the Greek word used here to describe his conduct. The word does not necessarily mean sexual immorality.
Having wasted his possessions, he is in a desperate condition, which is compounded by a famine in the region. But he has not yet exhausted all of his options. He can still perhaps take care of himself. He hires himself out to a citizen of the country who owns a herd of pigs, which means that the man must have been a Gentile, since Jews would not raise pigs. The prodigal son is now so desperate that he would gladly have filled himself up with the carob pods given to the pigs for feed, but "no one was giving him" (my translation). It does not get any worse than this--a Jew tending pigs for a Gentile and longing to eat their feed.
This may be a metaphorical way for Jesus to give a reply to the Pharisees and scribes. They were grumbling that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners and ate with them. Their complaint was that Jesus did not take sin very seriously. By painting such a sordid picture of the prodigal, Jesus is in effect telling the Pharisees that nothing could be further from the truth. Sin has serious consequences and leads to dire circumstances The Pharisees would have been satisfied at this point that Rabbi Jesus was not being irresponsible in his hospitality and openness toward sinners. He took sin seriously. In the parable, Jesus uses metaphor to define sin as a broken relationship with God and alienation from community. Sin is nothing to be trifled with.
The prodigal son now "comes to himself" and devises a new plan. He will go to his father, admit that he has sinned and wronged him, and ask him to make him a hired servant. He knows he cannot go back as a son. But perhaps he can be hired as a wage-earning servant.
Commentators often interpret the prodigal son's coming to himself as repentance, which then leads to forgiveness and acceptance on the part of the father. Is this what the young man does? Or is he devising another plan to get himself out of the mess he got himself into? Could it be that he is saying to himself something like this:
If this is what the prodigal son has in mind, he is wanting to earn his way back to the father by repenting and paying back what he took away from him. Repentance then becomes a condition upon which the father would be obliged to forgive. But in fact the coming to himself and going back to the father and asking to become a hired servant is not repentance in the true sense of the word, but another effort on the part of the son to take care of himself, to feed himself, and to look after number one.
If this is what is going on in the prodigal son's mind, then what happens next in the story takes on a whole different meaning. He sets off and goes to his father. The father sees him coming "while he was still far off," is moved with compassion, runs out to him and puts his arms around him, and kisses him.
As Westerners we cannot really understand what the father has done unless we put ourselves in the context of Eastern culture and way of thinking. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-footed and semi-starved, he would have to get to the family residence by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eye-brows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the town people. So when the son is still far off, before he has entered the outskirts of the village, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him.
Again, we must pause here a moment and understand what the father has done. He has paid a great price. The father is a wealthy man. He has land and servants. He is a respected citizen of the village. In Eastern culture what he has done is not what a respected man would do. First, a man does not run in public. Men, as well as women, wore long tunics that came down to their feet. So to run in public, he would have had to raise his tunic and expose his legs, which would be culturally shameful. Even in Western culture, men dressed in a three-piece suit ordinarily do not run in public. President Clinton may be seen on television jogging in his shorts, but we never see him running when he is in his suit. The father set aside his dignity by running to his son.
Secondly, he fell on his neck and kissed him. The expected thing for a dignified patriarch is to wait in his house in grim silence and let the young man be brought before him. Let the boy fall down on his face before his father and grovel in the dust. The father may then reluctantly accept his apologies and put him on probation. This father does not do any of that. Instead, he not only runs to his son but also falls on his neck and kisses him. Now, it may be all right in eastern culture for a mother to do such a thing, but not a father.
The father had long ago made up his mind what he would do if the son ever showed up on the outskirts of the village. He knew how the village people would respond if the boy made his way back home through the streets of the village alone. The only one who could spare him such indignity and rejection would be the father himself, and only if he put his own dignity and honor on the line. While everyone in the streets and shops watched, this father ran to meet his son before the son ever entered the village.
In the Middle Ages there was a debate between Christians and Muslims about the story of the Prodigal Son. Muslims contended that here was proof that salvation was possible without a cross and without vicarious suffering. The son comes back, and the father, who represents God, receives him back. Christians contended that the story is not without a suffering servant. The father himself suffers shame and humiliation to open a way for the son to come back home. As Jesus told this story to the Pharisees and scribes, he was saying that like the father in the story, he was, at a great cost to himself, opening a way for tax collectors and sinners to come back home. He as a suffering servant was taking upon himself the indignities and accusations of Pharisees and scribes to offer sinners a chance to return home.
The prodigal son starts giving his prepared speech. However, in response to the father's loving gesture, he must now revise what he had originally intended to say. He omits the last line--"make me as one of your hired servants" (my translation). The reason for the omission is not difficult to see. It is not that the father interrupted his speech, but rather that the son realized that there was no longer any need for it. The father had already forgiven him and was receiving him back as a son. Overwhelmed by such demonstration of suffering love, the son can only say, "I am no longer worthy to be called your son," with no further thought of having to earn his way back by becoming a hired servant.
The father orders his slaves standing around to hurry and bring the very best robe--probably the father's very own ceremonial robe that he wore to celebrations in the village--and the family signet ring to put on his finger, and sandals to put on his feet. The son will walk home through the village streets under the auspices of the father's own honor. Only in this way can the father, the injured party, convince the villagers to receive his son back into the community.
The father then tells the slaves to slaughter the fatted calf and prepare for a massive celebration. There would have to be two hundred guests from the village at the dinner party to consume that much meat. The father then gives the reason for such celebration: "this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" This son was dead and lost long before he left for the far country. The very fact that the son had the audacity even to ask for his share of the inheritance indicates that his relation with the family was not all that great even before he left home. But now the dead has been raised, the lost has been found. The miracle occurs on the outskirts of the village when the father runs out to the son, puts his arms around him and kisses him.
The celebration and the rejoicing is more for the sake of the father than in honor of the son. The son will be there, of course. The town people will be cordial to him for the sake of the father. But it is the father who is really celebrating and invites the town people to share his joy. The focus will not be on the son but on the father. Perhaps there are profound implications here for a proper understanding of Christian worship. The focus of worship should not be the worshiper but the One worshipped.
As the party is under way, the older son is on his way home from the field. As he gets closer to the house he hears the music and dancing. Jewish and Middle Eastern music and dancing can be quite loud and robust! The father has hired musicians and dancers for some great celebration, the older son thinks. What could be the occasion? Why was he not informed? He pulls aside one of the boys standing around and asks him what is going on. The boy says, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound." Two words in this statement need to be noted. First, the verb, "he has got him back," is significant. The father did not passively receive his son, but rather very intentionally and actively and at a great cost to himself he set out to find his son on the outskirts of the village while he was still far off. The father is much like the shepherd in the first parable of Luke 15 who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes out looking for the one that was lost, or like the woman in the second parable who lights a lamp and sweeps the whole house looking for the lost coin.
The second word that is noteworthy is "safe and sound." The meaning of the Greek word is to be healthy, to be sound. But it is also the word that the Septuagint uses to translate the Hebrew word shalom, peace, which is much more than physical health. The lad that gave the report to the older son truly caught the significance of what was happening. The father has restored peace where before there was discord.
However, the father's work is by no means finished. The older son is angry and refuses to join the party. The father must deal with another crisis. The expected thing for the father to do is to order the slaves to overpower the son, take him into the house and lock him up in a room until after the celebration when the father would take his cane and give him several lashes. No such thing happens. Instead, he runs out to the older son. The music stops. The dancers are still. Everyone is looking to see how this drama will unfold. The father has been humiliated again, this time publicly, in the presence of all the guests.
The father pleads with the older son. The son is extremely rude to his father. A respectful son would begin a speech to his father by addressing him with the honorific title Father. Instead, this son begins his speech with a Greek word that is often translated "Behold!" The NRSV has correctly caught the mood of the son by translating the word as "Listen!" It cannot get much ruder than this. The son blurts out his rage with these bitter words:
Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!
Several additional points must be noted in the older son's speech. First, he sees himself as a slave working for the father rather than a son who is taking care of his own property. Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, who in their legalism made themselves slaves of the law rather than sons of God.
Secondly, the older son accuses the father that he has not given him even a young goat. He does not realize that he will actually own everything. Or perhaps he does realize it and therefore is angry that the father has gone overboard with the entertainment budget for this good-for-nothing son of his, thus diminishing his own inheritance.
Third, he wants a goat that he can slaughter and have a party with his own friends. He makes it clear that he will have nothing to do with these people in the house. They are not his friends. If he ever had a party, it would be somewhere else with his own friends.
Fourth, he refers to his brother as "this son of yours." He cannot refer to him as "my brother." In much the same way when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and then asks the lawyer which of the three proved to be a neighbor to the one who fell in the hands of robbers, the lawyer cannot bring himself to say "the Samaritan." Instead he says, "The one who showed him mercy."
Fifth, he accuses his brother of devouring the father's property with prostitutes. There was no mention of anything of this sort in the description of the prodigal son in the far country in verse 13. The older son makes up this charge against his brother to make him look even worse than he actually was.
The older son is alienated from his father, his brother, and the rest of the people at the house. Now the father must get him back as he did the younger son. The older son is just as sinful as the younger son and just as alienated from his father and family, even though he has stayed home and tended the farm. In this story there are two types of sons who are lost: the one who leaves home and the one who stays home. Both need to be found. The father sets out to find both.
The father addresses the older son with the endearing term, "Child." His words to him are full of tenderness and compassion:
Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was necessary to celebrate and rejoice, because this your brother was dead and has come to life, and was lost and has been found (author's translation).
If the older son had any fears that the father was going to give part of his inheritance to his brother, he can lay those fears to rest. "All that is mine is yours." The openness of Jesus toward tax collectors and sinners is not intended as rejection of Pharisees and scribes. The latter are represented by the older son. They stayed home and tended the farm. They kept the commandments. They have been responsible. One is reminded of Paul's words about the role of the Jewish people in relation to the Gentile mission: "They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah..." (Romans 9:4-5). A little later he asks rhetorically whether God rejected his people, and his answer is a firm "By no means!" (Romans 11:1).
Most English translations use the first person plural pronoun "we" to translate the first part of verse 32--"we had to celebrate." If the "we" is intended to include the older son, well and good. But if not, one must be reminded that the Greek uses an infinitive without a subject--"it was necessary to celebrate." This means that it is necessary for the older son to celebrate along with everyone else. Far from being fearful and envious, he should join the party and celebrate that his brother has come to life and has been found. Instead of grumbling, the Pharisees and scribes should have celebrated and rejoiced that tax collectors and sinners were being found by Jesus.
The parable stops at this point without a conclusion. It is open-ended. We do not know whether the older son will go in. Jesus would have liked to see a conclusion in which the older son would hug his father, go into the house, warmly embrace his brother, kiss him, and weep on his neck. The music and dance would resume with greater intensity. The slaves would then bring in the cooked calf and all the trimmings and all would dine in great joy and laughter. Will it happen?
The fact that Jesus leaves the parable open-ended means that he is making an appeal to Pharisees and scribes to respond to his message and welcome tax collectors and sinners into the kingdom of God. Perhaps in the later setting of Luke, the appeal is to Jewish Christians to welcome Gentile believers into the church without having them observe circumcision and all the other Jewish rituals (Acts 15).
The parable of the Prodigal Son presents an excellent opportunity to do narrative preaching that can be developed along the lines of the story without focusing on any single theme. On the other hand, it is possible to focus more narrowly on one or more of the following theological points that the parable clearly makes.
Since the parable ends without a conclusion, it seems that the thrust of the message is directed toward those who fall under the category of the older son. The difficulty with that is that most people in the church who listen to this parable readily identify themselves with the prodigal son: I was lost in sin, but I came back to God and He took me in.
It would take more effort to preach the parable in such a way that the audience is persuaded to identify with the older son. Most of us in the church are like the older son who stayed home. We have kept the commandments, we have done the right thing, we have walked in the narrow way, we have obeyed the rules. Our sin is not that we have gone to the far country. We have not lived in the fast lane. We have not wasted our life and resources. We are the "good" folk. We are righteous. The danger for us is the older son syndrome. We are more like the Pharisees and scribes who were critical of Jesus for his free association with tax collectors and sinners. What would we think if Jesus lived today and, for example, freely associated with the gay community to offer them the love and grace of God?
The parable presents theological reflection on the nature of sin and salvation. We find two types of sin in the parable. One is the sin of the law-breaker and the other is the sin of the law-keeper. But in either case, sin is a broken relationship. Sin is not defined in legal terms but in relational terms. It is not a matter of keeping or not keeping the rules but a matter of failing to maintain an open and loving relationship with God, community, family and neighbor. Likewise a saving relationship with God is not one of servant before a master but one of son or daughter before a loving Father. Preaching from this parable offers an excellent opportunity to clarify the nature of sin and salvation in relational terms, which, incidentally, is the heart of John Wesley's theology. The essence of holiness is loving God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving one's neighbor as oneself, which is what Jesus said in summarizing the Old Testament commandments.
Another approach or focus might be the issue of human freedom and divine grace. God grants humankind ultimate freedom to accept or reject His love. Human beings are free to choose their own way even if it causes unspeakable pain to God. On the other hand, the human decision to respond to God in repentance, faith and love is not a human achievement. Such freedom to respond to God is possible because of God's prevenient grace which is at work in every human heart. By the same token, repentance is not a human maneuver to earn the favor of God, as the younger son thought. It is rather grateful and loving response to the costly gift of grace freely offered by God. Here we find the finest portrait of God as a compassionate Father in all of Scripture.
Perhaps it would be well to emphasize during this Lenten season that at the heart of this parable is a theology of atonement, the suffering and costly love of God. There is no cheap grace here. The prodigal son comes home not by himself but in the company of a compassionate father who runs out to him, kisses him, dresses him and walks with him through the village in view of everyone. The father takes upon himself all the humiliation and pain by walking alongside a son who has deeply wounded him. The older son has likewise wounded the father, albeit in a different way, and he too is the object of costly grace. The father suffers in humiliation and hurt to win him back to himself and others. In this portrayal of the father, Jesus has exhibited his own mission as a suffering servant who at a great cost to himself opens the way not only for the prodigals of the world but also for the Pharisees and scribes of the world. Herein lies a compelling portrait of the atonement: God suffers dearly for the sake of winning back a creation that has gone its own way.
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