The Father and the Younger Son
11Jesus went on:
‘Once there was a man who had two sons. 12The younger son said to the father, “Father, give me my share in the property .” So he divided up his livelihood between them. 13Not many days later the younger son turned his share into cash, and set off for a country far away, where he spent his share in having a riotous good time. 15‘When he had spent it all, a severe famine came on that country, and he found himself destitute. 15So he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into the fields to feed his pigs. 16He longed to satisfy his hunger with the pods that the pigs were eating, and nobody gave him anything. 17‘He came to his senses. “Just think!” he said to himself. “There are all my father’s hired hands with plenty to eat – and here am I, starving to death! 18I shall get up and go to my father, and I’ll say to him: ‘Father; I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.’” 20And he got up and went to his father. ‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and his heart was stirred with love and pity. 21He ran to him, hugged him tight, and kissed him. “Father,” the son began, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer.” 22But the father said to his servants, “Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet! 23And bring the calf that we’ve fattened up, kill it, and let’s eat and have a party! 24This son of mine was dead, and is alive again! He was lost, and now he’s found!” And they began to celebrate.’
We might think that the parable of the prodigal son, as it’s usually known, hardly needs an introduction. It has inspired artists and writers down the years. Rembrandt’s famous painting, with the younger son on his knees before the loving and welcoming father, has become for many almost as much of an inspiration as the story itself. Phrases from the story – the ‘fatted calf’, for instance, in the King James version of the Bible – have become almost proverbial. And yet. People often assume that the story is simply about the wonderful love and forgiving grace of God, ready to welcome back sinners at the first sign of repentance. That is indeed its greatest theme, which is to be enjoyed and celebrated. But the story itself goes deeper than we often assume. Let’s be sure we’ve understood how families like this worked. When the father divided the property between the two sons, and the younger son turned his share into cash, this must have meant that the land the father owned had been split into two, with the younger boy selling off his share to someone else. The shame that this would bring on the family would be added to the shame the son had already brought on the father by asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead’. The father bears these two blows without recrimination.
To this day, there are people in traditional cultures, like that of Jesus’ day, who find the story at this point quite incredible. Fathers just don’t behave like that; he should (they think) have beaten him, or thrown him out. There is a depth of mystery already built in to the story before the son even leaves home. Again, in modern Western culture children routinely leave homes in the country to pursue their future and their fortune in big cities, or even abroad; but in Jesus’ culture this would likewise be seen as shameful, with the younger son abandoning his obligation to care for his father in his old age. When the son reaches the foreign country, runs through the money, and finds himself in trouble, his degradation reaches a further low point. For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs is bad enough; for him to be feeding them, and hungry enough to share their food, is worse. But of course the most remarkable character in the story is the father himself. One might even call this ‘the parable of the Running Father’: in a culture where senior figures are far too dignified to run anywhere, this man takes to his heels as soon as he sees his young son dragging himself home. His lavish welcome is of course the point of the story: Jesus is explaining why there is a party, why it’s something to celebrate when people turn from going their own way and begin to go God’s way. Because the young man’s degradation is more or less complete, there can be no question of anything in him commending him to his father, or to any other onlookers; but the father’s closing line says it all. ‘This my son was dead and is alive; he was lost and now is found.’
How could this not be a cause of celebration? Inside this story there is another dimension which we shouldn’t miss. One of the great stories of Israel’s past was of course the Exodus, when Israel was brought out of Egypt and came home to the promised land. Many years later, after long rebellion, Israel was sent into exile in Babylon ; and, though many of the exiles returned, most of Jesus’ contemporaries reckoned that they were still living in virtual exile, in evil and dark days, with pagans ruling over them. They were still waiting for God to produce a new Exodus, a liberation which would bring them out of their spiritual and social exile and restore their fortunes once and for all. For Jesus to tell a story about a wicked son, lost in a foreign land, who was welcomed back with a lavish party – this was bound to be heard as a reference to the hope of Israel. ‘This my son was dead, and is alive’; ever since Ezekiel 37 the idea of resurrection had been used as picture-language for the true return from exile. Yes, says Jesus, and it’s happening right here. When people repent and turn back to God – which, as we’ve seen, meant for Jesus that they responded positively to his gospel message – then and there the ‘return from exile’ is happening, whether or not it looks like what people expected.
His answer to the Pharisees and other critics is simple: if God is fulfilling his promises before your very eyes, you can’t object if I throw a party to celebrate. It’s only right and proper. There is a danger in splitting the story into two, as we’ve done. The second half is vital, and closely interwoven with the first. But in this first section the emphasis is on the father’s costly love. From the moment he generously gives the younger son what he wanted, through to the wonderful homecoming welcome, we have as vivid a picture as anywhere in Jesus’ teaching of what God’s love is like, and of what Jesus himself took as the model for his own ministry of welcome to the outcast and the sinner.
LUKE 15.25– 32 The Parable of the Prodigal: The Father and the Older Son
25‘The older son was out in the fields. When he came home, and got near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27‘“Your brother’s come home!” he said. “And your father has thrown a great party – he’s killed the fattened calf! – because he’s got him back safe and well!” 28‘He flew into a rage, and wouldn’t go in. ‘Then his father came out and pleaded with him. 29“Look here!” he said to his father, “I’ve been slaving for you all these years! I’ve never disobeyed a single commandment of yours. And you never even gave me a young goat so I could have a party with my friends. 30But when this son of yours comes home, once he’s finished gobbling up your livelihood with his whores, you kill the fattened calf for him!” 31‘“My son,” he replied, “you’re always with me. Everything I have belongs to you. 32But we had to celebrate and be happy! This brother of yours was dead and is alive again! He was lost, and now he’s found!”’
A vivid phrase from a schoolboy poem, written by a classmate of mine over thirty years ago, remains with me to this day. He described a park-keeper whose job was to pick up litter on a spiked pole. Surrounded by the glorious beauty of flowers and trees, with the sun sparkling through the leaves, he only had eyes for the garbage he had to collect, and the damage it did. The lines I remember sum up his plight: ‘Destroys the nature in this park, litter,’ he said, without Lifting his head. He could only see the bad, and was blind to the beauty. That sums up the older brother in the story. And it’s the older brother who provides the real punch-line of the parable. This is Jesus ’ response to his critics. They were so focused on the wickedness of the tax-collectors and sinners, and of Jesus himself for daring to eat with them despite claiming to be a prophet of God’s kingdom, that they couldn’t see the sunlight sparkling through the fresh spring leaves of God’s love. Here were all these people being changed, being healed, having their lives transformed physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually; and the grumblers could only see litter, the human garbage that they normally despised and avoided. The portrait of the older brother is brilliantly drawn, with tell-tale little shifts of phrase and meaning. ‘Your brother’, says the servant, ‘has come home’; but he won’t think of him like this. ‘This son of yours,’ he says angrily to his father. ‘This your brother,’ says the father, reminding him gently of the truth of the matter. ‘I’ve been slaving for you,’ he says to his father , whereas in fact they had been working as partners, since the father had already divided his assets between them (verse 12).
Everything the father has belongs to him, since the younger brother has spent his share; and that, presumably, is part of the problem, since the older brother sees all too clearly that anything now spent on his brother will be coming out of his own inheritance. The phrase which ties the story to Jesus’ opponents comes out tellingly: ‘I’ve never disobeyed a single command of yours.’ That was the Pharisees’ boast (compare Philippians 3.6); but the moral superiority which it appears to give melts like snow before the sunshine of God’s love. Where resurrection is occurring – where new life is bursting out all around – it is not only appropriate, it is necessary to celebrate (verse 32). Not to do so is to fail to meet generosity with gratitude. It is to pretend that God has not after all been at work. It is to look only at the garbage and to refuse to smell the flowers. In terms of what God was doing in Israel through Jesus, we can see once more that the new kingdom work which was going forward was indeed like a return from exile. Sinners and outcasts were finding themselves welcomed into fellowship with Jesus, and so with God, in a way they would have thought impossible. But whenever a work of God goes powerfully forwards, there is always someone muttering in the background that things aren’t that easy, that God’s got no right to be generous, that people who’ve done nothing wrong are being overlooked. That happened at the time when the exiles returned from Babylon; several people, not least the Samaritans, didn’t want them back. This story reveals above all the sheer self-centredness of the grumbler. The older brother shows, in his bad temper, that he has had no more real respect for his father than his brother had had. He lectures him in front of his guests, and refuses his plea to come in. Once more the father is generous, this time to his self-righteous older son. At this point we sense that Jesus is not content simply to tell the grumblers that they’re out of line; he, too, wants to reason with the Pharisees and the lawyers, to point out that, though God’s generosity is indeed reaching out to people they didn’t expect, this doesn’t mean there isn’t any left for them. If they insist on staying out of the party because it isn’t the sort of thing they like, that’s up to them; but it won’t be because God doesn’t love them as well. This parable, like some of the others, points, for Luke, beyond the immediate situation of Jesus’ ministry and into the early church. There, Gentiles were coming into the church, and Jews and Jewish Christians often found it very difficult to celebrate the fact. Equally, as Paul realized when writing Romans, it was vital that the new communities never gave the impression to their older brother that God had finished with him. Somehow the balance must be kept. The story is, of course, unfinished. We naturally want to know what happened next. How will the younger brother behave from now on? What arrangements will they make? Will the two sons be reconciled? Sometimes when a storyteller leaves us on the edge of our seats like this it’s because we are supposed to think it through, to ask ourselves where we fit within the story, and to learn more about ourselves and our churches as a result. Which role in the story do you and your church find comes most naturally to you? How can we move towards becoming people through whom ‘resurrection’ happens to others? How can we celebrate the party of God’s love in such a way as to welcome not only the younger brothers who have come back from the dead, but also the older brothers who thought there was nothing wrong with them?
Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Luke for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) SPCK. Kindle Edition.