Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 11“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Translation: But all the tax collectors and sinners were approaching him to hear him. And the pharisees and the scribes were murmuring, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats together with them." But he spoke to them this parable, saying:
A certain man had two sons, and the younger of them said to the father, "Father, give me the portion of goods that falls (to me)." And he divided to them the means of living. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together and went into a far country, and there he squandered his goods, living in riotous excess. And when he had spent everything, a powerful famine happened throughout that country and he began to be in need. And he went (and) joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to fill his belly with the carob-pods that the pigs were eating, and no one was giving to him. But when he came into himself, he was saying, "How many of my father's hired hands are abounding (in) bread, but I perish here from famine. I arose (and) and will go to my father and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned into heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Do me just as one of your hired hands.'" And he rose (and) went to his father.
But when he was yet far off, his father saw him. He was moved with compassion, and he ran--he fell on his neck, and he kissed him. But the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned into heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his slaves, "Bring forth the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fatted calf, kill (it), and let us eat (and) be merry, for this son of mine was dead and he lives again. He was lost and is found." And they began to be merry.
But his elder son was in the field, and as he came, he drew near the house. He heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants (and) was asking What is this? And he said to him, "Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he received him healthy." But he was angry and was not wanting to go in. But his father came out (and) was begging him. But he answered (and) said to his father, "Behold, these many years do I slave for you, and never passed over your command, and you never gave me a little goat so that I might eat with my friends, but when this son of yours came, the one devouring your means of living with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
And he said to him, "Child, you are always with me and all that I have are yours, but it is necessary to rejoice and to cheer for this your brother was dead and he lived, and lost and he was found."
Background and situation: The story of the prodigal son is the climax of the famed "party chapter" in Luke (15). The stage is set in the opening verses when "all" the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus, which raised the eyebrows, and the ire, of the pharisees and scribes.
Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, the pharisees and scribes "murmur"--they grumble--because not only does Jesus meet with these reprobates, he eats dinner with them too. A big chunk of the law had to do with who you could eat with, and under what circumstances. Tax collectors and sinners did not qualify.
Then follows three parables--the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son. In all three, something (or someone) is lost and then found, which triggers a celebration. The parable of the prodigal son is by far the lengthiest and most polished of the three, replete with finely crafted human characters and extended dialog.
Parable of the Prodigal Son: "A certain man had two sons," it begins. The younger son comes to the father and wants his inheritance. This is a startling breach of social custom. In the first place, it is not the younger son's place to pipe up first. Secondly, this effrontery is exceeded by the content of the younger son's request, which boils down to, "Give me the money." It is highly unusual for disposition of property to take place before someone's death, then for sure, and even to this day. In effect, the younger son is asking his father to drop dead.
Surprisingly, the father actually does it. He "divided to them the means of living." The phrase is dielen autois ton bion--literally: "he divided to them the life." In other words, the father metaphorically drops dead. Not only did the younger son get his share of his father's life, but the older son received his (larger) share of the inheritance as well.
The younger son "gathered all"--Schweizer notes that the word may mean "converted into cash"--and went into a "far country," i.e. outside the region of Jewish presence and influence. There, he "squandered his goods, living in riotous excess." (Dieskorpisen means "scattering throughout"--"throwing money every which way" would be another way to put it. Asotos means "dissolute living.")
Robert Capon notes that, as the father had given his life (ton bion), the younger son squandered "his substance" (ten ousian). He writes: "What the father gave away and what the son wasted was not just some stuff that belonged to them; it was their whole existence, their very being, their lives." (Parables of Grace, p. 138.)
Nothing is said of morality at this point, though the older son will try to take it in that direction toward the end of the story. The younger son was not bad, but stupid. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said of the Vietnam War, "It is worse than immoral. It's a mistake."
The younger son might have been able to get by with making this colossal mistake had not an economic depression occurred. A "powerful famine" afflicted the country and the young man began to be in want. He "joined himself" to one of the citizens of that "far country" and wound up taking care of pigs, another indication that he is outside the realm of Judaism.
He got hungry enough that he was willing to eat the pigs' food--carob pods, sometimes eaten by humans, but no one's first culinary choice--but "no one was giving to him." The younger son is isolated and alone in a pagan land. Joel Green notes that giving to the poor was generally not observed among the Greeks and Romans. To paraphrase Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the hungry younger son may well have thought, "Toto, I don't think we're in Israel any more."
The younger son is said to have "come into himself"--eis eauton de elthon. "Came to his senses" would be another way of putting it. Some regard this as a point of repentance, but there is no direct assertion that such is the case. The younger son thinks aloud:
"How many of my father's hired hands are abounding (in) bread, but I perish here from famine. I arose (and) and will go to my father and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned into heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Do me just as one of your hired hands."
He first notes that, as a matter of sheer practicality, his father's hired hands eat and he doesn't. If he could work his way back in his father's graces, he might be able to get something to eat as well. In order to do that, he concocts his spiel. He will proclaim his own sinfulness, abjectly humble himself, and, hoping that works to soften the old man up, make a pitch for a job.
"But when he was yet far off, his father saw him. He was moved with compassion, and he ran, he fell on his neck, and he kissed him." The father is portrayed as scanning the horizon, waiting and watching eagerly for some sign of his son's return. When the father sees his son approaching, then follows what Tannehill calls "a rush of verbs." The father is "moved with compassion" (esplagxnisthe), then runs (dramone), then fell on his son's neck (epepesen), then kissed him (katephilesen).
Many have noted that, for a paterfamilias, running was considered gauche and graceless in the first century middle-eastern world. Out of compassion, the father surrenders his dignity, forgives, and lavishes his younger son with expressions of acceptance and love.
The younger son launches into his speech, but only gets part of it out before the father interrupts. The father is not particularly interested in hearing his son's rationale. All the father cares about is that his son is home, and this calls for celebration.
The father calls for the "best robe" to be put on his son--the best robe would be his own--as well as rings and shoes, followed by a great banquet in his son's honor. The entire village would be invited to the soiree. The father--very loudly and very publicly--is letting everyone know that his son has been restored to the family.
The father explains the true reason for the party, and speaks the blunt truth: his son was dead and lives again; he was lost and is found. The younger son had thrown away his substance (ten ousian) and was truly dead. He tried to re-invent himself as a hired hand, but, in truth, he was a dead son. Moreover, he was lost in a far country. There are, however, worse things in Luke's gospel than being "lost." In fact, "lost" is a good thing, because Jesus "came to seek and save the lost" (19:10).
Meanwhile, the older son was out in the fields. He was working dutifully, and, returning to the house, hears music and dancing. He inquires from one of the servants as to what is going on, and is told that "your brother" has come home and "your father" has thrown a party.
A party? The older brother didn't seem to object to his younger brother returning home. As far as he's concerned, his dumb younger brother should never have left in the first place. What bothers the older brother is that party. It makes him mad. As the younger son had separated himself from the family, now the older son does as well. "He was angry and was not wanting to go in."
Two powerful emotions have now been expressed in this story--first the father's compassion, and now the older son's anger and righteous indignation. His anger separates himself from the family and humiliates his father. It would have been unthinkable in first century middle-eastern society for a son to refuse attendance at a party thrown by his father.
In fact, the oldest son would typically serve as formal host for such a party. Yet, in this case, the party has already begun when the older brother returns from work. If the older son had complained that he had not been included in the planning or execution of the party, he might have had a legitimate gripe.
The father's compassion again comes to the fore. As he had abased himself by running to his younger son, he abases himself again when he "came out" to speak with his older son and was begging (parakaleo) him to join the party. (The verb is imperfect, meaning that the father, humiliating himself further, was continually begging his oldest son.)
Like the younger son, the older one gets his own speech. He touches every hot button he can. He reminds his father of his faithful service and his dutiful response to every one of his father's commands--(except the one to join the party, of course, which makes the speech ring a little hollow). In a twist, the older son says he's been a "slave" (douleuo) to his father, which is even lower than the status of "hired hand" to which the younger brother had aspired.
The older brother goes on to whine that he's never even been given "a little goat" so that he might have a small party with his friends, yet here his wayward younger brother has a huge party thrown for him, one to which the entire town was invited.
Moreover, the older son identifies his younger brother as not as brother, but as "this son of yours" who took the father's living (ton bion) and spent it all on prostitutes. The story, of course, had said nothing about prostitutes to this point. The younger son spent his money riotously, but not necessarily on prostitutes. The older brother appears to have tapped into his own fantasy life.
The father replies by addressing his older son as "child" (teknon) and asserting and re-affirming their close relationship. He then tells him that "it is necessary to rejoice and to cheer"--(edei, the same word used to assert the necessity of Jesus' going to Jerusalem). The father then reasserts the older brother's familial relationship with his younger brother--"this your brother"--and again uses words of resurrection and reconciliation.
The story has some interesting psychodynamics. It is not unusual for younger children to have a difficult time finding their place in the family. The first-born typically occupies a preeminent position. Younger offspring are often left trying to find a specific niche--athletics, art, music, etc.--from which they can assert themselves, or, lacking that, they may act out in order to get attention. (So-called "black sheep" are made from family dynamics. Families create them.)
In a Freudian sense, the younger brother kills the father. He attempts to find a new father by "joining himself" to a citizen in another country. This new father, however, turns out to be harsh and has no regard for him. The older brother seems to identify with the father, but he identifies with the father as he imagines him to be--just and fair--rather than the person he really is--compassionate and merciful.
Tannehill notes that there are two ways to look at the story. One is the dutiful son versus the irresponsible son. Indeed, that is how the older son sees it. Another way is the contrast between the father and the oldest son in regard to the younger son. The father responds to the younger son with complete disregard for his own perogatives and dignity. The older son, however, asserts his perogatives, or, at least, bemoans their apparent lack--not even a "small goat"!
The younger son represents the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. The older son represents the scribes and pharisees who "murmur" about the seedy crowd hanging out with Jesus. Between them is the Father--a Father who forgets his dignity, sets aside his power, and reaches out with compassion and love to both his children.
Image: The figurative painting, “The Prodigal Son works the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous,” is acrylic on canvas, 24x48. This painting is a modernization of the moment the prodigal steps out of the bar and realizes that he now is powerless over his flesh. The piece was originally a part of the collection of Jerry Evenrud now housed at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Image: Eduard Riojas, The Prodigal Son