A couple observations on Luke 15:11-32 (The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother) for discussion:
- The context for the passage is found in 15:1
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
What follows is a set of three parables. What this should tell us is that all three figures will appear in the parables, as parables are designed so that the audience will see themselves in it. When it comes to the parable then we should see it in this way- the prodigal son is the tax collectors and sinners, the eldest son is the religious leaders, and the Father is Jesus.
Knowing these figures becomes important to hearing the parable as a response to 15:1
- There is a natural progression to be found within the parables of 100-10-1, and in each case it is one that is lost. 100 is a common number to indicate fullness or wholeness, but one interesting insight might be found within certain midrash which find a sort of parallel with Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomrroah. One question that surfaces in that story is why Abraham stops at 10. Plenty have weighed in on this question with lots of interesting results. Middleton in his book Abrahams Silence suggests that the one is actually found in the story of the binding of Isaac where Abraham fails to plead for the life of his son over and against a perception about who God must be according to ancient paradigms. Which is to say, God wanted Abraham to push back on a characteristic of God that would have been common in the culture he was called out of. God is in fact demonstrating Himself to be different.
This might or might not be an intentional parallel here where the 10 gets whittled down to 1, but the progression itself does feel intentional and important. Here is something I would wager- in the first two parables Jesus is representing his audience by leading with “Which one of you” and “what woman having ten silver coins”. This implies the religious leaders and would have evoked a tantalizing image regarding their relationship to the “sinners”. If the sheep and coins is Israel in the first parable, then the first two are contrasting this picture of how they might act to “Just so, I tell you”, this is how it is in the Kingdom of God. These first two parables then are the set up for the final one which breaks from the pattern of “which one of you” and switches perspectives from the you to the Father. As in to say, if this is how you would act when it comes to your own, then let’s now place you in this picture as God’s own and see where this places the tax collectors and sinners.
- The true protagonist of the Prodigal story then is not the son but the Father. This story is being told from the Father’s perspective with the point of the passage being about the Father’s action towards. This is about establishing how the Kingdom of God operates.
So what do we see in the Father’s (Jesus’) actions? First, we see faithfulness to the promise in the stories use of OT law codes regarding inheritance. This inheritance is placed in the context of the kingdom and played out in terms of the rights of the younger and older sibling. That this inheritance is given of course sets up the given reality that asking for the inheritance assumes the death of the father or functions as though the father were dead. I don’t think it’s a stretch to find in that an appeal to the coming death of Jesus. I could flesh this out more with appeal to exrernal sources, but if the grace gift of the Father (God) is the work of Jesus (God’s self taken on flesh), then this gift says something about their expectation of the Messiah and the Gift of their renewal in covenantal terms which evoke elsewhere this notion of being ratified upon the death of the faithful one.
Its no small thing then for the parable to assume and even impose from the perspective of the Father that there is no distinguishing between the one (the tax collector and sinner) and the 99. This is how it works in the kingdom of God- all are God’s and God’s view of the one does not change
- Gods view of the one does not change even as the one moves to wander in the symbolic wilderness squandering that which has been given. Again, I see a clever double inference there in saying using this wandering image in a way that would have easily evoked the story of the religious leaders as Israel. This is the same sort of role reversal that we find in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In fact, the image of younger and older here becomes significant in terms of hearing the voice of Judea here, playing the you of the first two parables as a divided Israel awaiting its restoration (the scattered tribes being brought back together) alongside the bringing in of the gentiles that the arrival of the kingdom would usher in.
- It’s clear, as is in the entirety of the Gospels, that Jesus came to a divided Israel calling the religious leaders to repentance and reform in light of what was upon them- the arrival of the messiah and the full restoration. It is because of this that I have become compelled to see that, as the parable goes on, the younger son is being paralleled with the story of Israel all the more, allowing the religious leaders to see themsleves both as the older and younger son, something again that we see in the good Samaritan. This is as much demonstrating Gods heart and kingdom to the religious leaders (Israel) as it is calling them to image this to the world.
From that angle, much has been made of the final phrasing in the passage,
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But 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.” It has been used to justify everything from reformed assurance and repentance salvation often playing the dead to life movement as spiritual death and life. I would challenge some common protestant readings on a couple fronts.
- I think making it about that shifts the focus from the Father to the Son and wrongly shifts the message from being about the Father’s action to being about our action. This overplays the sons repentance and underplays the fathers right to lay claim to the son as His
- I think even if one wants to make a play on the sons movement from death to life as the necessary progression in the story, the most logical inference, especially if you consider that it is telling the story of Israel, is to read death to life as comprehensive realities apart from God and with God. Or even better, apart from Jesus’ work and in light of it. There is nothing in the passage that evokes a spiritual death, and nothing pointing to some sort of action that proclaims such son dead in the Father’s eyes. Rather, the most natural reading is that the death comes from the sons own predication towards living as though the Father is dead. This is a reality he occupies apart from the kingdom, one that can only promise death. It is through repentance, a turning and moving back into the kingdom, something that does not change his status in the Father’s eyes, that life is declared, indicating not that he has earned something by way of his actions but that he is now occupying a new and different reality that is able to declare his true sonship to him.
- personally I’m open to that, but even with that reading I think it overplays the phrasing. I think the most natural reading is simply to appeal to the natural implication- the lost and found language of the previous stories. It is the older son who presumes him dead and gone, and given that in the previous stories it is the religious leaders looking for the lost one, here they are not. The older son operates as though he is dead. The proclamation of the Father is that he has returned and thus the one thought dead is alive, which is what the religious leaders are supposed to hear when it comes to the Father’s heart and the way of the kingdom. The older son says why is he back eating with us. The parable plays that back into Israel’s own wilderness wanderings and covenant failure.