Reflection on The Prodigal Son


I. Terms

A. Stage setting– 1. tax-agents and sinners: these are the ones who are listening (14:35) this is a sign of conversion; these outcasts are becoming the restored people 2. Pharisees and scribes: these grumble against those who listen; deep grudge against Jesus; diagongukzo (19:7) suggests a public remonstrance like wilderness generation 3. righteous people who do not need repentance: Jesus mission call sinners (5:3); note of repentance distinctive to Luke.

B. Parable Proper– 1. lived without control: in a way that led to his improvishment; carelessness; does not however suggest sexual excess in contrast with elder brother’s interpretation 2. to tend the pigs: Gadarene demoniac (8:32); herd of pigs unclean; tend pigs of Gentile is about as alienated as a Jew could be 3. against heaven and before you: heaven refers to God; repentance from sin which was the moral attached to the first two parables is now thematic; relationship with God and among people interconnected; son does not specify the nature of his sin; elder brother does so eagerly 4. [Father}] treat me as one of your workers: Torah required wages for workers but no personal relationship; however, in his greeting the son uses Father which evokes a quite different sort of response 5. moved with compassion: same verb in 7:13 and in good Samaritan 10:33; splagnizomai; the embrace literally “fell on his neck” Gen 45:14-15; Joseph and Benjamin; Gen 46:29 Jacob and father 6. comforted him: parakaleo has many meanings: exhort; plead, comfort; use of comfort emphasizes the emotional note already struck by “felt compassion” 7. look, I am slaving for you: present tense the son still feels bound; douleuo reveals great bitterness; the elder son feels lower than the hired hands; he feels like a slave 8. never ignored your rules: literally entolai, commands; implicit allegory elder son like righteous Jews 9. gave me a goat: in contrast to the fatted calf; a kid, eriphos, more common and cheaper, note the tone of bitterness here; also celebrate with friends not with his father; the elder son is alienated even though he never left home 10. devoured his livelihood with whores: remarkable imagination of elder brother; supplies lurid version; echo of charge made against Jesus; he too consorted with such as these (7:34;39) 11. everything that is mine is yours: father calls elder son here a friend; foreign to rabbinical tradition. 12. it was necessary: liberate daughter of Abraham bound by Satan 13:16; human need creates obligation more serious than law. (Johnson, 235-239)

II. Social-cultural differences

A. Sibling Relationship in Israelite Tradition– 1. Parable introduction names siblings sons not brothers; focus on relationship with father and leaves relationship to each other to be sorted out. 2. Younger Son Favored a. Cain and Abel; Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and brothers. b. “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals” (Mal 1:2-3) 3. Jesus does not introduce this parable with the frequently used question: “And which man or father among you?” 4. Audience identifies with younger son not father.

B. Share of the Estate– 1. Laws regarding such transactions not entirely clear but the younger son’s request was irregular and disrespectful. 2. He broke family ties and treated his father as though he were already dead. 3. Although the son converts his share into cash the father retains usufruct, benefits of the land though not ownership; new owner could not claim till his death. 4. The father retains ability to dispose of his ring, robe, shoes and fatted calf. 5. The elder brother received a double portion of the inheritance (Dt 21:17) (NIB)

III. Structural Context

A. God’s Mercy for Sinners– 1. Addressed to the opponents of the Good News: Sitz im Leben: defense and vindication of the gospel in three ways: a. In a series of parables Jesus directs the attention of his critics to the poor +”It is the sick who need a physician”(Mk 2:17) +”Publicans and harlots shall enter the K of G rather than you.”(Mt 21:28-31) b. Not only to the poor does Jesus direct the attention of the critics of the GN, but to themselves +the wicked tenant farmers in Mk 12:1-9 +the respectable guests who rudely decline Mt 22:1-10 c. In The Loving Father we can identify the third line of attack, by far the most decisive, with which Jesus vindicates the proclamation of the GN to the despised and outcast: “Jesus thus claims that in his actions the love of God to the repentant sinner is made effectual.” (Jeremias, 132)

B. Three Parables of Joy– 1. Narrative setting: entire Lk 15 is in response to criticism by Pharisees and scribes that he “receives sinners and eats with them.” 2. Finding the Sheep and Finding the Coin a. Love for the lost sheep is so strong that the 99 are left in the wilderness while the search is on. b. The woman’s 10 silver coins represented about 10 days’ wages and many months of saving. c. The joy of finding cannot be contained; a party is appropriate; even Jesus’ critics are invited to celebrate with heaven. 3. The Loving Father Structure does not have two conclusions, rather, it has one conclusion repeated. God is a both/and not an either/or God; to embrace sinners is not to reject Pharisees. Forgiveness appears to critics very much like condoning. (HBC)

IV. Rhetorical

A. “The parable was addressed to men who were like the elder brother, men who were offended at the gospel. An appeal must be addressed to their conscience. To them Jesus says: ‘behold the greatness of God’s love for his lost children, and contrast it with your own joyless, loveless, thankless and self-righteous lives. Cease then from your loveless ways and be merciful. The spiritually dead are rising to new life, the lost are returning home, rejoice with them.’ ” (Jeremias, 131)

B. “The three parables in this chapter make their point effectively. The position of the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled because Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners has been unmasked as the self-serving indignation of the elder brother who denied his relationship both to his father and to his brother by his refusal to join in the celebration. In the world of the parable, one cannot be a son without also being a brother.” (NIB)

V. Message: Most of the time this parable is called the Prodigal Son. This title is too limiting. The value of the title “The Prodigal Son, the Waiting Father, and the Elder Brother” points to the way each of the main characters enable us to identify ourselves with the younger son and even the elder son. In the Reign of God there are no righteous siblings there are only children of God who are learning to celebrate the joy of their Waiting Father and to invite others to join in the celebration.

VI. Life Issues: How would Jesus’ parable treat the conflict between older and younger? (imitation of Abba; gratitude vs. envy) What are the issues which arise between relationships based on merit and relationships based on faithful love? (entitlement; surprise) What responsibility does the younger son have to help the father invite the elder son to conversion? What might he say? (forgive me; help me)

RESOURCES: 1. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abington Press (1995), Nashville, TN 2.The Gospel Parables, Edward A. Armstrong (1967), Hodder & Stoughton 3.Harper’s Bible Commentary Harper and Row (1988), San Francisco 4.The Parables of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias (1963), Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 5.The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 3, Luke Timothy Johnson, (1991), The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 6.The Kingdom of Heaven in Parables, Franz M. Moschner (1960), B. Herder Book Co, St. Louis 2, Mo. 7.A Guide to the Kingdom, A Simple Handbook on the Parables, Aloysius Mullins, O.P. (1963), The Newman Press, Maryland 8.A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Nelson (1969), London

FROM The New Interpreter’s Bible

“A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating Gods goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling envious and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye.

And God wept.”