The Parable You Thought You Knew
The so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” more than all other parables, tells us about judgment and the reality of heaven and hell. Are you surprised? I was when I first saw it.
One prodigal left home
We know a lot about the younger son. First, he was younger, obviously, which means that he gets half as much as his oldest brother gets when their father dies. Second, he asked for his portion of the inheritance in advance of his father’s death.
What you may not know is that according to biblical scholar and anthropologist Ken Bailey, there is no other example in Middle Eastern culture—past or present, Arab or Jewish culture—of a son asking a father for his inheritance before the father’s death. There’s a reason for that. It’s too shocking to consider. No son in Middle Eastern culture would ever, under any circumstances, ask this. Such an insult in their patriarchal culture in unimaginable. Any boy who did that would be attacked and killed by the villagers, if not by the father himself. The younger son’s question means, “Dad, I can’t wait till you’re dead. Give me my money.” Or, “Give me my money and drop dead, Old Man.” This is unthinkable. Surely a scoundrel such as this cannot actually exist!
Jesus got their attention by beginning with a description of a son who did something despicable beyond belief. But that’s not the most shocking part. The most shocking part is that the father of this scoundrel gave him what he asked for! Something is wrong with this father, the villagers would have concluded. He must be touched in the head. How can he just absorb the highest insult a son can hurl at a father and then turn around and give that boy the inheritance? This is not possible. It’s beyond comprehension. What incomparable shame has come upon this poor broken family!
The younger son went to a land of foreigners (non-Jews) and spent the money as fast as he could. But it wasn’t just money he was careless with. He showed no respect for his father or his family or their name. Living with Gentiles, he showed no respect for his religion, his race, or his God. He can never go back, Jesus’ listeners would have concluded. Never. If he dares to return, he’ll likely be stoned to death before he can reach the village gates.
Things got so bad for the youngest son that he asked a Gentile for a job, a shameless inexcusable act for a first century Jew. As it so happened, this particular Gentile had a cruel sense of humor. He gave our young Jewish fellow a job as a swine herder. No self-respecting Jewish boy would herd pigs. For Moses said a pig is unclean to Israel.
7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. (Leviticus 11:7)
He never really respected his father. He didn’t consider him a father at all or he would have stayed and been a loyal loving son. So since he didn’t see himself as a son, and his father surely no longer saw him as a son (or so he thought), the younger boy devised a plan. I will go to him with the following proposal:
- Father (I’ll be sure and call him “Father” to show respect.), I messed up in
front of you and God and everybody.
- I’m not worthy to be called your son (Forget for now that I never really acted like one in the first place).
- Let me be a hired hand around the farm (Thank God, the Old Man doesn’t own pigs!).
Worst apology ever. Not an apology at all, really. He’s not sorry. He’s just trying to get out of the mess someway, somehow. He probably figures that if his dad was stupid enough to give him the money before, that maybe he’ll be stupid enough to give him a job. He certainly didn’t want to be a son before, or he never would have treated his dad as he did. And he doesn’t want to be a son now really. Just hire me, he says. Maybe this self-salvation scheme (perhaps to pay his father back some of the money he squandered) is the only thing that occurs to him. It never seems to have occurred to him that his father might actually want a relationship with his son, that his father might actually love him, that he might have already forgiven him.
The father must have kept one eye on the horizon at all times, looking for his son to return. Why? To kill him? No. But perhaps he’s concerned that the villagers might try to kill his son. Perhaps the father intends to get there first. He’s even willing to humiliate himself (again) by running in public to greet (protect?) his son. No mature man in that culture ran in public. It was shameful to run. Degrading.
But when he saw the scoundrel a long way off, the father girded up his loins and sprinted. Before the boy could explain his plan, he saw his father running toward him. He no doubt looked for a stone or a sword in his father’s hand. None. He looked for anger on his face. None. He stood there dumbfounded as his father did the unthinkable. Sons were to kiss their father in that culture, not the other way around. The father humbled himself, kissing and hugging his own son as if he were royalty.
Nevertheless, the son’s speech began as planned:
- Father, I messed up in front of you and God and everybody.
- I’m not worthy to be your son.
But he left off #3. He doesn’t ask his father for a job. Interesting. Did the father interrupt him before he could share the employment proposal? Or in the face of utterly shameless love, did the prodigal just drop #3 and say, Dad, I messed up, I’m not worthy to be your son, period?
The father is not listening to a word the boy’s saying anyway! The father is uninterested in repentant attitudes and words, as if that was why he ran and loved him. His love isn’t bought, not even with good apologies and sincere groveling. He loved and forgave that boy before the boy could say or do a blessed thing.
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
All the boy ever had to do was come home. Why? Because his sonship was never based on the good or bad that he’d done. His sonship is eternally based on his relationship to his father which from the father’s side never went away.
The boy turned his back on sonship, but the father never turned his back on his son.
From here on out, we hear no more from the younger son. He’s silent. But even so, the actions are all for him, and they are extravagant expressions of the father’s love. The father’s finest robe. The father’s family ring. The father’s own sandals. All lavished on the prodigal. He silently receives. The fatted calf is killed for that boy as if he were the king himself come for a wedding feast. The party begins at their home. Barbeque. Wine. Song. Dancing. Laughter. All of this for the son who least deserved such affection in the whole wide world.
Do you think this father is cool or crazy? Would you have attended this party? How do you think the older brother is going to feel when he comes home from a hard day’s work in the field to find that his father is throwing a hoedown for his supposed brother? Well, as for questions one and two, I’ll let you decide. As to question three, let’s look and see.
One prodigal stayed
The older son asks one of the boys in the courtyard: What in the world is going on? My brother came home? My father is throwing a party for him? That’s not fair!
He parked himself in the courtyard and refused to go in. In that culture, this is a public slap in his father’s face. The loyal duty of the oldest son at a party is to act as host for the father. Greet everyone. Fill glasses. Re-supply food. When his father heard that his older son was refusing to come in, he went out to him. No doubt the guests expected the father to scold and beat such a disrespectful son, but again, this father isn’t normal. Again he disgraces himself by going out to the son. (Fathers don’t go after sons in that culture. Sons go after fathers.) And then the greater shock. This father begs this brat to come in and join the party. Begs him! Now that is utter humiliation. This father has no dignity left now, and it’s happening in front of the whole town. It’s disgraceful. (And beautiful.)
The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' (Luke 15:12)
He may have meant it sarcastically, but at least he said it. “Father.” But not the oldest boy, no. He doesn’t dignify the man with the title “Father” because as we are about to see, the oldest no more than the youngest considered this man to be his father. His speech, like his brother’s planned speech, is in three statements:
- “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you (But not as a son. Remember his younger brother’s plan to become a hired hand. Neither of them wanted to be a son.), and I have never disobeyed your command (Like a good slave.).
- “Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. (Here’s the key. We’ll get back to it in a second.)....
- “But when this son of yours (He’s not my brother.) came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes (Nice touch! It adds a little color to the charges, don’t you think?), you killed the fatted calf for him!” (It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!)
What a whiner! The father should tear up his backside. But, again, this is not a normal father. He is willing to humiliate himself to regain his sons. Both of them. So he lovingly smashes the eldest son’s complaint to bits.
. . . the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ (Luke 15:31)
This is the father’s gentle way of reminding this scorekeeping knucklehead that back in verse 12 he divided his property between them both!
So he divided his property between them. (emphasis mine) (Luke 15:12)
Do you see it? He gave the younger boy cash (or the boy sold the assets for cash) and the rest of the father’s belongings were given to the older boy. And he took his portion of the inheritance too. And by law the eldest gets twice as much as the younger. He’s got double what his brother got!
The father is right in what he said to his eldest boy. Truly everything the father owned belongs to the eldest son, and has been his since the day his younger brother left; and it’s twice as much as his brother left with.
I love how I heard Robert Capon put it one time: “Look here, Oscar. All my goats are yours. I gave them to you back in verse 12. If you didn’t kill one to party with your friends, it’s not my fault.” (Something like that.)
Another job of the eldest son is to mediate disputes between members of the family, including disputes involving the father. Once again, rather than doing his duty, this eldest son stood by saying nothing to break up this nasty scene between his younger brother and his dad. He should have said, “Hey, now Brother, there’s no call for that. Apologize to Father right now. He deserves your respect.” But the older son did no such thing. Instead he stood by silently. And silently he took the inheritance, too, thus insulting his father every bit as sorely as his little brother did. They’re both prodigals. One prodigal left home. One prodigal stayed.
This elder boy may have stayed home and worked hard, but he did not consider himself a son, and he did not believe that his father really gave him the farm. He slaved away for it like it wasn’t already his. He is living with a father that he doesn’t even know. He doesn’t trust him at all. They have no relationship. But it’s one-sided, this feeling. The father’s feelings never changed. He loves his sons. He really did absorb the insult of his boys wishing he were dead. He really did give them both their inheritance. And he never hated them. He never held it against them. Again and again he humiliated himself in hope that he might have sons, real sons who know their father, and love their father, and trust their father.
Moreover, he seems to believe that humiliation is the only thing that will change their minds. So he debases himself repeatedly. This crazy father would probably have allowed himself to be beaten or even crucified if it meant regaining his sons! Have you ever seen any father like this?
The father’s final words to his eldest son are these:
“. . . 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.” (Luke 15:32)
Jesus leaves the pharisees and scribes with a decision
That’s the end. Jesus leaves us hanging. Did the older brother go in and celebrate his brother’s return? Or did he sit down at the door and start chanting, “It’s not fair!”
I believe that Jesus didn’t finish the parable because some of his listeners were wayward rejects and others were upstanding Pharisees and scribes. Luke gives this as the setting for the telling of the parable:
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." (Luke 15:1-2)
The tax collectors and sinners that Jesus has found and welcomed are similar to the younger son, aren’t they? And the elder boy is like the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. These “righteous ones” are offended that the popular traveling rabbi and healer would eat with known reprobates rather than with them. They are insulted.
Is not Jesus with his parable asking the Pharisees and scribes to come and sit at table with the reprobates and celebrate that these lost ones have come home? The end of the parable then is not Jesus’ to tell. He’s going to let the Pharisees and scribes’ decision—to sit down or to leave—end the parable for him! Their own judgment will determine what the elder son did! He’s letting them end the parable with their lives.
Moreover, Luke doesn’t tell us what the Pharisees and scribes did. He is playing the same hand Jesus did. We the readers must finish the parable. Will we celebrate the homecoming of the unworthy, or will we boycott in protest of such unfairness?
To me no parable gives a clearer picture of heaven and hell than Luke’s parable of a forgiving father. Two prodigal sons respond very differently to his forgiving grace.
So celebrate or sulk! Jesus and Luke have stuck you with making that decision. How can we put it concisely? How can we describe this moment of judgment/krisis, this choice between heaven and hell in simplest terms?A friend of mine, Janice McFall, put it like this: “You can either party or pout!” I think that works nicely.
For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, The God Who Gambles, Parable of the Vine and Branches, The Crooked Manager, The Friend at Midnight, Heaven Is Like a Crazy Farmer, He Speaks Of . . ., Salted With Fire, Talking Sheep and Goats, Is Your Eye Evil?, Two Prodigals and Their Strange Father, The Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.