The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Lent 4 in Year C is the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.1–3 and 11b–32, though it is perhaps as well called the parable of the loving father, or the parable of the father and the two sons. I realise that many will be focussing on Mothering Sunday, but it would be a shame to miss out on preaching on this passage if you follow the lectionary in your preaching; perhaps the best solution is to celebrate Mothering Sunday in the service, but preach on this passage without working two hard to connect the two.
It’s a passage I have known well for a long time, and can still remember quite vividly listening to the late Michael Green teaching on it during a student mission when I was an undergraduate. But I have recently come across two quite different readings of the parable which highlight some important issues in how we interpret it.
The first was in Jane Williams’ Lent book three years ago, The Merciful Humility of God. In her introductory chapter, she takes three of the short pages to explore the parable, and rather than seeing it as an exposition of Jesus’ ministry, she sees it as a notable contrast:
The infinite patience of God is more active than that of the father of the Prodigal, because God does more than wait; in Jesus Christ, God enters into the way of the Prodigal so that even here, while the Prodigal is still assuming that he is fine on his own, the love of the father is present…The life of Jesus means that we can turn and find God beside us, everywhere.
I have explored previously some of the theological problems with this reading, but we ought to note how strange this is as a narrative reading. After all, this chapter in Luke is introduced by the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus ‘receives sinners and eats with them’. In other words, Jesus tells the three parables here (shepherd seeking sheep, woman searching for coins, father welcoming his son) in response to the comment that he is too close to the ‘prodigals’, so it would be odd if the very parable he tells us contrasts so sharply with the ministry that it is explaining.
The second interpretation came from a friend with whom I was in conversation a couple of years ago, and also draws attention to the location of the father. God does not take delight in us, my friend said, in an unconditional sense, but only delights when we turn to him. After all (he went on) I don’t delight in my son if he wastes his time or squanders his gifts, but only when he applies himself or does well—just as the way my father delighted in me when I did well. After all (he clinched his argument), the father in the parable does not follow the son into the foreign country, but waits for him at the gate of his property.
Both these readings make the same point, but in support of opposite conclusions: the father does not pursue the son, and either that is a bad thing which Jesus contradicts or it is a good thing we should learn from.
Jesus’ parables are challenging to interpret, and even his best-known ones are commonly (and demonstrably) misinterpreted in contemporary preaching and teaching. This is partly because they are narratives making an implicit point, rather than prose discourse that presents an explicit argument; partly because Jesus uses provocation and hyperbole to make his point in a dramatic way; and partly because much of the impact of the parables relies on contextual information which is not explicit in the text.
Some years ago, German scholar Joachim Jeremias argued (in his The Parables of Jesus) that the parables had essentially one main point, and so we should look for that rather than focussing on the minutiae of the other details. This was made in reaction to earlier tendencies to allegorise Jesus’ parables, which often allowed readers to go on flights of fancy in their readings which became detached from the narrative and context of the parable itself (the best known being interpretations of the parable of the good Samaritan). But the problem with Jeremias’ thesis is that Jesus explicitly makes several points when interpreting his own parables, the most obvious being in the parable which is also a parable about parables, the story of the sower in Mark 4 and parallels. In explaining the parable, Jesus is clear that each of the sower, the seed, and the different soils all ‘stand’ for something. And in the parable of the prodigal, there are at least three key narrative foci in the three main characters.
But we also need to note that this is the third of three parables, and contrary to the cut-and-paste job suggested by the lectionary, I think we need to read all three together—and carefully! The first tells us about a foolish shepherd, who is so anxious about the one lost sheep that he abandons the other 99 (‘in the open country’, Gk eremos ‘wilderness’) in search of the one, and continues to forget about the others whilst he has a party! This is hardly a model for pastoral ministry! The second story, of the woman and her lost coin, is less obviously foolish, but once again focusses on urgency of the search and the rejoicing when it is successful. In other words, these two are about the one doing the searching, rather than the ones being searched for, and they make the simple point about the searcher’s passion.
In the third of the three parables, the emphasis shifts decisively. The story itself has much more detail, includes a more complex situation, introduces three main characters with some realism, and involves a shift of focus. Much of the emotion on the part of the father is implicit and borne in the narrative detail, whilst the focus is turned decisively to the characters being ‘sought’, the younger and the older son, with their emotions being described explicitly, in contrast to the previous parables where the things being sought played no real part in the story.
The story opens with the younger son demanding his inheritance now, rather than waiting to the due time, and this is where we begin to see the importance of reading in cultural context. Unlike our context, where we might indeed want to pass on an inheritance early, for Jesus’ hearers this is like the son saying that he wishes his father were dead—and the father, shockingly, agrees to the request. Our contextually attuned ears can hear the audible gasps of Jesus’ audience. The parable suggests that our own acts of rebellion, in which we take from God the life and the blessings he offers, but refuse to acknowledge his authority over our lives, is effectively wishing him dead. Sin is death-dealing not only to us, but to God himself, as we wish him dead in the claims he makes over us.
The narrative then follows the son on his journey downwards—away from his loving home, down into an immoral life, down into poverty, down into disgrace, and finally down into hunger and neglect as no-one pays attention to his needs. For a Jewish audience, the son’s job of looking after the unclean pigs shows that he has reached the lowest point possible. The turning point in the narrative is when he ‘comes to his senses’, literally ‘he came to himself’—which intriguingly suggests the way that sin not only separates us from others, but separates us from our true selves. From this point, the son makes a journey of ascent—out of the pig sty, out of hunger, out from the strange land and up to the threshold of his former home. But he cannot imagine anything like the full restoration to sonship that awaits him.
Once more we need to read attentively and contextually. How does the father notice the son whilst he is ‘still a long way off’? We can only infer that that father has, daily, been awaiting his son’s return with longing. And, though the son intends to make the journey himself, it is not a journey he completes, since the father runs to meet him—the reunion does indeed involve journeying by both parties. Contextually, this again would have been shocking, as the father dispenses with the dignity of an older member of the community who (in the hot climate of the Near East) could never have run in public. Despite his son’s actual and ritual uncleanness, the father dramatically embraces him in the sight of all. All this flows from a key word, which appears (as in other narratives in Luke) to be actually (numerically) central to the telling of the story: ‘he was moved with compassion’, splagchnizomai, his guts were stirred.
The son brings out his rehearsed speech, recognising the error of his ways—but he is not able to finish it before the father lavishes on him the signs of sonship in the ring, the robe and the sandals to put on his bare and filthy feet, and prepares to celebrate with a feast. And where the story of the younger son reaches its climax, the story of the elder son begins with the second’s jealousy and resentment. He has cast his position in the family as dependent on duty, law and obedience, and has failed to understand the nature of the relationship between father and son that is his true inheritance.
Where does that leave the two interpretations that I started with? Jane Williams’ observation does have a point; from the perspective of the one doing the searching, there appears to be nothing that he would not do in order to find that which was lost, and this is communicated most clearly in the two shorter parables preceding this one. The foolish shepherd and the anxious woman will not rest until they recover their lost possessions. Yet what she appears to miss is the reciprocal aspect of searching and finding that becomes the focus of the third parable. It is not enough to be sought; one has to be found, and the one being found has to respond to the one doing the searching. Jesus makes this point not once, but twice: the younger son has to come to himself, and make the decision to turn and embrace the father that he has betrayed, even at the cost of admitting he was wrong. But the older son must also ‘come to himself’ and recognise the reality of sonship and what it means. He might have been in ritual and physical proximity with his father, but he was not in relational proximity. Although Luke does not (unlike elsewhere) note that this parable was told ‘against’ the Pharisees and scribes, the two-part shape to the narrative and its finality at the end of the chapter (following which the focus turns to the disciples) makes this plain. They might be in ritual and physical proximity with God (through living in the land or obeying the law or coming to the temple) but they are not in relational proximity. They, too, need to change and turn for this relationship to become a reality.
The second interpretation that I mentioned gets one thing right: when the younger son is far from his father, there is a real distance and absence in that relationship, and (according to Jesus’ teaching) that distance is not closed until the son makes his change of direction. (It is worth comparing this with the parable of the two sons told only in Matt 21:28–32; the first son does make sonship a reality until he ‘changes his mind’.) And yet the possibility of restoration depends, within the narrative, on the unwavering longing and compassion of the father, which (theo)logically precedes the repentance of the son and is necessary for the narrative to reach its completion. The restless searching of God for the lost is already communicated powerfully in the first two parable.
As an afternote, there is an interesting parallel drawn on the Wikipedia discussion of this parable.
A similar parable of a lost son can also be found in the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra. The two parables are so similar in their outline and many details that several scholars have assumed that one version has influenced the other or that both texts share a common origin. However, an influence of the biblical story on the Lotus sutra is regarded as unlikely given the early dating of the stratum of the sutra containing the Buddhist parable. In spite of their similarities, both parables continue differently after the two meet for the first time at the son’s return. In the biblical story, there is an immediate reunion of the two. In contrast, in the Lotus sutra, the poor son does not recognize the rich man as his father. When the father sends out some attendants to welcome the son, the son panics, fearing some kind of retribution. The father then lets the son leave without telling him of their kinship. However, he gradually draws the son closer to him by employing him in successively higher positions, only to tell him of their kinship in the end. In the Buddhist parable, the father symbolises the Buddha, and the son symbolises any human being. Their kinship symbolises that any being has Buddha nature. The concealment of the kinship of the father to his son is regarded as a skillful means (Sanskrit:upāya).
The grace of God means that the restoration of the son in Jesus’ parable is not only immediate, but is known immediately. Here is no long, uncertain path to enlightenment, but the sudden, grace-filled embrace of our heavenly father.
(The next post will be of the video discussion of this passage which you can find on my YouTube channel.)