Hi, friends! It’s been a few days since spring retreat, and I’m still thinking about the prodigal son. I wanted to write a special entry to Autobasileia with my thoughts and interpretation of the story. Zack, Gabi, and Troi gave amazing messages about the love and commitment of God to us. If you couldn’t make it to spring retreat, I’m excited to share the story with you and bring you into this conversation. If you were there, I’d like to challenge you a bit and offer an alternate interpretation than what we heard at spring retreat. This does not mean that I think my interpretation is better in any way than Zack’s, Gabi’s, or Troi’s. I believe that the parables are meant to be interpreted in different ways, and sharing our different perspectives with each other can only enhance our image of God.
Much joy, Ana Maeve
Some man had two sons. And said the younger of them to the father, “Father, give to me the portion of the property that is falling to me.” And he divided between them the life.
And after not many days, gathering together all, the younger son took a journey into a far region, and there he scattered the property through excessive living. And having spent all, there was a strong famine in that region, and he himself began to be in need. And going, he became joined to one of the citizens of that region, and he sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. And he was desiring to be filled from the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one was giving to him.
And coming to himself, he said, “How many hired laborers of my father are abounding of bread, but I by famine here am lost? Getting up, I shall go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; not still am I worthy to be called your son; make me one of your hired laborers.’”
And rising up, he went toward his father. And yet when he was far off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and running, fell upon his neck and kissed him.
And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; not still am I worthy to be called your son.”
And said the father to his slaves, “Quickly carry out a robe, the first, and put it on him, and give the ring to his hand and sandals to his feet. And bring the calf, the grain-fed one, sacrifice and, eating, we may rejoice. Because this, my son, was dead, and he came back to life; he had been lost and was found.” And they began to rejoice.
And his son, the elder, was in the field, and as he, coming, drew near to the house, he heard symphony and chorus. And calling over one of the servants, he inquired what these things might be. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has sacrificed the grain-fed calf, because he received him healthy.”
And he became angry, and he did not want to go in. And his father, going out, comforted and urged him.
And answering, he said to his father, “Look, all these years I am slaving for you, and not one commandment of yours have I passed by, and for me not one young goat did you give so that with my friends I might rejoice. But when your son, this one, the one who ate up your life with whores, came, you sacrificed for him the grain-fed calf.
And he said to him, “Child, you always with me are, and everything that is mine is yours. But it remains necessary to cheer and to rejoice, because your brother, this one, was dead and lived to life, and being lost, even he was found.”
According to Luke, Jesus’ triplet of parables, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son describe God’s persistence and forgiveness while inspiring the reader to repent. While nothing theologically is wrong with this interpretation, I believe something different was heard by first-century Jews.
First, the inability of sheep and coins (and I would argue, the younger son) to repent undermines the probability of the traditional allegory. Furthermore, all three of the lost figures left because of the irresponsibility or passivity of their guardians. The sheep was not exiled for blaaasphemy. If the parables were titled “The Shepherd Who Lost His Sheep” and “The Woman Who Lost Her Coin,” they might be closer to an original interpretation. The Prodigal parable is more complicated; while the younger son asking for his inheritance early could rightfully be called foolish, I don’t think we can rightfully say he sinned, especially because the father complied instead of disciplining him. The term “prodigal son” does not appear in the parable. The first mention of it was in the 5th century by St. Jerome who wrote about “the prudent and prodigal sons.” Thus, this parable too might be retitled “The Father Who Lost His Son(s).” Also plausible as a title is the Egyptian Christians’ story of “The Lost Son,” because it begs the question: which son is lost? The main reason why “Prodigal Son” stuck to the story of the two brothers is because of Christianity’s obsession with the younger.
Another reason why I don’t think a meaning of forgiveness and reconciliation was intended is because Luke’s and Matthew’s commentaries. Luke presents the triplet as responses to criticisms of Jesus. “The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:2) Matthew rather recounts only the first parable and contextualizes it with the words, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven… So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt 10:14) For Matthew, the parable (of the shepherd at least) is about the responsibility of the church to care for those who unaware of or attracted by… dare I say, fake news. It’s a parable of evangelization, not reconciliation. Both evangelists told the same story but recontextualized consistent to the rest of their gospels.
Unfortunately, we will never know if Jesus told the parables singularly to his disciples or collectively to grumbling Pharisees, as the church has assumed for centuries. Either way, let’s try to interpret the Lost Son story separate from its tradition just for a change and a challenge.
It surprises me that the shepherd was able to notice when one out of one hundred sheep went missing. Even the woman with ten coins, losing one and having nine, seems at least a bit observant to realize one went missing. The father only had two sons, yet somehow was unable to count correctly. Even in dwindling numbers, it can be difficult to determine what is lost.
A proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbah notes, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.” The prodigal speaks of his foolishness along these lines. His rehearsed lines sound contrite, but readers influenced by Luke have been deceived and heard true contrition where first-century Jews probably heard conniving. Unlike the sheep and the coin that were found, Junior recalls his identity as the younger of two sons, whose father, like most parents, still love them, and also still has some money. Further suggesting Junior’s lack of remorse, his line, “I have sinned against heaven and before you” are the same words spoken by Pharaoh to stop the plagues: “Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you.’” (Exodus 10:16) The prodigal is no more repentant, has no more change in heart, than Egypt’s ruler. David Buttrick summarized the prodigal’s strategy concisely as, “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”
Many homilists and writers seem shocked by the father’s compassionate reaction, though they don’t likewise criticize the shepherd or the woman for similarly rejoicing and feasting when they found what they had lost. Jewish fathers were not heartless. “Is there any one among you, if his child asks for bread, will give a stone?” Jesus asks in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:9). Therefore, reasonably, children ask for support, and fathers provide. I stray from this commentary also because it can lead to Anti-Semitic language. Many Christians still want to credit Jesus with reinventing God from his Old Testament wrath to His New Testament gentleness. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish biblical scholar, wrote, “The view that God received a personality transplant somewhere between the pages of Malachi and Matthew is still alive and well in churches today; it is also still a heresy. There is no compelling reason in the parable itself to see the father as God, but even if Jesus’ Jewish audience had made this connection, they would have found nothing surprising. The covenant is still in place; God still loves the wayward, from David to Ephraim to Israel.”
God is still God, has always been God, and always will be God. The compassion He shows you today is the same what He gave the chosen people of Canaan.
To see the father in the story as God becomes increasingly difficult for me. First, the father foolishly gives his youngest son the means to his own ruin through his early inheritance. Though God gives us both free will and the answers to our prayers, he never enables our bad choices. We do well to empathize with the father’s joy as a dad whose favorite son returned home. We do better to notice who was not invited to the party. “Some man had two sons.” Like many traditionalist commentators since Jermone, like the dad in the parable, we had lost count.
Finally, we see the elder but second brother. As one commentator observed, the father indulged the son who slighted him and slighted the son who indulged him. The father is now in the urgent search of the shepherd searching for his sheep and the woman who misplaced her coin. He needs to return the lost to the home; he needs to make his set complete. But children are not property; they are people, who unlike sheep and coins, have long memories and emotional needs. Smartly, Luke does not transcribe the father’s words, for the son probably barely heard them. What could the father say to repair their broken relationship or ease his emotional suffering? We might think of the older son as speaking for the ninety-nine who have no need of repentance but do have need for guardianship and appear to bring less joy.
Few sources are so sympathetic to the older son, and instead, characterize him as “the emblem of sin.” They are quick to cast him as a joyless, selfish, moody, and arrogant child. The father does not see him this way, but instead calls him teknon, translated from Greek as “child.” It is the same address Mary uses when she and Joseph found their lost Son after frantically searching for Him. The father also reminds his child that the loss of either brother would render the family incomplete.
“It remains necessary to cheer and to rejoice,” the father insists, but he and his son remain in the field. Luke offers no resolution to the story, leaving the parable with no truly comfortable interpretation. What would we do if we were the older son? Do we attend the party? What do we do if we identify with the father? Is repeated pleading sufficient for a lost child? What does a parent do to show a love that the child never felt? The parable shows us that indulgence does not buy love, but withholding can stifle it. What do we make of the younger son? I neither like nor trust him, but still, he is loved and a member of the family.
A father had two sons.
The details of the story can be filled by any of us. We need to take count. The one who is truly lost may be in our very households. Once we count, we need to act with radical inclusively, for in any search, there is great potential for wholeness and celebration.