The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Yesterday at church the sermon was about the parable of the prodigal son. My literature brain kicked on and I jotted down some notes about the passage which I think sheds some light on what Jesus is talking about.

First, we commonly assume the parables are little stories that talk about timeless truths. In reality, the parables were directly related to the circumstances surrounding Jesus in Israel. They were, in their essential form, stories in which Jesus takes the story of Israel and re-tells the story in ways that would have been radical and shocking to any self-respecting Jew who heard them. The presiding concern of the New Testament is the formation of the Church – the most important question for the NT, then, concerns the Jew/Gentile divide because the Church which Christ was drawing to Himself was the entire Church, drawing the Gentiles into the priestly people of Israel.

The parable begins with Jesus telling us that “There was a man with two sons,” (Luke 15:11). It is pretty common knowledge that the “father” of the story stands for Jesus Himself, but this leads us to ask ourselves – who are the two sons? I think we have an allusion back to Adam and Eve in the first parts of Genesis. The Hebrew word for “man” is adam, and we know the Jews had a developed theology of Adam standing as the representative (or all-encompassing) man. Though the New Testament is written in Greek, Jesus would have spoken Hebrew, and regardless, any Jew which heard a story concerning a “man” and his sons is going to immediately think of Adam and his two sons Cain and Abel.

Let’s look at the “man” or “father” of the story. Since we have correctly identified the father as God or Jesus, and noted that it also includes an allusion back to Adam, we can suggest the picture here is of Jesus as the New Adam, the new representative of humanity who is undoing what Adam has done (Rom. 5). The substance of Adam’s sin was that the Fall caused division in humanity – Cain kills Abel, creating the first separation of brother from brother. Thus, just as Adam’s sin caused the divisions of humanity, so Jesus’ righteousness as the New Adam draws humanity back together. It is my suggestion that this parable is dealing with Israel’s attitude toward the Gentiles who are being welcomed into the priestly nation in Christ.

The parable, then, deals with a “man” and his two sons, who are referred to only by their birth-order, the “older brother” and the “younger brother.” These almost become archetypes or typological descriptions which suggest to us, as they would have to a Jew of the period, that each son represents a group of people or a community. Now, it was common Jewish belief and from the Old Testament that Israel was the “Son of Yahweh,” the firstfruits son of God (this is examined a bit here). In fact, the Jews believed that God had two sons, the Jews and the Gentiles. There is a broad theme in Scripture (OT and NT) of sibling conflict, particularly between the “older” and “younger” sons.

Theologian James Jordan writes that “When the older brother apostatizes, and is judged, the younger brother replaces him,” (Judges, p. x). This pattern is seen all across the Scriptures. The book of Genesis is structured around the pattern of an older brother who falls away and is replaced by a faithful younger brother. There is Cain (older) and Abel (younger); Ham (older) and Japheth and Shem (younger); Esau (older) and Jacob (younger), and of course Joseph (younger) and his brothers (older). When Israel is divided in two in the Kingship period we have Israel (older) and Judah (younger) – and Israel is judged first while Judah remained faithful for a time. Israel was the older brother to the Gentiles round about.

So, Jesus in this parable is retelling the story of Cain and Abel in a radical way. Where Israel identified themselves as Abel, Jesus is telling them they are the older brother. They are Cain. So the older brother that remains with the Father is Israel, and the younger brother stands for the Gentiles.

Thus, in the parable, the younger brother asks for his inheritance early and departs from his Father’s house, squandering his money on wild living (Luke 15:12-13). This fits with Israel’s understanding of the Gentiles as those who wandered away from the faith and worshiped other gods (this is the argument Paul uses in Romans 1). Since the Cain and Abel story looms large over the whole parable we can see the younger son departing to live with the ungodly in the civilization of Cain, with additional overtones of Sodom and Gomorrah, which lays in a “far country” (v. 13).

Finally a famine strikes this far country (v. 14). Now famine is a common theme in the Scriptures, a picture of God’s judgement and wrath which comes and turns a fruitful land into a dead wilderness of thistles and thorns (Deut. 28:22). Now, there are three major famines in the book of Genesis, which has strong overtones in the parable. The first is a famine in the promised land which drives Abraham out of the land and into the Gentile territory of Egypt (Gen. 12:10). Then there is a famine when Isaac is alive and he is driven out of the promised land into Gentile territory (Gen. 26:1). Thirdly, and most important of all, there is a famine in the time of Joseph which drives his family out of the land once again and down to Egypt (Gen. 42:5). Now, this is an important pattern; famine comes to Israel’s land and they are forced out to be with the Gentiles. But in the parable we have an artful reversal of the pattern – now it is the younger son, the Gentile in Gentile lands who is caught in a famine and will return to the land of plenty and to his Father’s house. God’s people in the Gentile world is being forced back by famine into the priestly people of Israel.

Now, the younger son is feeding the pigs for work. Most commentators say that this is a horrible thing for the younger son to be doing because pigs were unclean according to the Mosaic law. But the younger son is not a Jew. He isn’t concerned with keeping the Moasic law. In Jewish belief, the Gentiles were no better than animals, so Jesus is pointing out simply that this younger son was as low as he could get. And it is interesting that he fed the pigs in order to earn money to eat, but it says quite explicitly that “no one gave him anything,” (v. 16), which would seem to include the man whose pigs he is feeding. The younger brother is being cheated and not being taken care of in any way. Thus, he decides to return home.

Again, we must pay attention to the details. The younger son says he will say to his Father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants,” (v. 19). Now here the younger son – and Jesus – are explicitly alluding back to Exodus 21:6: in which if a bondservant wants to remain in his master’s house forever, “his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.” This didn’t mean permanent slavery; it meant becoming an adopted son of the house and is used as a picture of salvation. Paul alludes back to this passage when he speaks of being a “bondservant” of Christ. What the younger son is saying is, “I’ve lost the right to be a blood-son, but maybe he will let me become an adopted son.” Again, this is salvation imagery and we are looking at the Gentiles returning to the priestly people. Except that the Father doesn’t accept the adoption proposal, but instead welcomes him back as he is. This might point to the reality that Gentile Christians are not under the obligations of the Moasic covenant. The younger son comes wanting to be accepted back into the family of God on the terms of the Moasic code (as the Judaizers would later insist), but the Father instead welcomes him as he is, a true son.

Since the “father” of the story is identified with Jesus or the Father, when we read that the younger son is welcomed back into the Father’s house, what would any Israelite think of? What is God’s house? The Temple. So we see in the Father’s response to the younger son a few Temple images. The father tells the servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found,” (v. 22-24). There are a number of allusions here.

First, the robe as an archetype in Scripture symbolizes authority and power to judge the world, enthronement in glory. The ring and shoes also echo royal or kingly power. When David sins with Bathsheba and repents, God takes the child produced by them as a blood atonement – and immediately following the atonement of the child’s death David stands and changes his cloths, which symbolizes his re-commissioning as King of Israel (2 Sam. 12:20). So David’s progression is he changes clothes and returns to the House of Yahweh, and then eats food in a pseudo-Eucharist type (2 Sam 12:20). We see a similar progression in the parable. The younger son receives new clothing that represent his new status as a son of the Father and as a priest, as he is welcomed back into the house – that is, the Temple – and then a meal is prepared, which has both sacrificial and Eucharistic overtones.

Second, there is sacrificial imagery in what the Father orders prepared for the younger son. “Bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again.” In the OT laws to be contaminated by an unclean thing was to be ceremonially and symbolically dead, and to be cleansed of sin was a type of resurrection. Thus the younger son, who represents the Gentiles, is to undergo death and resurrection. He has been feeding pigs, which were unclean, so he is ceremonially dead. But now the Father orders a fatted calf killed and eaten in his House. The calf is a sacrificial animal in the Old Testament, used as a whole burnt offering and a sin offering (Lev. 9, 2-8). It is interesting that the calf is used as a sin offering for the High Priest (Lev. 9:8), which would suggest that the new clothes which the younger son receives are some form of ordination for priestly service in the “Father’s house,” the Temple. In the death of the fatted calf the younger son is resurrected ceremonially and ordained as a priest in the Father’s house.

Now we come to the older son, who is “in the field” and “drew near to the house,” (v. 25). Thus, it is the older son, Israel, who is pictured working in the field. Israel is like Cain, who is also a worker of the field (Gen. 4:2); as was Esau a “man of the field,” (Gen. 25:27). We can also notice here that the older brother, Israel, is staying close to home rather than go in search of his lost younger brother, the Gentiles. In short, Israel has become inward focused rather than missionally-minded toward the Gentiles. Their call in the OT was to be the priest to the nations, to represent and pray for the Gentiles in the Temple. By working in the field like Cain and Esau, Jesus is telling us that Israel has lost the mission. Much like Cain, the older brother seems to be saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). Abel and Jacob, by contrast, are keepers (guarders) of the flock who would go after stray sheep. Much like Jesus Himself, who leaves the flock to go after the single lost sheep (Luke 15:4).

The older son “draws near,” which is the technical term used all throughout Leviticus for when Israel “drew near” to the Tabernacle for worship. Israel comes in from the fields and sees that the Gentiles have been brought into the Temple and that the Father is pleased with this. Instead of acknowledging this as a good thing, Israel becomes bitter and filled with envy. “But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (vv. 28-30).

Here we return to the typology of the beginning of the parable, which is the Cain and Abel imagery. Cain kills Abel because he envies Abel’s sacrifice, he is bitter that his sacrifice was refused and so he is driven to murder. The older brother here is again filled with envy against the younger brother. But Jesus is inverting Israel’s story – Israel is not Abel as they believed, but Cain, filled with envy because God has accepted another.

We must also return to the famines mentioned above. In the Old Testament it is Israel that is driven out of their land into Gentile lands, where the Gentiles generously aided the Israelites. But in the parable, the older son (Israel) is bitter and ungrateful at the return of the Gentiles into the priestly nation. We have another contrast. When the younger son was in the far country there was no hospitality for the poor: “he was longing to be fed . . . and no one gave him anything,” (Luke 15:16). Upon his return, the older son is furious that the Father has accepted his son’s return – we get the strong suspicion that if the older son had been in charge the younger son would have been turned away hungry and cold. Thus, Jesus is identifying Israel (again) with the inhospitable and hard-hearted pagans of Sodom, Gomorrah and the civilization of Cain. Earthly Jerusalem has become the city of Cain, of Babylon, of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Finally, at the very end of the parable the Father comes out of the house to where the older brother waits, seething. The older brother refuses to come into the house, to “draw near” to God, when there are Gentiles in the Temple (v. 28). This is an artful inversion of the Jewish narrative – in the Jewish mind the Gentiles were outside refusing to come into Israel, but now it is Israel outside and the Gentiles inside and the Father must come out to Israel (v. 28). This is an echo of God coming to speak to Cain: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it,” (Gen. 4:6-7).

Jesus then leaves the parable on an intentionally ambiguous note; the Father and the older brother are still standing outside the house. Will the older brother come in and join the celebration or will he refuse to do so and remain in the outer darkness? He left it ambiguous because He was still in the process of calling Israel back to Himself. We know, of course, that they refused to come into the house by rejecting Christ and by the Judaizers insisting a Gentile must become a Jew and follow the Moasic code to be a Christian. Like Cain, Israel could not master its sin and in a rage they slew the Greater Abel.

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