In the first essay on the parable of the Prodigal Son, I suggested that the problems commentators and others encounter in interpreting Jesus three-part parable are not accidental. These are not just problems in our ignorance of cultural background. They are intentional features of the stories —stories designed to poke and provoke Pharisees and scribes who were spiritually complacent and thought themselves righteous.
In the second part of the trilogy, Jesus speaks of a woman who has lost a coin. For a first century Jew, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this part of the parable would be the fact that a poor woman — someone the Pharisees would probably look down upon as a sinner — is used to picture God’s rejoicing over the repentance of a sinner. I say “God’s rejoicing” because Jesus says there is “joy in the presence of the angels of God,” and that can only be the rejoicing of God Himself.
The fact that coins and sheep do not repent would not have been lost on the original audience. The stories about the sheep and the coin are not primarily about repentance, though they are an invitation to repentance. These stories are about God. But the Pharisees and scribes, the experts in the law, do not understand the heart of God. They grumble when they should have joined the party, singing praises for His grace.
I think the original audience would have also taken note of a word that is repeated over and over — the word translated “lose” or “lost.” In these short stories it appears 8 times (Luke 15:4 [2x], 6, 8-9, 17, 24, 32). What is remarkable about this word is that it is commonly used with meanings like “ruin, destroy,” etc. The repetition of this word, even in a context like a lost coin, provides a disturbing refrain, again calling the Pharisees and scribes to repent and flee destruction.
It is the third and most famous part of the story that contains the most problems. It is hard to imagine a Pharisee or scribe listening to the story without noting the incongruities. The first two parts of the parabolic trilogy are put forth as questions. The third part is the longest part of the parable and is related as a story.
There are at least six features of the story that are designed to shock the audience and provoke thought. The first shock comes near the beginning of the story. First, we are told that a man has two sons — no surprise there. But then, in the very next verse, the younger of the two comes to his father and demands his part of the inheritance. It is here where I think considering the cultural background might be helpful. In the Ancient Near East, the idea of a son simply asking his father for his portion of the inheritance would probably have been seen as highly improper, a virtual wish that the father would hurry up and die.
There is nothing in the Torah of Moses or the historical records of the Old Testament that offers an example of a son doing something like this. It is simply out of the question.
Second, what is even more surprising is that the father grants the son’s wish! What wise father would take from his hard-earned life savings to give to a son who obviously intended to waste it? Both the son’s request and the father’s permission would have presumably struck the hearers as odd in the extreme, but it is a story, so they listen to the end.
Third, the depth of the prodigal’s fall is striking. He corrupted himself with sexual immorality and is associated with Gentiles, even swine. It is only because he faces severe circumstances that he comes to himself. He says, “I perish with hunger,” using the same Greek word that has appeared repeatedly: “perish” is the same as “lose” and “lost.” Now it is not a sheep or a coin, a man’s life is being ruined by his own sinful folly.
He determines to return home and repent to God and his father.
Fourth, the father’s compassion is so deep. It profoundly contrasts with the grumblers. When the prodigal returned, the father saw him a long way off and felt compassion and ran to him. But this becomes another slightly odd part of the story. The father is obviously a rich and dignified man. But in the Ancient world, such men do not run. Even Aristotle comments on this issue! However, the fathers passionate love for his son drives him to disregard decorum. He ran, embraced him, and repeatedly kissed him.
Fifth, the older son’s reaction to his father is another surprise. The father in the story does what the Pharisees and scribes cannot imagine doing in real life. Rejoicing and having a feast to welcome the prodigal home is just what Jesus is doing for the sinners and tax collectors. The Pharisees, on the other hand, are like the older son.
But in fact, if the older son were a good son, he could not have rejected the invitation to join the festivities, nor could he have spoken to his father as he did. His disrespect and inability to understand his father’s compassion depict precisely the Pharisees lack of sympathy with Israel’s God.
Finally, one of the oddest parts of the story is that it has no conclusion. We are not told how the older son responded to the father. Did he repent of his hard-heartedness? Did he join the father and welcome his lost brother? Did he remain obstinate?
Why end without an end? The story has no conclusion because it is not just a story. Jesus is holding up the mirror before the Pharisees and telling them a three part story that is inviting them to repent and join the party. The story cannot be concluded by Jesus; it is the Pharisees who will determine the conclusion by their response to Jesus’ stories.
I wrote above that there is no example in the Torah of Moses or the historical records in the Old Testament of a father and son like those in Jesus’ parable and that is true if we restrict ourselves to earthly fathers and sons. But there is an Old Testament story about a Father who is generous beyond imagination with a son who repeatedly rebels and squanders all the blessings the Father bestows.
Since the father in Jesus’ parable symbolizes or points to God and all three parts of the parable focus on God’s joy at the sinner’s repentance, could the Pharisees have understood that Israel is the prodigal son?
Israel’s inheritance, a major theme of Deuteronomy, was planned and granted in principle from the time of Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21). The first generation of the Exodus could not enter into the inheritance because they were unbelieving grumblers who rejected God’s plan. But even before the second generation conquered the promised land and entered the inheritance, the prodigal’s Father already knew what would happen: “And Yahweh said to Moses: ‘Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger shall be aroused against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured. And many evils and troubles shall befall them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they have done, in that they have turned to other gods’” (Deuteronomy 31:16-18).
The history of Israel is the history of a prodigal son that falls over and over, is disciplined over and over, and is forgiven seventy times seven by Yahweh, the God of compassion and grace. If the Pharisees had properly considered that the rejoicing of God in heaven, depicted in the first two parts of the story, is the key to understanding the father’s joy in the return of the prodigal, they might have made the connection with Israel’s history and the Father who forgave Israel in the past and was always waiting to welcome the wayward son home.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
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