Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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 15:1-3 & 11-32 – NRSV)
This parable is unique to Luke. It is arguably one of the truly great stories of the Western canon of literature. “Regarded as ‘the greatest of all His [Jesus’] parables’ (J. E. Compton), it has, more than any other Gospel passage, entered into varied discussions and presentations of human conduct. From the earliest patristic commentaries on this parable (e.g. of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine), it has been the subject of elaborate interpretation and recognized as an authentic commentary of Jesus of Nazareth on an all-too-familiar human situation. It has lent itself as a subject for great painters (Dürer, Beham, Rembrandt, L. Bassano, G. van Honthorst), dramatists (Tudor Dramatists; Gascoigne’s Glasse of Government), choreographers (Balanchine), musicians (Animuccia, Prokofiev, Britten), litterateurs (A. Gide, L’Enfant prodigue), and philosophers (Nietzsche). One has only to look at the elaborate bibliography on this story in W. S. Kissinger, Parables of Jesus, 351–370—scarcely exhaustive—to get an impression of the many ways in which this parable has been reworked. Moreover, parallels to it have been uncovered in Babylonian and Canaanite literature, in the Lotus Sutra, and in Greek papyri. Yet none of the parallels or the retellings can measure up to or compare with the moving force of this story put on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel”. (Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, translation, and notes, Yale University Press, 2008, 1083-84.)
The renowned interpreter of the parables, Joachim Jeremias, has called this parable, “the parable of the Father’s Love”. (See Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, Charles Scribner, 1963, 128.)
the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him: See similar references in Luke 5:30 and 7:29. “In this Gospel they – ie ‘the tax collectors and sinners’ – stand for the outcasts, the irreligious, and the immoral; in this episode they flock to Jesus as they had to John the Baptist in 3:12–13, anxious to hear him.” (Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, op cit, 1075.) There is a strong contrast in Luke between those on the inside, as it were, and those on the outside.
Not only do the people who have been pushed to the margins of society “flock to Jesus”, but Jesus actually chooses to share meals with them. In this society table fellowship is a most significant thing. (Dietary laws and rituals around eating are a complex part of most societies. They become a particular issue in the early Church – see for example Galatians 2:12-13.)
The reference here to Jesus’ association with the outcasts of society suggests an important context for the three parables that are about to follow. At the heart of each of these parables is the theme of finding what was lost.
he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs: According to Torah, pigs are unclean animals – see Lev 11:7; 14:8. This a very powerful way of describing how desperate the young man is.
while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him: This is the hinge of the parable. The father is waiting, on the lookout. The Greek word, here translated as “filled with compassion”, is esplagchnisthē. Our highly rational way of thinking does not have any way of saying what is going on here that conveys the depth of feeling in the father: “Luke uses the same verb (splangnizomai) as was attributed to Jesus in 7:13 and the good Samaritan in 10:33. The initiative is shifted to the father. He sees, feels, runs, embraces and kisses his son. The embrace (literally “fell on his neck”) and kiss, recall the recognition scene in Gen 45:14–15, where Joseph embraces and kisses Benjamin as his brother, and Gen 46:29 where he greets Jacob as his father. The same gesture occurs in Acts 20:37. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 237.)
The parables of Jesus help us to remember that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. Parables dismantle our confident answers that we use as fig leaves to hide our anxiety. They beckon us into the mystery that is life, lived daily but mostly missed by us who live it. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son – so-called – epitomizes all that is enlivening, enlightening and enchanting about parables.
Parables live through metaphors and point to what cannot be said but is much more important than what is said. The modern Western mind-set is troubled by this. “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 82.)
We inherited this disability – in part at least – by filtering the life and teachings of Jesus through Greek philosophy. The modern Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Geographically and historically Jerusalem and Athens …. are not too far removed from each other. Spiritually they are worlds apart”. (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Straus & Girouox, 1978, 15). Much of the richness and power of Jesus’ teachings is lost in the abstractness of Greek thinking.
That said, we should note that the observation of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle: “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” (Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle, Volume 11, translated by W. D. Ross, Ed., W. R. Roberts, E. S. Forster, & I. Bywater, The Clarendon Press, 1924, 1457b.) Jesus was “a master of metaphor” and a “genius”. If we are willing, and know how, we can be “drawn into the Kingdom” by listening to the parables.
Give your rational mind a rest. Listen to this parable with your imagination. Do not get caught up in the niceties of Jewish law concerning inheritance and estates. Listen for the relationships and feel what is happening there. Be the youngest son. Be the father. Be the eldest son. What is it like? Are you reminded of anything in yourself? Let the movement of the story affect you.
Imagine a different title for this parable – what name would you give it?