A few weeks ago, the lectionary was in Luke 15, the chapter where we find the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Yet, the lectionary selection included only the first two parables, leaving the prodigal in a “distant country,” rhetorically speaking.
I was in Napierville with grad students the following weekend, and my friend Shon Smith asked if I would preach at the church there. The omission of the prodigal son had been rolling around in my head and so I wanted to take a crack at it. Shon gave me the opportunity.
Here’s the thing about preaching a familiar parable. It stops functioning like a parable, which is supposed to surprise the reader into a new way of seeing things. All of the images of this parable are so familiar: the ring, the robe, the fatted calf, the distant country, the pig stye, the father’s field, the party. Even non-Christians no want it means to be a prodigal son. And we know the meaning of the story. The Father is always joyful to welcome the repentant home. Oh, and, don’t be like the older brother who can’t rejoice over the repentance of the younger son.
With all this familiarity, is this still a parable? Has it become something else? A morality tale? A fable? A Disney movie? My goal was to see if I could preach it as a parable again.
I had one piece of disrupting information already at my disposal. I read Amy Jill-Levine’s interpretation that the phrase “he came to himself” is not indicating an existential awakening, but is simply internal dialogue. In other parables, the rich fool, the dishonest manager, and the judge who does not fear God, internal dialogue is the way the parable reveals the less-than-scrupulous motivations of its character. Has the prodigal son had a change of heart, or is he conniving? Is he repentant, or is he hungry? I am convinced that he’s conniving, which makes our common interpretation of the parable problematic.
But what grabbed my attention in a new way was the father’s reaction to the return of the son. Twice the father says, “my son who was dead is now alive?” Again, I had interpreted this as a figure of speech. The father had given up on seeing his son again, yet here he was! And maybe that is right. But in the story, the son doesn’t die and the son is not brought back to life. Not in this story, but there is a son of a Father in the gospel of Luke who dies and comes back to life. Is this a way of referring to Jesus? Is this foreshadowing? That would be a surprising twist.
Ok, here me out. In favor of my interpretation I have two pieces of corroborating evidence. First, in a parable later in Luke, the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus tells of a vineyard owner who sends servants to collect the profits from the vineyard only to have them beaten and sent back empty-handed. Finally, the owner sends his own son, thinking the tenants will certainly respect him. But they kill him thinking that somehow this will allow them to inherit the vineyard. This is the story of Jesus’ death in Luke. Like the God’s servants, the prophets, sent to Jerusalem from “Abel to Zachariah,” Jesus will suffer their fate and be killed. Could this kind of self-identification be going on here in the figure of the prodigal son?
Second, the parables in 15 go together, the prodigal being the climactic story. They should never be told separately. They are doing something as a collection. Specifically, they are Jesus’ response to the way Luke introduces the parables in 15:1. “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.'” The characterization of the “sinners” as “coming near to listen to him” is contrasted with the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling. The grumbling Pharisees are clearly the intended audience. So, how does this work?
The parable of the lost sheep ends with “‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who have no need of repentance.'” A few things to point out here. We have a shepherd and sheep, not a father and son. And in the next parable we have a woman and a lost coin, not a father and son. The figure of a father and son in the last parable is being saved for the big finale. And while we have rejoicing in both of the first two parables over the repentance of a sinner, we do not have grumbling–the occasion for the parables in the first place. Jesus is drawing them in for a big reversal. After all, who would’t rejoice over something lost, a sheep or a coin, being found? We’re not yet in surprising territory.
But notice that in the conclusion of the lost sheep story Jesus contrasts the one sinner in need of repentance to the ninety nine righteous who need no repentance. Clearly, Jesus is inviting the grumblers to identify with the righteous who have no need to repent. The trap is set for the telling of the third parable. The reader knows that Jesus is the hero of the story, the prophet of the kingdom of God. So, who are the ones far from the kingdom of God, not the tax collectors and sinners who have drawn near, but the grumblers who critique from a distance. Who is need of repentance?
There is a grumbler in the third parable–the older brother. And we know his take on the events of the story. “This son of yours” has left the father’s field, gone into the far country, squandered the father’s wealth with prostitutes, and come home to take advantage of the father once again, and yet has received the royal treatment–the robe, the ring, the fatted calf, the party. While the older son has never left the father’s field, served him like “a slave,” been “obedient” to every “command” and hasn’t even had a small goat given for a party for him and his friends. This is clearly the pay-off, where the parables have been heading, to unmask the grumblers. And it gives us the proper vantage point for understanding Jesus as the prodigal.
Let me be clear, I don’t think the parable is presenting Jesus as dissolute. This is a parable, not a morality tale. But this is how the Pharisees in this story view Jesus. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee for a meal when a woman identified as a known “sinner” breaks into the room and anoints Jesus’ feet with both ill-gotten perfume and her tears, and wipes his feet with her hair. And the Pharisees grumble, “if this man were a prophet he would know who this woman is.” The grumblers don’t recognize the kingdom of God and so don’t recognize Jesus as God’s prophet.
This final parable is being told from the grumblers’ point of view–from the perspective of the righteous who have no need to repent. To them, Jesus has left the father’s field, where they have dutifully and obediently stayed, and is consorting with the unclean–sinners. He is no better than they are. He is taking advantage of the Father, claiming to be a prophet, yet tying God’s reputation to prostitutes. He has dishonored the Father. To them, Jesus is the prodigal, underserving of the robe and the ring.
The shocking conclusion of the story is that the prodigal gets the fatted calf. The conniving one, the one who squandered his inheritance in dissolute living, gets the robe and the ring and the sandals. The prodigal becomes the occasion for a great party, because “my son who was dead is now alive.” And the older brother will refuse to go in, grumbling at a distance while others come near and celebrate. The parable works if the Pharisees recognize God in the figures of the shepherd and the woman who rejoice in finding what was lost. That same God now honors the one they think is squandering the Father’s reputation, the one they see as a sinner.
There are so many Lukan echoes here, I don’t have space to run them all down. But I think there’s a lot of internal support for this reading. Such a reading would definitely make this a parable again, rescuing it from the status of fable or disney movie.
It’s told for the older brother in all of us who refuses to see Jesus in the disguise of the prodigal, the prisoner, the hungry and naked, “the sinner.” Too bad. There are going to be some great parties.