By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, commentary on Luke 15, for March 6, 2016
There is probably no Gospel passage more beloved than Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Henri Nouwen and others have rightly emphasized the image of the story’s father as the God of infinite mercy and forgiveness, who runs to meet repentant sinners before they can even confess. Yet, taken in the narrative context of Luke’s broader story, there are other themes in this parable that are important to the journey of Lent. Jesus’ parable is yet another Lucan image of the solution to the problem of exile: the practice of jubilee, with its comprehensive forgiveness and freedom from all the relational breaches that are the “fruit” of attachment to money.
Luke sets the scene by portraying the Pharisees and scribes like the Israelites in the wilderness: “grumbling” (Gk, diegonguzon, matching Ex 15.24; 16.2; Num 14.2, etc.). But where the Israelites were complaining about the apparent lack of sustenance in the desert, Jesus’ opponents complain about Jesus’ welcome of sinners (15.2). We might jump to a conclusion based on a standard, but misleading, portrayal of the Pharisees as “legalists,” concerned with the strict enforcement of torah law, which would prohibit table fellowship with notorious sinners. But Luke constructs a portrait of Pharisees not as legalists, but as “moneylovers” (16.14, philarguroi). While there is no evidence that the historical Pharisees were particularly greedy or concerned with increasing their own wealth, Luke’s portrayal is designed to serve his own narrative purpose. In the chapter following our parable, Luke’s Jesus aims another parable, about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, directly at the Pharisees (16.15ff).
Another bit of background helps to situate our story. Luke is building on imagery from Hebrew Scripture about the circumstances in which YHWH would relent from punishing God’s people and bring them home from exile. For example, we listen to Jeremiah:
Thus says YHWH: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says YHWH: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says YHWH: your children shall come back to their own country. Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading: “You disciplined me, and I took the discipline; I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are YHWH my God. For after I had turned away I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.” Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says YHWH. Set up road markers for yourself, make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went. Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities. (Jer 31.16-21)
Similarly, in the context of the northern kingdom of Israel’s own defeat by Assyria, we hear the prophet Hosea proclaim:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. (Hosea 11.1-9)
In other words, it is YHWH’s character to be loving and merciful, like a compassionate parent, who delights in the return of the child who has wandered away.
We routinely refer to Luke’s story as “the Prodigal Son,” yet in pointing his words to the Pharisees, Jesus makes the key to the tale the reaction of the elder son. He simply cannot bear that his no-good brother is welcomed back without any punishment at all, and refuses even to recognize him as family. Let’s look more closely at the crucial exchange between father and elder son at Luke 15.25-32.
The scene begins with the elder son “in the field,” approaching the sound of music and dancing in the house. His initial location forebodingly echoes Cain and Abel (although Luke uses Greek argō for “field” while Genesis 4.8 in the Septuagint has pedion, an older word never used in the New Testament), with Cain’s haunting question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He immediately asks a worker what the ruckus is about, and is told “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” This leads the son to be angry (ōrgisthe), a label used elsewhere in Luke only to describe the refusal to celebrate the inclusion of the marginalized (14.21). Further, the son boycotts the party, a serious public insult to his father. The long-suffering parent comes out to his son to plead for him to join, itself a shameful concession that he has no control over his own son. This leads to a petulant rant from the son, shocking in its tone and message:
‘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!’ (15.29-30)
Both sons are utterly self-absorbed, with no concern for either the dignity of their elderly father or the family’s reputation in the community. But the elder son’s speech reveals something key to Luke’s message. The elder son presents his life as a financial exchange: his years of slave-like labor should have earned him a party with his friends. His own celebration would not be with the family, or with the local community, and certainly not with despicable characters like his younger brother! Further, note what he emphasizes in his portrayal of his brother’s sin: not the disgrace of the family in the eyes of the neighbors, but of the “consuming” (Gk, kataphagōn, from katesthioō) of property! This image will return later to haunt the Pharisees’ companions in this scene, the scribes, whom Jesus will condemn for “devouring (katesthiousin, also from katesthioō) the houses of widows (20.47). In other words, the son, like Luke’s Pharisees, are concerned with the waste of resources that “belong “only to those who earn them through hard work.
The father’s response seeks to lead the elder son to see it all differently, that is, to put on the “different mind” that is repentance (metanoia, 15.7). He insists that the son share in the family bond: “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.” In other words, the father is looking to the elder son more than the younger son to “repent”! While the prodigal may be motivated by his own self-interest more than true repentance (see 15.17-19), his prepared speech is cut off by the father, in favor of the expression of extravagant hospitality to the returned son. The elder son was not there for that scene; he simply doesn’t know the conditions upon which his brother returned and was welcomed home. All he knows is that having a party for someone who obviously can’t be trusted with money pisses him off.
Luke leaves the end of the parable open. We do not hear the elder son’s response. But the next chapter underscores the emphasis in the story on the theme of wealth. Jesus turns to his disciples to tell about a manager who “was squandering” (Gk, dieskorpisen, matching 15.13) property. The story ends with Jesus’ famous aphorism: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Gk, mamōna)” (16.13). The Pharisees were apparently still hanging around and listening, for Luke tells us here that the Pharisees, as “money lovers,” “ridiculed” (Gk, exemukterizon, literally, “turned their noses up at”; cf. 23.35) him for this saying.
And many today continue to ridicule Jesus for his radical opposition between service to God and service to money. Jesus, of course, is not counseling monastic asceticism: it is an extravagant banquet that is refused by the elder son (see also 14.16-23)! The question, here as throughout Luke, isn’t “wealth vs. poverty.” It is “my wealth” vs. “God’s wealth shared among all.”
It hardly needs pointing out that our own culture as USAmericans makes it practically patriotic dogma to insist that there are “no free handouts.” Calls for universal health care or college education are ridiculed as giveaways to those who simply don’t want to “work for it.” Despite the right wing rhetoric of America as a “Christian nation,” the Good News of Jesus is far removed from the narrative of the Protestant work ethic.
But what about us, who do claim the path of radical discipleship? Are we willing to welcome into our circles of discipleship even those who don’t appear to bear “fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3.8)? Are our own celebratory banquets open to the corporate exec whose “hard work” has produced wealth grounded in exploitative labor or the rape of the earth? Do we reach out to include those who disparage immigrants and other outsiders who simply seek a lowly seat at the banquet (Lk 14.8-11)? Are we willing, like the parabolic father, to risk our own honor to reach out to those who disdain themselves to offer hospitality to “sinners” (Lk 7.44-47)?
Jesus’ programmatic path throughout Luke is to proclaim and to embody the fullness of jubilee as the divinely ordained means to bring the exiles home from imperial captivity into God’s own reign of inclusive compassion. As we reach the halfway mark of our Lenten journey, may our own hearts be softened and transformed. If we truly put on the new mind that is Christ, (Phil 2.5), we will, in God’s name, offer extravagant hospitality to all.