The Lost: returning

Prodigal_Sons_web17 Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.  18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  19 I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  20 So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.  21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’  22 But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  23 Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. 

25 Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.  26 He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.  27 The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’  28 He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.  29 He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.  30 But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’  31 He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.  32 But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’” 

The Beginning of the Return. The conversion begins in the muck and mud of the pigpen. It is there that he “came to himself.” While there is ambiguity in the moment, the trajectory of the story points to the moment of coming to point of desire to return home – the place where he has a place to be whom God calls him to be.  The moment shows the human capacity to renounce foolishness, to begin anew to reclaim one’s heritage and potential. Calamity finally brings him to his senses. He understands that he has no claim on his father and no right to be called son.  But if not a son, then he will return to his home as a hired servant. He carefully rehearses his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

He is not seeking to reclaim what he has renounced. Yet he knows that he, in any condition or circumstance, returning to the Father and his father. It is a classic penitential moment: address, confession, contrition, and a petition of healing.

After “coming to himself,” he rises and returns to his father. At this point in the narrative the focus shifts to his father

The Homecoming of the Son and Welcome by His Father.  Tashjian notes “As Westerners we cannot really understand what the father has done unless we put ourselves in the context of Eastern culture and way of thinking. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-footed and semi-starved, he would have to get to the family residence by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eyebrows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the town people. So when the son is still far off, before he has entered the outskirts of the village, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him.”

As the earlier parables had asked, “What father would do such a thing? Already being shamed by the actions of his impudent son, again shaming himself by running through the town making a spectacle of himself.”  But this father has been keeping vigil and sees his son coming “a long way off.” Anything but coolly reserved, he runs to meet his son, hugging and kissing him. What father would do this? Human? Likely, none. But no other image comes closer to describing the character of God.

The son has “addressed, confessed and expressed contrition” but does not get to the petition. He cannot get through his rehearsed speech. Ironically he does complete the “confessional” part of the speech, but the reconciliatory part is not the son’s role, but rather that of the Father, who makes his intentions immediately known: “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” These show that the young man’s father fully accepted him as his son. The robes and the ring were signs of high position in the family. Sandals showed that he was a son instead of a slave, since slaves did not usually wear sandals. There is no thought of recrimination, no policy of making the young man prove himself worthy. The only important thing is that he is alive. The son himself is more important than anything he has done: “because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.

One curious element of this portion of the parable is this: did the father interrupt the son before the young man reached the “hired worker” portion of the prepared speech? Or did the young man simply stop, already seeing the action of his father to run to him, perhaps the joy on his face, and come to know that he was already forgiven and restored as a member of the family?

The Episode Between the Father and the Older Son Who Stayed at Home. The story would be complete as it stands with the return of the prodigal son and the father’s open-armed acceptance. But another story interlocks with this one. The elder son’s anger and self-righteousness make him resentful; not even the return of his brother will make him share the family celebration. Here we again refer to the vv.1-2 and opening table scene between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Like the Pharisees, the older son has social norms and propriety on his side – the younger son has shamed his father and deserves to be shunned rather than rewarding such dishonorable behavior with a feast.

The tragedy here is that while the older son has never left home, never disobeyed, and has “slaved” faithfully – he has also never felt rewarded and thus resents the father’s joy at his brother’s return. Ironically, the older son acts outside the social norms as he refuses to go the father and enter the house, “calls out” his father, and then does not address him as “Father.” Once again the father has to leave the house to go out a meet one of his sons.

In contrast to joy, the older son feels anger or rage that is freely expressed in every gesture (refusal to enter the house) and word (his responses to his father). The anger he feels for his father is transferred to his brother. The older son has not only failed to recognize his privileged position with his father, but he is also blind to the fact that his father offers him the same constant care and concern – the father, again shaming himself, comes out to him also, seeking what is being lost.

Again the pivot is the father’s love. He goes out to the elder son as he went out to the younger. He wants both of them to be happy. The elder son cannot see beyond propriety and is trapped in his own righteousness. The father does not deny the faithfulness of his elder son. He implies that all that is beside the point at this special moment. Something far more important is going on: a son and brother has returned from the dead. Everything else fades before that fact: “But now we must celebrate and rejoice!” Within the father’s words is this key message: “one cannot be a son without also being a brother.”

The father has extended unconditional forgiveness to both sons prior to their repentance. Despite each son’s contemptuous behavior, the father assures them they are loved and belong. The attitude of the father is not determined by their attitude, but by his own attitude.  Martin Luther’s first theses was that “the entire life of the believer should be one of repentance.”  While doctrinally correct, it is not achievable in human effort. Even the mostly stoutly religious, in the end, must rely on the grace of God.  When all is said and done in this life, having lived well or no, one must leave all in the hands of a merciful and gracious God.

Notes

Luke 15:17 Coming to his senses: literally, “came to himself.” It should be noted that Luke does not use his normal word for repentance – a word he uses over 25 times in his writings. One might argue that this is the son’s moment of repentance, but a more likely suggestion is that the young man is not in misery because of his sense of sin, but because he has fallen on hard times.  The young man is not repentant, but practical.

hired workers: misthos, refers to day laborers, i.e., people without steady employment, who have no ongoing relationship to a particular farm or family. This status would be even less than an indentured servant.

Luke 15:18 I have sinned…no longer deserve…treat me: The planned three-fold statement is (a) a confession of guilt, (b) admission of the destroying the father-son relationship, and (c) a possible solution for the father’s plight.  But one wonders what the young man thought his sin was?  His insolence? His realization that he is unable to provide for his own father in the father’s retirement years?

Luke 15:19 your hired workers: The contrast here is between a member of the family (and heir to the property) and a misthios, and hired laborer with claim of permanence. Notice in v.22 that the father calls to one of the doulos (servant or slave) to wait upon the returned son.  In v.29 “all these years I served you” incorporates the noun douleúō “to serve as a slave.”

Luke 15:20 filled with compassion: compassion (splanchnizomai) occurs a dozen times and only the Gospels. Elsewhere the term expresses the divine compassion of God.

ran…embraced…kissed:  Even thought the father has compassion, the proper response would be for him to let the young man fall to his knees and humble himself before his father. The father would respond with forgiveness and a review of the new expectations – in other words, probation. The father’s action lack the expected decorum. In some Arabic translations of this parable, the translators refuse to describe the father as “running” so inappropriate and shameful is the action. The literal translation of what follows is the father “fell upon his neck” and began to kataphiléō (kiss passionately).  The kiss as a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness can be seen in the encounter between Esau and Jacob (Gen 33:4) and in David’s kiss for Absalom (2 Sam 14:33).

Luke 15:22 finest robe…a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet: indicate that the young man’s status is as that of a member of the household and not that of a servant. The description of the robe could also be suitably translated as “most prominent robe.”  There are texts which indicate that the giving of the ring means the prodigal son has supplanted the older brother as the heir (cf. Gen 41:42,; 1 Macc 6:15, Esther 3:10; 8:2).  The sandals are a sign of freedom and mastry. In the semitic languages, the most formal of greetings literally translates as “I hold your feet,” the action of a slave to his master.

Luke 15:23 the fatted calf: Meat was not part of the daily diet. The whole animal would have to be eaten in a short time or the meat would spoil, so the father is expecting a large group. Perhaps the whole village will be invited. The father is not planning a quiet family gathering but is making a public gesture to proclaim his acceptance of his son so that the whole community will follow suit.

Luke 15:24 dead…come to life…lost…found: A son who dies and is foud again can not but have deeper resonances for Chrsitian readers of all ages and times.

Luke 15:25 in the field: the older son is hardworking and loyal.  Note that he is not told of his brother’s arrival, but on his way home realizes the there is a festive celebration already underway.

Luke 15:27 safe and sound: The meaning of the Greek word is to be healthy, to be sound. But it is also the word that the Septuagint uses to translate the Hebrew word shalom, peace, which is much more than physical health.

Luke 15:29 note that the older son never greets or addresses his father as “father.” This is in contrast to his prodigal brother in v.27.

served you: douleuo is derived from the Greek doulos, a slave. The older son does not see his own status as son, but sees himself even lower than the servants/hired hands (misthios; vv.17, 19) called to prepare the feast. In Greek the verb is rendered in the present tense giving the sense that the son stills feels bound in slavery. Such an expression by the oldest son reveals great bitterness.

not once did I disobey your commands: within the Gospel, these words point to the attitudes of the Pharisees and scribes who did not need “repentance” as they kept Moses’ law.

never gave me even a young goat: the language again reflects the older son’s bitterness. The eriphos (kid goat) is in comparison to the fatted calf (moschos) of v.23 prepared for the the prodigal son. The former is a more common and cheaper commodity.  But also note that the kid goat was for celebration with his friends, not his father.  He is alienated even though he never left home.

Luke 15:30 your son: He does not say “my brother” but literaly says “this son of yours here, the one who…” The lanugage is angry and distancing. In vv.29-30 the older son has essentially excoriates his father for not being grateful for his obedience and so tries to humiliate and shame his father.

Luke 15:31 my son: dispite the abusive and shameful words, the father does address his oldest as technon, a term perhaps better translated as “beloved child.”

you are here with me always; everything I have is yours: Where the oldest saw himself as a “slave” the father affirms he is companion and co-owner of all that the father has.

Luke 15:32 your brother: subtly the father corrects the older one’s “this son of yours..” to remind him that the one who has returned, been restored, is also in relationship with the whole of the family.

with prostitutes: The older son provides a lurid, imagined version of the younger son’s ways while abroad – something the narrative had not given. Is this an echo within the parable of the charges levied against Jesus and the disciples for those with whom they would share table fellowship?

Sources

  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 294-305
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 568-86
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/
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