Prodigal Son

It was early September of 2001. 

March 3, 2013

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Commentary on Luke 15:1-32

It was early September of 2001. 

I had assigned the “parables of the losts” (Luke 15:1-10) for the practicum in biblical interpretation at the seminary where I teach. We started by sharing our experiences of losing things. We came up with the inevitable lost keys and even lost pets, but the stories of the extravagant joy of the characters in the parables seemed over the top. After all, the celebrations for the friends and neighbors cost more than the lost items were worth.

A few days later the attacks of 9/11 happened, and following them, the news reports of posters and photos captioned with things like:




All too rarely, there would be celebrations when someone was located. The armor of our privilege had been pierced, and suddenly we understood the parables. When the class met again the following week, our conversations about the text changed.

These parables and the one about the two sons (15:11-32) follow teachings on discipleship (14:25-35), and the parables are Jesus’ response to grumbling by the religious leaders about Jesus’ indiscriminate welcome to “sinners.” The examples — a pair consisting of a male shepherd and a female with her dowry coins — are people with limited resources.

The sheep is a precious resource for which the shepherd would be responsible to the owner if it should be found missing, and the coin part of the limited personal wealth of the poor woman who is keeping her own house or working for another. (Such dowry coins were the only “insurance,” should the woman find herself without her husband as a widow or divorcee.)

Leaving aside the “reasonable” point (at least from the point of view of people for whom the missing sheep was simply one among many) that leaving the other sheep to fend for themselves while he searched for the missing one was irresponsible, the contagious joy expressed in exactly parallel terms when the lost items were found makes clear their value. In the same extravagant way, the religious leaders are to understand, God rejoices when a sinner is welcomed back into the community.

Yes, following 9/11 we could get now that the “losts” were precious, but they were missing through no fault of their own. Not so the sinners: they did it to themselves, didn’t they? Perhaps not, since poverty and the demands of survival often resulted in poor people living outside the demands of Torah for Sabbath rest and ritual purity. But what about moral sins? Would those sinners be part of God’s yearning to welcome them home? The third of the parables in Luke 15 addresses that concern, in the story of the two sons. 

The story is well known. The obedient elder son lives responsibly in his father’s household, doing his part in the running of the family estate of which the lion’s share will belong to him after the father died. The younger brother, who would get only a smaller portion of the estate as his inheritance, asks for his share while the father is still alive. He is almost wishing his father dead! And he is removing himself from the household, for legally he would no longer have any rights to the property or even to its use. Like a sinner whose actions remove him from the community, the younger son is no longer part if the family’s story. 

The story continues to detail his “prodigality” — wasteful and lavish spending — after he left home. Though the customary title of this parable as the “prodigal son” makes that behavior the focus of the story and the basis of his need to beg forgiveness, in fact the damage had been done when he asked for his money. That traditional title also masks the fact that the story tells of two sons who become lost to their father. The gracious father welcomes the younger son back into the family, running out to greet the young man instead of waiting for the son to come to him, then giving him a robe, ring, and sandals, which are symbols of his status as heir once again. Then he throws a lavish party for the son and his friends, much to his brother’s chagrin. 

We tend to focus on the lavish welcome offered to and accepted by the younger son, but the story of his restoration is framed by the story of the “loss” of his elder brother. That obedient son went about his work, but when he learned of the party already underway, he scolded his father for not following the rules, and for letting the “little brat” (I’m following the elder brother’s implied perception) come back home with no demand for restitution. The younger one “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (15:32). The father offers a gracious blessing to the elder son: “all that is mine is yours” (15:31), but we do not learn whether he accepts his father’s generous spirit or whether he remains “lost.”

The word from this parable to the religious leaders in their reluctance to welcome sinners is clear. But what happened to the class’s reading of the parable in light of the experiences of “losts” on 9/11? We found ourselves in the story as both brothers and as the religious leaders to whom it was addressed. We could appreciate the joy at the restoration of life to the younger brother, without asking about his moral worthiness, just as we rejoiced at every story of life and act of heroism by first responders.

Distinctions and feelings of preference and disdain for various groups among the victims and survivors were absent. But we joined the elder brother in not being able to accept the possibility that even those who perpetrated that terrible act might receive God’s joyful welcome to the feast.