Fourth Sunday in Lent

There was a time when the lectionary known to most churches of the West did not include the Parable of the Prodigal Son at all, even though it is surely one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.

Two Sons
"Two Sons," James Janknegt.  Used by permission from the artist. Image © by James Janknegt.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 10, 2013

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Commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

There was a time when the lectionary known to most churches of the West did not include the Parable of the Prodigal Son at all, even though it is surely one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.

To remedy the situation, it was assigned as an alternate reading for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (the Tenth after Pentecost, for which the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Luke 16:1-9, was the normal reading) in the American Book of Common Prayer (1928 edition) of the Episcopal Church and in the Service Book and Hymnal (1958) of major Lutheran Churches in North America.

But the three-year Revised Common Lectionary (1992) of today places it in the Season of Lent. It has been transposed therefore from being set in the “green” season of growth in faith and life to the more solemn “purple” season that has a more penitential accent, anticipating the Passion and the Resurrection of Our Lord.

The difference in locales within the church year has hermeneutical implications. If the parable is set on a Sunday in the Season of Pentecost, it takes on a more didactic and evangelic character concerning the mercy of God. But if it is set on a Sunday in Lent, and if one is insistent upon maintaining the mood of Lent, it can take on a more paraenetic (or hortatory) character concerning the hearers’ need for repentance.

While both of these themes can be drawn from the parable, it is the former that is actually more in line with the main thrust of the parable itself. And since Sundays during Lent are “Sundays in Lent,” rather than “Sundays of Lent,” it is fitting to allow the brighter, less somber, theme to dominate, providing a bit of relief within the Season only two weeks prior to the Sunday of the Passion.

In hearing and studying this parable, one should not give attention only to Luke 15:11-24 — the initial part concerning the wayward son and his homecoming (and so omitting 15:25-32) — to deal fairly with this parable. The reason for saying that is that at the outset Luke says: “Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons’” (15:11). In order to hear about both of the sons, one has to go all the way to 15:32.

The parable is framed well with the introduction at 15:1-2. Those verses set up the occasion for all three parables to follow (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son). Jesus is accused by the Pharisees and scribes of drastically inappropriate conduct: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The challenge is put forth, and Jesus responds with parables that, in effect, speak of God as one who welcomes sinners. Jesus, in his own ministry, impersonates the divine welcome by receiving and eating with sinners.

The parable — the longest of all parables in the gospels — consists of three scenes: (1) the negotiations of the younger son with his father and his subsequent departure to a foreign country where he is wasteful and becomes impoverished (15:11-19); (2) the homecoming of that son and the welcome by his father (15:20-24); and (3) the interchange between the father and his older son (15:25-32).

There are features of the parable that are particularly striking. Among them are the following:

            (1) The younger son asks his father for his share of what would eventually be his inheritance. That is remarkable, even shocking. Even if ancient law (Jewish or Roman) had provision for doing what the son wants his father to do (which is most unlikely from what we know, based on the sources we have) it is an affront to the father. In the ancient world, as today, an inheritance is received only at the death of the parent. Therefore the son’s request amounts to saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead!”

            (2) When the son leaves home for a distant country, he distances himself from his father and older brother not only geographically, but also psychologically. He is, in short, done with being with his father and others in the household.

            (3) When the son comes into difficulty, he becomes a servant of a farmer in the far country. The latter is a Gentile, because he has a pig farm. The son is an indentured servant, working for a set number of months or years. Feeding pigs would be in itself bad enough for a Jew, but to consider joining the pigs at the trough is to add degradation upon shame.

            (4) The son “came to himself” and decided to go home again. That does not necessarily mean that he had remorse (as in repentance), for the motive given in the text is that he realized that he was better off at home. True, he produces a speech, but does it indicate true remorse, or is it preparation for manipulating his father?

            (5) While one can argue whether or not the son truly repents, the focus is on the father’s warm embrace. The father has no idea why the son is coming down the road; he does not even speculate about his son’s motive. He simply sees the son coming, and he “runs” to meet him (15:20). In ancient times, a dignified man does not run! This is a feature of the parable that is easily missed, but it is highly important. The father does not act like a normal father. The father that Jesus portrays acts out the love and compassion of God.

            (6) The son has practiced a speech, saying that he has sinned; that he is not worthy to be the father’s son; and that he should be treated as a servant (15:19). But the father will have none of that. He embraces his son, and when the son begins his speech, the father cuts it off abruptly in order that he can give directions to his servants (15:22-24).

            (7) While the party is going on in the house, the father leaves it and goes to find his other son, the elder one. He pleads with him to join the celebration, but is unsuccessful. Once again the focus is on the father. He tries his best to bring about harmony in the household.

            (8) The dialogue between three persons in 15:27-32 speaks volumes about how alienated the elder son now is from his father and brother. He too has, in a sense, gone into “a distant country,” psychologically speaking. The servant tells him that his “brother” has come home (15:27). The elder brother, in addressing his father, uses the term “this son of yours” (15:30). But the father addresses him as his “son” (15:31), and then he says “this brother of yours” was lost but now is found.

            (9) There really is no point in going beyond the story as given to wonder whether the father finally prevailed upon the elder brother to join the party. The parable is open ended, and it is best not to try to rescue it to fulfill our own wishes for resolution.

The parable leaves two themes in tension. On the one hand, Jesus illustrates the love of God that is beyond human love as commonly understood and practiced, for no typical father would act as this father does in the parable. On the other hand, Jesus addresses the parable against his critics, vindicating his message and ministry, by which he consorted with the outcast. His critics are illustrated by the behavior of the elder brother, who cannot join in the rejoicing over the lost being found.

The two themes stand on their own, independent of one other. But they have in common something at a deeper level. Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. His message was about a God whose love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity. That love is celebrated by those who apprehend it in the gospel of Jesus, as illustrated in the scene of celebration after the homecoming of the younger son. But the expression of divine love also evokes resentment in those who assume that they know all about it and claim to know who is worthy of it, and who is not, as illustrated in the scene of the elder son’s refusal to join the celebration.

The congregation at worship is the place for celebrating the homecoming each week of the prodigals, including all of us, and driving away all thoughts of righteous resentments about who all is coming to dinner. Resentment leads to alienation, going off into a far country of our own making. As the father welcomed the son, so God in Christ welcomes us. That has implications for the life of a congregation. As Paul put it so well, “Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).