Commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Preaching much-beloved parables is both a blessing and an immense challenge.
The Parable of the Prodigal Sons, also called The Parable of the Father’s Love, offers tantalizing opportunities to connect the parable to our daily lives, to our families, and to our experience of God. One of the main struggles in reading this parable is that once we hear the words “A man had two sons,” we quit listening — even as preachers. The challenge of this parable is to keep listening, to listen to it again, and to be open to the possibility it may say something new to us. Stepping into a parable — even a much-beloved parable — is like stepping into a river; you cannot step into the same river twice, as Heraclitus of Ephesus reminds us.1
Many interpretive strategies involve allegorizing the story, which frequently entail assigning identities to the sons and the father to people outside the immediate narrative.2 Amy-Jill Levine cautions against such interpretations: “In these readings and more, the younger son is the repentant Christian, the older son is the Pharisee or the Jewish people, and the father is God. Such interpretations not only yank the parable out of its historical context; they lessen the message of Jesus and bear false witness against Jews and Judaism.”3
While allegorical interpretations in a sermon can provide explicit connections to one’s daily life, the risks such interpretations present are manifold. At best, allegorical interpretations run the risk of missing details in the story. At worst, they mis-characterize and bear false witness in their interpretation of whom the characters might represent.
Resisting allegorization does not represent a dead end for preachers, but rather, it presents an opportunity to read the parable as if we do not already know what it says. The parable invites us to be re-introduced to the son who asks for his inheritance and squanders it, the son who works as though a slave and receives nothing, and the father whom love inspires to chase after both of his children. Who are these characters, and why does the truth of their stories resound with us so powerfully?
The sympathetic aspects of each of the characters in the parable are heightened by the speech attributed to them. We hear the younger son hatching his plan to return home and the elder son’s frustration when he realizes there was a party in his house of which he was unaware — for his property-squandering brother, no less. The contrast between the brothers draws the reader into the tension between them.
- The younger son travels to a distant land; the elder son remains home.
- The younger son indicates he is no longer worthy to be called a son and asks to be made into a servant; the elder son describes himself as slaving away and receiving nothing.
- The younger son is dead and then alive, lost and then found; the elder son is always with the father.
- The younger son is the guest of honor at the party; the elder son learns about the party from a slave.
It is as though the narrative itself tempts us to distance these brothers from one another, inviting us to choose which is the more beloved of the two of them. The parable refuses us this luxury. We must not forget that the father crosses the threshold twice. He leaves the threshold once to welcome the younger son home, and he leaves it a second time to invite the elder son to the party.
We must not forget the extravagance of the father is not only illustrated by his directions to the slaves upon the younger son’s return but also in his response “all that I have is yours” to the elder son’s protests at the extravagance of the party. The father cannot imagine the party without both sons’ presence. Though the younger son may be the guest of honor at the party, the party is just as necessary for the elder as it is the younger.
The parable invites us to sit with the younger son in the messes of his own making, with the elder son in the bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and with the father as he leaves the comfort of his home to bring in all that is lost and all that feels forsaken. The truth of this story invites us into a deeper relationship with the text than allegorizing allows.
Part of the reason this story is so compelling and so beloved is because we are never only one of the characters. Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear at being left out? Who among us has not chased after love, hoping it will be returned? Perhaps the temptation to allegorize will prove too tantalizing to resist, as we recognize in ourselves the deep hope and hunger that someone — God — will leave the threshold to come find us when we are lost or will invite us into the party in the midst of our fear of being left out.
- Quoted in Plato’s Cratylus, 402a.
- Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 133; Charles H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 94; Heiki Räisänen, “The Prodigal Gentile and His Jewish Christian Brother,” vol. 2 of The Four Gospels: Festschrift Frans Neyrick, Frans van Segbroeck et al., eds., BETL 100 (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1992), 1619.
- Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper One, 2014), 28.