Commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The parable of the two sons and their loving father appears only in the Gospel of Luke and is one of three parables, including the lost sheep (Luke 15: 3-7) and the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) that talk about repentance. The most common understanding of these three parables refers to unbelievers, where God searches for and welcomes them. Christians have understood the parable of the two sons as referring to two groups: the lost son represents the Gentiles who believe in Christ, and the elder son represents the Jews who rejected Jesus.
My interpretation focuses on the shame-honor culture as the context of Jesus and my experience as a Palestinian Christian, born and raised in Bethlehem, Palestine. Shame-honor culture is dominant in modern Palestine as it was dominant in first-century Palestine. I will demonstrate that the main point in the parable is God’s prodigal love.
Jesus begins his parable with the younger son asking his father for an advance on his inheritance. In Jesus’ shame-honor culture and mine, asking a living parent for an early inheritance is rude. N. T. Wright explains that “asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead.'”1 Children who make such a request lose their respect and honor, and their community ostracizes them. The parent’s response to their children’s request is usually a wave of great anger. I encountered a few cases when parents and children cut all ties with each other because of such an insulting request.
Contrary to all expectations, the loving father agrees to divide the property between his two sons. I believe that Jesus’ audience was shocked by the father’s and his younger son’s actions. No one should do such a thing. It takes the younger son a few days to gather everything he inherited and travel to a foreign country. It seems he wants to cut all familial ties.
The younger son wastes his money in dissolute living, and when famine hits the country, he becomes hungry and hires himself out to one of the citizens to feed pigs. The younger son shames his father by reducing his status from a son of a large landowner to an unclean man feeding pigs. He becomes miserable. The young man “came to himself,” which means that he came to his senses and eventually repented. He, as Joel B. Green states, recognizes “his loss of status, the deteriorating social condition that developed from [his] series of actions.”2
Returning home as a failure, a person is not well received in shame-honor cultures. In Jesus’ culture and mine, one would travel to a different country to work hard and succeed. If one returns home unsuccessful, he/she embarrasses their family. In my culture, the word “fail” connotes shame and embarrassment. However, the younger son returns to his father. He accepts the consequences of his actions. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him “(verse 20). Wright rightly explains that “in a culture where senior figures are far too dignified to run anywhere, this man takes to his heels as soon as he sees his young son dragging himself home.”3 I do not remember ever seeing my late father running. It is very unusual for senior women and men to run.
The loving father is thrilled to see his son. He ignores his cultural norms and runs to welcome, embrace, and kiss his son before the son can apologize. After the son’s apology, the loving father orders his servants to clothe his son with the best robe, put a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet (verse 23). The prodigal love of the father covers the filthy son with honor and love. He also orders his servants to prepare a fatted calf to celebrate his son who “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate” (verse 24). The father’s order is not accepted in shame-honor culture because we do not celebrate an unsuccessful person. The prodigal love of the father goes against all his cultural expectations.
Jesus talks about the elder son who is angry because his father killed the fatted calf, which is kept for important events such as weddings, to celebrate his younger son. He refuses to attend the celebration, distancing himself from his family. His father leaves the party to plead with him, but the elder son argues with him and describes himself as a slave to his father. It is a possibility that the elder son assumes that anything the father spends on his younger son will come out of his inheritance.4 The father responds with kindness by assuring his 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” (verses 31-32).
Why did Jesus tell this parable? Like the lost sheep and lost coin parables, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal love of a father to respond to the Pharisees and the scribes who grumble about Jesus mingling with sinners and tax collectors and eating with them (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus uses the three parables to respond to his critics who focused on the sins of the tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus demonstrates that God cares about the sinners and rejoices when they repent. Jesus eating and partying with the sinners symbolizes the feast and joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). These sinners welcomed and responded to the gospel. Jesus’ critics act like the elder son who refuses to rejoice with God over the repentant sinners. God begs them to join the celebration like the prodigal father in the parable.
Jesus tells us through these three parables that God’s prodigal grace and love reaches out to the sinners and outcasts, and God also does not leave out the Pharisees and the scribes. This parable should not be called the prodigal son but “God’s prodigal love”.
Jesus deliberately has an open ended story. He wants his hearers to fit themselves into the story and act out the ending. The church needs to act out the ending of the story, as well. Is the church willing to welcome the sinners who respond to Christ’s message? Or does the church refuse to join the party and celebrate with the repentant sinners?
- T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (United Kingdom: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2004.), 186.
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke ( United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 581.
- Wright, Luke for Everyone, 187.
- Wright, 189.