setting for the Parable of the Prodigal son (more correctly called “The
Prodigal father”) is the same as at the beginning of Chapter 15 and concerns
the murmuring of the Pharisees and scribes because Jesus eats with “tax
collectors and sinners.”
taxes (poll tax, land tax) were collected by tax collectors employed by the
Romans, while tolls, tariffs, and customs fees were collected at toll houses by
toll collectors, the group that appears frequently in the Gospels and is not
entirely accurately identified as “tax collectors.” Toll collectors paid in
advance for the right to collect tolls, so the system was open to abuse and
corruption. The toll collectors were often not natives of the area where they
worked, and their wealth and collusion with the Roman oppressors made them
targets of scorn.
designated as “sinners” by the Pharisees would have included not only persons
who broke the moral laws but also those who did not maintain the ritual purity
practiced by the Pharisees. The scandal was that Jesus received such outcasts,
shared table fellowship with them, and even played host to them.
beginning of the Parable which speaks of “two sons” indicates that the focus is
on their relationship to the Father
and not to each other as “brothers”.
The demand of the younger son is disrespectful and irregular. There is
no rationale here. He was breaking family ties and treating his father as if he
were already dead. The father divides his life among them. As soon as the younger son receives his share,
there is a progressive estrangement. He goes into a far away country which
indicates gentile land and mismanages the money given to him. He spends it all
on loose living. His descent into poverty and deprivation is swift. He descends
as low as to agree to work for a gentile and in a gentile land. Swine were an
abomination to Jews, and they were prohibited from raising swine anywhere. The
man who would dare to breed swine was considered cursed. Human beings even ate carob pods, which were
used as animal fodder, in times of famine. This is an indication of the
complete destitution of the younger son. He comes to his senses when he is at
the depth of his degradation and in the midst of mire and filth.
There are four parts to the
speech that the younger son prepares
An address – “Father”
A confession – “I have sinned”
Contrition – “I am no longer worthy”
A Petition – “treat me as one of your
The journey begins with
coming to himself and ends with his going to his Father. It means learning
to say ABBA again, putting one’s whole trust in the heavenly Father, returning
to the Father’s house and the Father’s arms. That the younger son is serious
about his return is shown in his action. He gets up from the mire and begins
the return to his father.
The father’s response is
mind boggling. While the son is still a long way off, he runs to meet him. In
the first century it was considered undignified for grown men to run. The
father sets aside respect and dignity. His only focus is his son. The son
begins his speech but is not allowed to complete it. The father interrupts his
son even before he can finish. He gives instructions to his servants for a
robe, ring and sandals all of which indicate that the son is given back his
original place as son. The call to kill the fatted calf is a sign that the
return of the son is to be regarded as a time of celebration. The dead son has
come alive, the lost son has been found.
Even as the celebration is
on, the elder son is introduced. When he is informed about the reason for the
celebration, he sulks and refuses to enter the house. Like in the case of his
younger son, the father goes to meet his elder son. However, while he does not
have to plead with the younger son, he does so with the elder son. The elder
son does not address his father as “Father”, nor does he refer to his brother
as “brother”. His argues his case on the grounds of merit and what he thinks he
rightfully deserves. Even as he does this, he points to the failings of the
younger son. What then is the point of being good?
In his response to the elder
son, the father first addresses his son as “Son” though he was not addressed as
“Father” and also reminds him that the younger son is also his brother.
Reconciliation for the younger son meant reconciliation with his father, but
for the elder son it means reconciliation with his brother. There is thus both
the vertical dimension and the horizontal dimension of reconciliation.
of the fascination of this parable lies in its ability to resonate with our
life experiences: adolescent rebellion; alienation from family; the appeal of
the new and foreign; the consequences of foolish living; the warmth of home
remembered; the experience of self-encounter, awakening, and repentance; the
joy of reunion; the power of forgiveness; the dynamics of “brotherly love” that
leads to one brother’s departure and the other’s indignation; and the contrast
between relationships based on merit and relationships based on faithful love.
we usually learn to demand our rights before we learn to value our
relationships. The younger son was acting within his rights, but he was
destroying his closest relationships in the process. How many times a week will
a parent hear one child say to another, “This is mine. Give it to me”? Children
quickly learn to demand their rights, but it often takes much longer for them
to learn how to maintain relationships. Governments and law courts defend our
civil rights, but how do we learn to defend our civil and familial
a distance, the “far country” can be very appealing. Young people leave home
for fast living. Spouses move out to form liaisons with exciting new partners.
The glow that surrounds the far country is a mirage, however. Home never looks
as good as when it is remembered from the far country.
journey home begins with coming to oneself. That means that the most difficult
step is the first one. The younger son had to face himself in the swine pen of
his own making before he faced his father on the road. Pride can keep us from
admitting our mistakes; self-esteem may require us to take decisive action to
set right the things we have done wrong.
the opportunity to restore relationships and remedy wrongs begins with coming
to oneself, it requires more. We must go to the person we have wronged. Was the
younger son just seeking to improve his situation, or was he seeking
reconciliation with his father? The direct confession in his interior monologue
confirms the sincerity of his intent. Neither the younger son’s pride nor his
shame mattered as much as his need to restore his relationship to his father.
He did not ask for his filial privileges to be restored. He did not even ask
for forgiveness. He merely stated his confession. When the prodigal son came to
himself, he came to his father. . . .
temptation a parent faces is to allow the child’s separation to become
reciprocal. If the child separates from the parent, the parent may be tempted
to respond in kind. The parable’s model of parental love insists, however, that
no matter what the son/daughter has done he/she is still son/daughter. When no
one else would even give the prodigal something to eat, the father runs to him
and accepts him back. Love requires no confession and no restitution. The
joyful celebration begins as soon as the father recognized the son’s profile on
as we may see God’s love reflected in the response of the waiting father, the
parable reassures all who would confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven
and before you.” The father runs to meet his son even before the son can voice
his confession, and the father’s response is far more receptive than the son
had dared even to imagine. The father’s celebration conveys the joy in heaven.
The picture is one of sheer grace. No penance is required; it is enough that
the son has come home.
this is the picture of God’s joy in receiving a sinner coming home, then it can
also give assurance of God’s love to those who face death wondering how God
will receive them. In the end we all return home as sinners, so Jesus’ parable
invites us to trust that God’s goodness and mercy will be at least as great as
that of a loving human father.
elder brother represents all of us who think we can make it on our own, all of
us who might be proud of the kind of lives we live. Here is the contrast
between those who want to live by justice and merit and those who must ask for
grace. The parable shows that those who would live by merit can never know the
joy of grace. We cannot share in the Father’s grace if we demand that he deal
with us according to what we deserve. Sharing in God’s grace requires that we
join in the celebration when others are recipients of that grace also. Part of
the fellowship with Christ is receiving and rejoicing with others who do not
deserve our forgiveness or God’s grace. Each person is of such value to God,
however, that none is excluded from God’s grace. Neither should we withhold our
parable leaves us with the question of whether the elder brother joined the celebration.
Did he go in and welcome his brother home, or did he stay outside pouting and
feeling wronged? The parable ends there because that is the decision each of us
must make. If we go in, we accept grace as the Father’s rule for life in the