For readers who are interested in the nature and purpose of parables, I am pleased to see that the venerable scholar Gerhard Lofink has written The Forty Parables of Jesus, released in July 2021. Luke is the king of the parable genre, though he did not invent it. The parables are believed to be an independent source—written and/or oral—that was accessible to Luke and Matthew but not to Mark, the first author. John, author of the last Gospel, does not employ the form. Luke records more parables than Matthew, including eighteen unique parables that include the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, and this week’s Prodigal Son.
Parables are one of the most intriguing literary forms in the Gospels. It is important that we do not reflect upon them simply for moral nuggets, though there are certainly moral overtones in many of them. But the common denominator of all parables is mystery; we fool ourselves if we believe we have exhausted “the meaning” of any parable—whether they are the short ones or the long ones. One analogy for a parable is a magnificent work of art which take us to new planes of logic and existence. In a few weeks I hope to visit the Basilica of The Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain, as well as St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice [on a May European study sabbatical through the auspices of the “University of Royal Caribbean.”] Can words alone express the visceral and spiritual experience of being, let alone worshipping, in these aesthetic environs? Or the writings of Homer and Shakespeare?
So it is with parables. It is important to quickly dispose of the minimalist definition of a parable, i.e., that it is a moral maxim on a par with Aesop’s Fables or Poor Richard’s Almanac. It is true that there are moral impulses to be cherished, but as often happens, we are in such a rush to extract the ethical point that we overlook the full mystery of the piece. One of my favorite parables—it never fails to spark a decent meditation—is this one: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and shelter in its branches.” [Matthew 13: 31-32] One can address this tiny parable in its parts—the kingdom of heaven, a mustard seed, an unknown planter, a remarkable growth spurt from seed to shrub to tree, the birds taking shelter in its branches. How—and when—is the kingdom of God like this? To what level of spiritual consciousness is Jesus taking us? In what way does this little vignette foretell the final glory of the Kingdom at the end of time?
In the case of parables, the mystery of the telling takes us to the heart of the Kingdom of God and points to the end of time. There is a particular kind of openness necessary to enter a parable beyond its face value. Luke 15, and specifically the parable of the Prodigal Son, is delivered after Jesus has “set his face for Jerusalem” for one last prophetic encounter with the enemies of God’s kingdom on earth. As he progresses toward his death, he puts forward the mysterious nature of the Kingdom for which he is about to die in a string of captivating stories. Given the placement of parables in Luke’s timetable, Jesus is attempting to explain the Kingdom of God for which he will soon die. If his listeners cannot at least open themselves to a logic or imagination beyond the strictly rational, they will be utterly scandalized and demoralized by the rapidly approaching terror of Calvary.
Which brings us to the dynamics of last Sunday’s Gospel. The “default sermon” of most churches and preachers is the forgiveness line. The young son seeks it, the father more than generously bestows it, and the other son is angry and alienated. And we in the pews are exhorted to be merciful like the father, who in this analysis is a surrogate for God the Father.
But does this exalt the mystery of the parable? Is it even a correct rendering of the parable? Luke states that the younger son asks for his share of the property, that in the law and custom of the time would have amounted to one-third of the full value of the estate, in land and livestock, allowing the father and other son to retain their two-thirds holdings. The Paulist Biblical Commentary faults the son for “tackiness” as much as anything, asking for his inheritance before the old man is cold. But the father divides the land between them without comment.
Next, the younger son left—having converted his share into liquid holdings—and goes to a distant country where “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” I checked a sizable number of commentaries on-line and at my bookcase, and none elaborates on the word “dissolute;” The assumption seems to be that he spent his money on sin, but the Scripture does not specify that. There are many ways to spend money that one might call dissolute—ill-advised stock investing, flying first class from Orlando to Tampa, Trump University—that do not attain the level of moral turpitude, just bad judgment. Today fathers give sons a financial boost early in life—as the father in the story does--to attend Harvard or Notre Dame. If the son fritters away his educational opportunity, that is a grave mistake, but again, not outright evil.
We do not know how the youth got into a financial fix, and he had nothing to do with causing the regional famine. As a foreigner he took the initiative to hire himself out to a citizen to feed himself by feeding pigs. He made a cool, rational determination that he would not starve if he worked for his father’s estate in the same capacity, and the Gospel quotes him as satisfied to return as a farmhand with no sonship claim on the healthy operation of his father’s estate. A kid grows up. Nothing to see here.
It came as a bit of a shock to me to discover that on occasion I do interpret life through the eyes of a feminist theologian, for in reflection on this parable I came to see the younger son as a “throwaway person.” In the story’s narrative, the younger son serves a purpose and then virtually disappears to the wings so that the listener can shift attention to the main protagonists who possess both the power and the major moral dilemmas in the piece. Even as an imaginary figure, it is sad to think of this youth’s miscalculation proclaimed from thousands of pulpits as a sin against heaven requiring an extraordinary outpouring of mercy from a father who, for centuries, has taken on the role of the God the Father figure in the parable’s retelling. But, as my friend Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend.”
The younger son disappears in 15:22 and the story turns to the two senior members of this family, the father and the older son. This elder offspring is a psychological enigma. There is nothing that would have stopped this older son from cashing in his inheritance and striking out on his own except, perhaps, his insecurity. Clearly, he is not happy in his father’s house. “All these years I have been working like a slave for you…” is how the elder son describes his “cheerful” home life. Luke is not careless about his words. “Slave” is an extraordinarily strong adjective in the context of father and son. It is also intriguing to hear the older son’s imaginings about his younger brother’s life off the farm. It is the older son who introduces the term “prostitutes” late in the narrative; one wonders if we are seeing a “cold celibate” for whom love of any sort is a distant hope at best. [For best supporting actor, my vote goes to the slave who briefs the laboring older son: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has him back safe and sound.” Turn the knife.]
Then there is the father, and the pastoral “default” in sermons and religious education classes is to identify him as a divine template. I must agree, though, with theologian Ann-Jill Levine who “sees the owner, the woman, and the father [in the three sequential “lost and found” parables] as having been responsible for losing their sheep, coin, and son, thus compromising the reading of the protagonists in the parables as metaphors for God.” [Luke 10-24, p. 446]
There is no indication in Luke’s text that the father attempted to dissuade his young son from the latter’s course of action. Jewish custom would have supported the father if he demurred such a request. Was he an overly indulgent father? And if he was, did his indulgence go out only to a younger, favored son? The older son noted that “you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” The literary contrast between the fatted calf and a young goat is striking.
The language of the parable strongly suggests that the father was always hoping and watching for the return of the young son. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion….” For all of that, he seemed indifferent or unaware of his older son’s anger and pain. And despite his valiant eleventh-hour effort to unite his family, there is the nagging sense that something has not been right in this family’s dynamic. Luke does not tell us if this “intervention” has legs—will the younger son continue to be the celebrated one, will he again discover his taste for wanderlust? Will the elder son discover his own capacity to forgive, not just his brother, but more importantly his father, who seems to have taken the faithful son for granted? Will the father grow in wisdom in his vocation of fatherhood?
As in all parables, there is a future oriented sense of mystery. Given Luke’s placement of the story of the Prodigal Son, during Jesus’ final journey to die for the Kingdom of God, it may be that this parable gives us a glimpse of what the Kingdom will deliver us from—the chronic alienation of humanity, even in blood families. It is an interesting point that when Luke records Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3: 13-28, he carries his lineage back to Adam, the father of Cain and Abel. [Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham.] Jesus, in Lukan theology, is a universal savior sent to save us from universal sin. As if to reinforce this point, Luke describes the post-Pentecost Church in Jerusalem in Acts 4 in this fashion: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.”