2011/04/04 – The Prodigal Son Revisited

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is recorded in telling a parable of the Prodigal Son.

The parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son is one of the most well-known stories in the Christian Gospels. The outward story is that of repentance and forgiveness, but under careful examination, it is the story of manipulation, resentment foolishness and favoritism. We will show that this is a lousy parable, and probably was completely edited and reworked over by anonymous authors who wanted a specific point to emerge from it. This parable only appears in the Gospel of Luke, written in Koine Greek, the Lingua Franca of that part of the world at that time and probably edited from a Greek perspective as well.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Regarding Middle Eastern practices about inheritance, the son’s request is shocking and extremely bad taste. For inheritance traditionally is granted after the father’s death. In essence, the son wishes his father to die ahead of his appointed hour. Jesus for some reason, is asking a lot from his audience in the beginning of this parable, in that the son is so self-absorbed and greedy and without consideration to actually work to accumulate his own money, that he is wishing the death of his father so he may live high on the hog today.

The Father’s response is unfathomable. The expected outcome would be a royal ass-kicking and possibly death for subjecting a wealthy patriarchal figure (and the community!) to such scandalous dishonor. Yet, inexplicably, the Father gives the youngest son the money, and this act is even more inexplicable, since the Law of Moses, which we assume these good Jews followed, indicated the proper steps regarding inheritance: the firstborn son was to inherit twice as much as any other heir,* so the father is potentially risking to destroy the family structure (and breaking Mosaic Law!)  in order to satisfy a selfish boy’s desire who in any other case would have either been banished, beaten or slain.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

Of course, swine was a detestable and unclean animal in the Semitic culture at that time. Jesus is illustrating how “low” the son descended into poverty, that he felt himself less than the pigs.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

Motivated by a dream of a good, hearty meal, the son decides being a servant in his father’s house was much better than his current condition. The great wealth that was squandered is only vaguely considered but it appears that no responsibility has been taken for that. He scandalized his father, cheated his oldest brother and spent everything he had. But since he is the son of the patriarch, he could expect some leniency, especially after father gave him his inheritance!

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

This scene has been interpreted as a Christian symbol of God’s grace, compassion and forgiveness, yet, there is something missing. There is no intermediary. There is no death on the cross. There is no middleman between the Father and the Son. Which is interesting, as this parable of Jesus undercuts the need for a “savior.” In any case, the father is wholly supportive to the son. We have here a family dynamic where the father, probably after a chain of similar events, shields his youngest son from consequences, depriving the son future personal growth and maturity that only can be gained through walking through the entirety of his mistakes. So is the father directing his son appropriately here?

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

We do not have the interior dialogue or thoughts behind these seemingly contrite words from the youngest son, so we will let them stand and assume that they relate a genuine feeling of regret. However, we can also be aware of the possibility of young man’s manipulative nature as well.

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

The response of the father is completely mind-boggling. Yet, the experience of the younger son who had everything and then lost it all contains a faint resonance of the story of Job, who was a faithful and prosperous man of God who also lost everything due to some kind of cosmic bar bet between Satan and Yahweh. At the end of the story, Job is returned to his former glory several times over.

“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now he is found.” This has been interpreted as a symbolic gesture of the mercy and grace of God, who rejoices when any lost soul destroyed or lost in the world returns to him. There is a curious juxtaposition at work here where the son, by asking for his inheritance while his father was still alive, was actually sending an insulting message to everyone that his father was “dead,” yet the father was the one who expressed joy that his “dead” son was “alive” again. Is Jesus being ironic here, or is this parable the garbled remnants of an authentic message?

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

The eldest son is as incredulous as any Middle Eastern scion of a wealthy family, and he alone in this entire parable is reacting in an understandable way. He is hard-working while the younger brother is a loafer. He is loyal while his younger brother is out for himself. He is obedient while his younger brother humiliates his father by asking for his inheritance before the proper time. He is dependable, as he never went missing or never left town to pursue any other desire he may have held. We can all feel his pain and confusion for being punished for following the rules, and we can also see the emergence of jealousy, resentment and anger. We can be assured that the father has never made such a fuss over the eldest. The younger son is proudly beaming at the turn of events – preparing for a feast in his honor, dressed in robes, given a ring which is a sign of authority. It’s as if he’s being rewarded for fucking up. He may even manipulate his foolish father into giving him part of his elder brother’s share. He surely seems to have his father wrapped around his finger.

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’*

“Everything I have is yours,” is meant to mollify the son, but the son has already stated he feels like a slave within their relationship, so those words must ring hollow in the eldest son’s ears. Besides, it was customary for the eldest to receive the biggest portion of the inheritance anyway, so his father effusiveness could be seen as an underwhelming, perfunctory response. The father does not show an equal regard for his eldest son’s loyalty. Although noted, his reply to doesn’t come across as earnest or concerned as he does for his younger son return.

The father repeats himself about the joy of finding his dead son “alive” again. We all can feel for the father who has feared the worse for his youngest and is rightfully expressing relief on his safe return. However, we do not have the response of the eldest son in this parable. He must feel as humiliated as his father as the feast takes place and his wastrel of a brother being held up in glory as the center of the celebration! We can see him glower, stew and boil with rage, harboring deathly thoughts of vengeance at both his brother and his father. Maybe the eldest will slay the younger like Cain did to Abel. Maybe the eldest will throw his arms up in the air and leave the family to pursue his own goals. For his considerable duty to his father seems strangely undervalued by his father. The family dynamic, undoubtedly dysfunctional before this event, must surely erode even further.

Leaving aside the fact that the parable of the Prodigal Son would have been largely unintelligible to the Middle Eastern audience of Jesus (which betrays a layer of composition by Greek editors who reworked, edited and changed the original New Testament documents), we can see a Job-like story arc of gain, loss, suffering, repentance and gain, and this has been the traditional exegesis by Christian theologians. A closer reading reveals something else. An overly indulgent father who seemingly favors the younger son, the inconsiderate,  self-absorbed and manipulative younger son who disgraces his father and wastes his fortune that he created and gave to his son, and a dutiful older brother who’s steady, hard work and loyalty go unrewarded. If we can pull the dynamic apart a little further, we can guess what happens next: the younger son gets more of his fathers’ money, the blind, outrageous indulgence of the father continues and the eldest son toils away grudgingly, a condition that will likely explode one day in violence and fratricide. There is too much left unsaid. Has the Prodigal Son truly repented? Why does the father indulges his youngest son and dismisses the effort of his eldest?

In other words, why doesn’t the Father treat them equally?

* Deuteronomy 21:17

* * Luke 15:11-32 (New International Version, ©2011)

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