Naming a parable or story that Jesus told is very important. The name we give to the story tells what it is all about. If we misname the story, we will surely misunderstand its message. In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells a parable about a father and his two sons. The story attracts the listeners’ attention by dealing with matters of personal need and concern, namely, money, family and relationships. Tradition has named this story "The Parable of the Prodigal Son." The younger son is the prodigal who wastes his father's wealth.1 The name “prodigal” (from prodigo in Latin) means wasteful. He asks for his share of the inheritance before his father dies, converts it into cash, and departs for a far country where he squanders the money. The elder son stays at home and works. In Jewish culture, he would not be considered to be a “good” son because of what he should have done and did not do. The compassionate father is portrayed as a helpless parent who loves his sons. He is helpless in that his sons make decisions that he cannot overrule. He is compassionate in that he never abandons them. If we emphasize the younger son who is the prodigal, we may miss the significance of the loving father. We often assume that the elder brother was considered good until the end of the story. His true character is revealed in how he would not forgive his younger brother. What title is most appropriate for Jesus’ message? The best way to answer this question is to place the parable in its original Jewish setting in life. How would first century Jews understand this illustration?
When this parable is studied in its original Jewish context, the traditional title "The Prodigal Son" becomes very misleading. In fact, the title that we know so well actually distorts the story's true meaning. It is a story with three key actors, the father and his two sons. The listener must pay close attention to each one of these performers. Three questions need to be asked: What did the father think when his younger son asked for his inheritance? How should the elder brother have responded to the family crisis? What laws governed inheritance? Here we must begin with the cultural setting of the story and note some of the mistaken ideas that have hidden the true message of Jesus.
Like so many of Jesus' other parables, this story about a father and his two sons communicates a profound awareness of the divine character. Sadly, however, this message is severely distorted when the parable is studied without sensitivity to its original Jewish context. With colorful word pictures, Jesus illustrates his message of God's unlimited compassion and the great spiritual need of every individual. Jesus teaches his theology through telling parables. It is a Jewish way of teaching. One third of everything Jesus said is in parables. If we miss the meaning of the parables we will miss the message of the teachings of Jesus.
The Father and His Two Sons
Note carefully the first words of the parable, "There was a man who had two sons" (Luke 15:11). The story deals with relationships within a family circle. Not only does the parable teach about the love of the father but it treats the relationship between two brothers. The behavior of the younger son, who becomes the prodigal, is only a symptom of the real crisis. Even though the father has great compassion, the family problems portrayed in the parable are immense. Neither of the brothers understands their father's love. Nor does one brother possess love in his heart for the other. In fact, both brothers are spiritually sick but in different ways. They both build relationships based upon money.
Jesus emphasizes the connection between the brothers. He is teaching about God's compassion and how people respond to it. Jesus is not making a veiled attack against the Pharisees. Such an approach, which criticizes the Pharisees, claims that they opposed repentance and the acceptance of the outcast. New Testament interpreters who make claims as this sort not only misrepresent the very core of the teachings of the Pharisees but they completely miss the message of Jesus as well. While Jesus criticized harshly some Pharisees who were hypocrites, he told his disciples to follow their teachings which were right (Mat. 23:1-2).
In the writings of the Pharisees, it is clear that they emphasized the love of God. They taught that God would receive with great compassion anyone who truly repents. The rabbis, who were the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees, taught that if a person would just take the first step toward repentance, by making an opening as small as an eye of a needle, God would take the initiative and receive that individual in love. For example, Rabbi Jose talks about God's great compassion for the sinner who repents. He tried to describe divine love in vivid terms to drive home the message.
Divine Compassion in Judaism
By the verse, "Open to me" (Song of Songs 5:2), the Holy One means, "Make for me an opening as big as the eye of a needle and I will make the opening so wide that wagons full of soldiers and siege battlements can go through it." (Pesikta Derav Kahana 24:12)
Like Jesus, the Pharisees believed that God was compassionate and desired to receive each individual who will make the first step. Divine grace is given to the sinner who repents and returns to God. By reading an attack upon the Pharisees into this parable, we will miss the point. Jesus intended each person to see himself or herself in this story. Each person who hears this story looks into a mirror. Jesus wants his followers to see themselves and examine whether they are like the younger or elder brother. Will the careful listener recognize his or her behavior in the actions of one of the two brothers? Each individual must examine his or her image in the mirror of this parable very carefully. In the end, the parable calls for a decision from the audience.
What did the father think when his younger son asked for his inheritance before his death? In reality, the younger son asked his father to die. This is clear from the Jewish laws of inheritance. The strong element of shock and dismay felt by the original audience often is lost for the modern day reader. The original Jewish audience asks how a son can be so cruel as to ask for the inheritance before the father dies. Money is more important to the younger boy than is his relationship with his father. The father in Jesus' story would have said to himself, "My son wants me dead." Pay attention to how many times the Jewish law of inheritance mentions the father’s death.
The Jewish Law of Inheritance
If a man assigned his goods to his son to be his after his death, the father cannot sell them since they are assigned to his son, and the son cannot sell them because they are in the father's possession. If his father sold them, they are sold [only] until he dies; if the son sold them, the buyer has no claim on them until the father dies. The father may pluck up the crop of a field which he has so assigned and give to eat to whom he will, and if he left anything already plucked up, it belongs to all his heirs. (m. Baba Bathra 8:7)
Everything depended upon the death of the father. Transactions could be made. Money could change hands. The younger son could sell the property of the estate but no land changed hands until his father's death. The Jewish law of inheritance from the Mishnah describes the situation in the parable of Jesus with precision. The Jewish law of inheritance, deals with the situation when a father initiates the action of dividing the property between his heirs. The sons could not initiate this process. The rabbis feared that if a father divided the inheritance between the sons before his death, that the heirs would not make certain that the father was properly cared for in his old age. So they made stipulations. All the assets and all property are divided between the heirs, but the father still retains rights and privileges. The son can sell property and receive cash for the sell, but the buyer cannot take possession of it until the father dies. The father may sell assets and property, but the buyer can only have possession of it until the father dies. The father can enjoy the income from assets for his own provision even though he no longer owns anything. This is the exact situation described in the parable. The younger son sells all and leaves home. The father still can order the servants to kill the fatted calf. But the father tells his elder son, “all that I have is yours.” This was literally true because the father had to divide the estate between both of his sons in order to fulfill the request of the younger brother.
Many people are like the younger brother. They want to live their lives without God. They want their inheritance but reject their relationship with God, the one who created them. They desire to be free of the Father's relationship and take care of themselves. They are like the younger son who asks for his inheritance. He desires a life free of his father and without his brother. The parable communicates to these individuals who are found in every audience of the story.
The reality behind this dramatic story, introduces the listener to God's incomprehensible compassion in the actions of the father. When people reject a relationship with their Creator as the younger son in the parable did, they are saying that they wish God to be dead. They want to travel into a far away country and live their lives as if God did not even exist. They do not comprehend the love and mercy that God gives to everyone who accepts his love.
The Elder Brother
How should the elder brother have responded when he saw his brother tell his father to drop dead so that the inheritance could be divided prematurely? In Jesus' story, the father actually divided his living between them, that is between both brothers (Luke 15:12). Sometimes silence speaks with a very loud voice. The elder brother received his share of the inheritance along with his younger brother. In fact, according to Jewish law, the elder brother receives two thirds of the inheritance and the younger brother would only receive one third (Deut. 21:17). The older son remains silent. In fact, he has a financial incentive to do nothing. So the original audience viewed the elder brother as being evil from the start. He should have helped heal the broken relationship in the family. In fact, within the Jewish setting of the story, as elder brother, he possessed a strong responsibility to act as mediator in such a family crisis. Instead he gladly takes his share of the inheritance which is twice as much as the younger brother's portion of the estate. His silence in the whole affair communicated a clear message to the original audience. In the Jewish family, his role is mediator. He should tell his father that he will set his brother straight. He should argue with his brother. Instead he does nothing.
The conditions set forth by the Jewish law of inheritance are reflected exactly in the details of the parable. The property remains like a trust for the father. He is able to give orders to the servants and maintain limited control over the estate (Luke 15:22-24; 31). The father has divided the inheritance between both sons but the law of the Mishnah gives him a measure of control over the assets of the estate until he dies. However the younger son is able to realize the value of his share of the estate before his father's death. He probably sold the estate at a considerable loss because the buyer would have to wait until the father died in order to take possession of the property. The people hearing the story understand that the younger son is taking a third of the family's accumulated wealth, selling it at a low price and running away from his father and his family's heritage.
The father allows his two sons to take advantage of their inheritance before his death. He is apparently in good health. He is victimized by his sons whom he loves. His heart is broken. He is a helpless parent. As a father, he was able to provide love and guidance for his children but his two sons possess freedom to make their own choices in life whether good or bad. Both sons are lost to their father but in different ways. The younger son leaves. The elder son is silent.
The Younger Son
The younger son wastes his inheritance. He goes to a far country. The idea portrayed in the story is that he goes as far away from his father and his brother as is humanly possible, like so many people who try to run away from their Father in heaven. They will travel to their own far away country and seek to be completely free from the loving care of their Creator.
In the far away country, the young man becomes desperate. A great famine sweeps across the country which causes immense hunger and human suffering. Having expended all his resources the younger son is forced to rely upon the benevolence of a non-Jewish foreigner. This man probably desires to run off the Jewish youth by telling him to feed pigs. As a Jew who humiliates himself by tending to the swine, the younger son probably expected some food from the foreigner who assigned him the unpleasant task. He was so hungry that he wanted to eat the food of the pigs. No one will give him anything.
The younger son makes a decision. He decides to return to his father. Because of his enormous need, he is willing to do whatever is required. He is willing to pay back everything he has wasted by becoming a hired hand in his father's house (Luke 15:18). When he says, "I will arise and go to my Father" he was saying "I repent." He decides that he will return to his father's house. He realized that he had sinned against heaven, that is God Himself, as well as doing wrong to his father. In Jewish theology, the concept of repentance centers on the idea of return. The person who repents is restored by his or her return to the God who loves his people. The younger son changes directions. Instead of going into a far country away from home, he intends to return unto his father's house. At this point, the son still does not comprehend the depth of his father's love and continues to view him as an employer. The father changes all this.
When his father sees him, he runs to receive him with great compassion. The father demonstrates his love and grace by running out to greet his lost son. The younger son does not have an opportunity to make a deal with his employer because the compassionate father completely restores him without condition. The lost son who has returned to his father must accept his position as a full member of the household. The clothes he receives indicate his restoration, and the ring, that the father gives him guarantee his position and his access to the father's support. The younger son is restored completely to the father's love. Because of the self-sacrificing compassion of the father, the son is restored. The broken relationship is healed. When the elder brother hears that his younger brother has returned however, he refuses to join the joyous celebration. He does not even enter the house. The father's great joy concerning his son's return is resented by the elder brother. He has served his father faithfully and feels that his brother is unworthy to receive anything. The elder son has the same problem that his younger brother had. He viewed his father as the employer who pays the wage rather than a compassionate father. The elder brother refuses to join the celebrations concerning his younger brother's return. In the custom of the period, he would be expected at least to pretend that he shares his father's joy. Again the father expresses his compassion when he humiliates himself in front of everyone and goes out to the courtyard to discuss the matter with his angry elder son. But how does the story end?
The compassionate father and the unforgiving elder brother stand in the courtyard. The elder brother shouts, "Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command! Yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make throw a party with my friends! But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!" (Luke 15:29-30). The elder brother fails to comprehend his father's love. He thinks of his father as a man who has the money to pay his hired servants. There is no hint of family love in his words. He does not even accept the prodigal as his brother but prefers to call him the son of his father. He has no accurate information concerning the activities of his brother, but is quick to make accusations. In characteristic fashion, the compassionate father again reasons with his second lost son. The elder son was lost too. The only difference is that his separation from his father's love is more difficult to recognize. There are many religious people who are like the elder brother. They are respectable sinners. The story does not come to a conclusion. It is left open-ended. Perhaps that is the reason that most commentators concentrate on the younger son and ignore the other lost son. No one likes a story without a clear ending.
The Message of Love
Jesus, the master story teller, is reaching out to everyone who hears the parable. There is a drama. There is a stage. There are characters and an exciting plot. What will be the end of all this? Jesus wants the listeners to step up on the stage and determine the story's conclusion by their own response. Jesus has adeptly placed the mirror in front of his listeners. They see themselves and decide what will happen. In essence, Jesus is saying that the decision belongs to the hearer of the parable. The listeners will decide whether the elder son will accept the father's love and demonstrate similar compassion to his lost brother.
The parable teaches God's grace. What is God like? He is full of compassion and grace. He allows his children to make their own decisions. In this respect he is like a helpless parent. No matter what terrible wrong they may work however, the love of God is never limited. The grace of God is freely offered to both lost sons. The younger son was a rebel who needed the love, forgiveness and acceptance of his father whom he spurned. The elder son was a saintly sinner who did wrong by not doing the right thing and then resented his father’s love. He had the same needs of his brother even though he continued to live under his father's roof. Both had a distorted view of their father. The father's grace and acceptance is needed by every individual whether he or she realizes it or not. The elder son wanted a savings account plan. The younger son rebelled against the father's love by wanting an unlimited checking account. But in each case, the father's unmerited favor cannot be earned. The sons simply must receive the compassion of their father and the elder boy must forgive his younger brother. He is concerned about himself but not with his brother. The father's love is a challenge. He is the model for his children. They must forgive one another in the same way that they have been forgiven. Relationships based upon money will not endure. The members of the family must interact with each other based upon love, esteem and respect. In Jesus’ story, the primary figure is the father. Perhaps the best name for this parable is, “The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons.”
The Jewish Theology of Grace
The Jewish theology of grace is seen in Jesus’ message which pictures repentance. The Jewish background gives insight. For instance, the Pharisees emphasized the magnitude of God's grace for receiving each person who comes to him in repentance. In the parable of Jesus, the loving father is the word picture employed to describe the nature of God. This glimpse of the divine character has many parallels in Jewish thought. While the father plays the leading role, the actions of his two sons describe the problems of two different types of people. Both brothers need God's forgiveness. Neither one of them is able to earn the father's compassion. But in the beginning, both sons view their loving father as an employer who pays his workers for the job they do. As has been seen, the rabbis also emphasize the grace of God. The Jewish literature provides modern readers of the parables a window through which they may gaze at the wider background of Jesus' teachings. God will welcome his wayward child who returns home. If people will crack open the door of repentance, God will do the rest.
One can never earn God's love. In the Jewish literature, a very similar parable is told. The parable of the "Loving King and His Evil Son" illustrates the theme of repentance and God's desire for his children to return to him. The theology of the rabbinic parable of Rabbi Meir illustrates the approach of the Pharisees who believed that God forgives the sinner.
The Loving King and His Evil Son
"'You will return to the LORD thy God...', R. Samuel Pargrita (perhaps of Phrygia) said in the name of R. Meir: The matter can be compared to the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent a tutor to him who appealed to him saying, 'Repent, my son.' The son, however, sent him back to his father [with the message], 'How can I have the effrontery to return? I am ashamed to come before you.' Thereupon his father sent back word, 'My son, is a son ever ashamed to return to his father? And is it not to your father that you will be returning?' Thus the Holy One blessed be He, sent Jeremiah to Israel when they sinned, and said to him: 'Go, say to My children, Return.'" (Deut. Rabbah 2:24)
The message of a father to his beloved son is clear. The son must not allow his shame to prevent him from receiving the unmerited grace of his father's compassion. The father pleads with his evil son, "Please return my son and I will forgive you for everything."
A parable teaches a message in concrete terms. The rabbinic parable of Rabbi Meir illustrates the compassion of God for his people. The magnitude of his grace is so vast that he longs for the evil child to return home. In the parable of Jesus, his Jewish theology portrays God's compassion to disobedient children in the image of a father and his two lost sons.
The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons
The so called "Parable of the Prodigal Son" should be named the "Parable of the Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons." In many ways, it illustrates the relationship of every type of person to his or her Father in heaven. The younger son is like so many people who do not want to be near religious faith. They choose their own way in rebellion. They run away from God and his compassion. On the other hand, the elder son is like so many who try to serve God in religious practice but misunderstand his great love. Rather than accepting God's unmerited grace and fostering a close relationship of trust, they try to earn divine favor. In Jesus' story, the compassionate father is the key player and leading actor throughout the drama. He loves the rebel who plays the role of a sinner despised by all. But the father also loves the saintly son who is every bit as much a sinner as his rebellious brother. He is a respectable sinner, but surprisingly, his needs turn out to be very similar to those of his brother. Whether one has deep religious convictions or rejects faith in God altogether, the divine compassion is the same. The needs of both lost sons are met by the compassion of the father. He is without power when his sons make the wrong decision to reject his love. In spite of rejection, the father is waiting to receive his sons when they come to themselves and realize their need for fellowship with him. Jesus tells his listeners what God is like and makes them see themselves in his ingenious illustration. The story has no conclusion. Each person must decide for himself or herself how the parable will end. In the same way that God shows compassion for his children, they in turn must demonstrate love for one another.
1) See my books, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 143-154 and especially the extensive treatment in my book, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 130-157.