On the Prodigal Son and The Good Father

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

“A certain man had two sons…”: A parable about the goodness of God

Within the third Gospel, also the third book of the New Testament, the author, Luke, writes his account of the Gospel, that is the good news directly for Theophilus meaning God lover, or lover of God. The oldest traditions of the church claim Luke, a “beloved physician” (Laymon, 672), as the author of this book. Luke was a missionary, traveling companion, friend and coworker with Paul the apostle in his mission work in the region known as Asia in the time of the New Testament. Given the common themes of salvation and deliverance as well as writing style and audience, it would also seem that Luke is the author of the books of Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament. Church tradition also seems to agree and think that Luke wrote both of these canonical books.

It is likely that Luke wrote this gospel around 85 CE, however it is possible it could have been written a few years earlier. All that historians know for certain is that it is written after the destruction of the second Jewish temple in 70 CE. Luke used formal Greek language in his gospel that would have been familiar to the well-educated class of the Roman empire in the first century.

Luke is a unique gospel in several ways; his gospel was the second to last to be written with John’s Gospel the last to be written. Thus Luke could draw upon both Matthew and Mark’s gospels for his writing. He is also unique in that Luke uses oral sources from Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in the first chapter, and Mary and his families’ account of losing Jesus when he was 12 years old on their journey back home from visiting the Temple. Luke’s gospel is also unique in that Luke focuses heavily on Jesus’ parables and Jesus’ miracles of healing.  

Luke’s purpose in writing to his audience, whether one individual or a group of believers, was so that they would “know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:4). That “truth” is how God’s mercy is shown in the ministry of Jesus.  Luke is a deliberate writer as evidenced by his attention to detail and storytelling ability. Examples of this abound, he has a prolong in 1:1-4 to tell the reader and audience what is to come. He then tells the story of the infancy and childhood of both Jesus and John the Baptist to show the reader the role of both of these characters and their importance to God’s mission to bring salvation to mankind (1:5-2:52). As a full grown adult, Jesus begins his final preparations for his ministry by being baptized by John and withstanding Satan’s temptations (3:1-4:13). After this, Jesus ministers to the people in Galilee, gathering and calling disciples, preaching and performing miracles and teaching (4:14-9:50).

And continues to do the same in Jerusalem with many parables shows, the goodness of God in his relationship toward the lost and the self-righteous, and teachings on the end times and the future (9:51-21:38). Finally to continue Luke’s gospel ends as Jesus sups with his disciples for the last supper, suffers, dies is buried is raised from the tomb and ascends to heaven.

Throughout all this Luke presents Jesus coming into humanity as the fulfillment of the promise of God for salvation which brings peace with God and forgiveness of sins. This paper will not focus on the literal language of the gospel of Luke but only of the meaning and message because “[to understand the text] we need to get an understanding of language but that understanding comes through language; language brings something to understanding.” (Via, 34). Thus, this essay will focus on the message and meaning of the text and not the original language of the text.

This paper will focus on Luke’s three parables found in Luke 15 which includes “the Lost Sheep”(Luke 15:3-7) and the “Lost Coin” (Luke 15:8:10) parable and finally the classically named but incorrectly named “the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) parable.

Chapter 15 of Luke contains three different parables that scholar Joachim Jeremias states “contain the Good News itself” (Donahue, 147). Within this chapter, the reader can see Luke’s main themes of the coming of the Son of God to seek and save the lost. And within all three of the parables found in Luke 15 one can see the common theme of salvation, or rather finding that which was lost and God’s joy therein. This supports Luke main thesis of writing this gospel. This is the chapter in which Luke tells his audience of the Gospel message, which is that Jesus is the promised Christ of the Old Testament that has come into the world, humanity, to save that which has been lost.

Many modern biblical scholars are perplexed by the parables found in the gospels, leading to the producing of many different interpretations of the parables. In short, the most useful and perhaps the most acceptable understanding of a parable is, “is that short, unified story, embedded in a longer gospel narrative, that one chooses (or the tradition has chosen) for various reasons to call a parable.” (Tolbert, 17).

Moreover, as Tolbert continues, “many modern interpreters of the parables have turned their attention to the individual parable texts rather than interpreting them within the context of the total gospel or even gospel chapter in which they presently appear. [However] some scholars have purposely focused on the interrelationship between the parables and their gospel contexts in order to understand more clearly both the dynamics of the parables themselves and some of the principles underlying the construction of the gospels.” (Tolbert, 19). Thus it is wisest to consider the general context to the parable of the Prodigal Son as this paper will do in order to understand the themes and lessons Luke is trying to show the audience. However, it is not absolutely vital for understanding it.

The following is an analysis of the parables and their themes and commonalities in an attempt to find Luke’s message.

Parable of the Lost Sheep

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

When trying to find the meaning in a text it is important to remember who is speaking and to whom they are speaking. Here, we see Jesus teaching to the tax collectors, sinners, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Names of individuals within the Bible can always tell the reader something about the individual themselves; often they are representations of their relationship to God or their purpose in the story. In the case of Jesus, Jesus’ name can tell the audience what they need to know about Jesus; his name comes from the Hebrew word Joshua meaning Yahweh is salvation or Yahweh saves as the angel explains in Matthew 1:21 “for [Jesus] will save his people from their sins.”

Thus, Luke uses the name of Jesus and no given title to emphasize that he is the one to save the Jews and gentiles from their sin, or to put in another way, to find that which has been lost. Within the synoptic gospels, the Christ uses a parable to teach the people. A parable is an extended metaphor or a brief narrative or story for didactic purposes. Thus, when Jesus speaks in a parable he is meaning to teach his audience a lesson. And one can find the lesson that Jesus wishes to show by analyzing the text itself and the audience it is addressed to.

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”” Here Luke shows us who Jesus is going to talk to but moreover that they came to listen to Jesus. While on the other hand, Luke shows us in contrast in verse two that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law did not come to listen but to criticize Jesus for even being with and eating with tax collectors and sinners and not to listen to him teach. A tax collector “in the New Testament times were the Roman officialdom in Israel that had direct responsibility for collecting regular taxes, such as poll and land taxes [for the Roman officialdom].” (Buttrick, 522). Moreover, the Jewish people of the time regarded themselves as an oppressed people under the iron fist rule of the Roman militant empire. Thus, the Jews of the time viewed tax collectors as a type of traitor to their own people because they were working for the enemy, the oppressor, of the Jewish people. Thus, they were considered to be “sinners” a class of people, individuals that were considered to be dreadfully estranged from God, the sole source of all that is good.

Then there is the second group of men that are present at the teaching of Jesus in Luke 15, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The Pharisees were an influential party among the Jewish people during the time of Jesus given that they were the religious leaders of the Jewish religion. The main characteristic of the Pharisees was their legalism, their strict adherence to all of the 613 laws of the Old Testament. The Pharisees sought to achieve perfection of purity and purification by their strict, overbearing observance to the requirements of the Levitical code. By this the Pharisees restricted the people in their worship of God and became a bourgeois group rather than a popular movement. They restricted the worship of God to only those few, themselves, that could adhere to the law thus making everyone that wasn\’t them a “sinner” as well as anyone who willing associated with them. This is why the Pharisees mummer against Jesus saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”. It is at the comment that Jesus begins to tell them three parables directed at both general groups of listeners to show how both groups are lost and are in need of God’s salvation.

Jesus says, “ 4“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Here is the first of three parables within Luke 15 where “so distinctive of the Lucan portrait of Jesus that this part of his account has been called “the heart of the Third Gospel.” (Fitzmyer, 1071). Here we see the beginning of the heart of the third gospel with Luke’s emphasis on the theme of God’s love and mercy for sinful human beings and of Jesus’ call for repentance. Note the joy in the shepherd after he found his lost sheep, this is specially and explicitly applied to God himself in the concluding of verses of each of the first two parables when Jesus says, “‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ and again in the Lost Coin Parable, “‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’.

Here we see who Jesus is meant to save, those who are lost. The point of this parable is not only the shepherd\’s willingness to seek and save the lost but also his joy in finding the lost sheep. This is meant to symbolize God’s mercy toward mankind manifested in the ministry of Jesus to “sinners” who are lost. This parable shows what Jesus says himself in Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man has come to seek out and to save what was lost.”  This helps to further underscore that the parables in Luke 15 are about the seeker, or finder, and not the lost item or wayward son as the case is in the so-called “prodigal son parable”.

Jesus continues his teachings on the graciousness of God when he gives the second of three parables, “8“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coinsa and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” This parable makes the same general point as the last parable but instead of a relatively wealthy shepherd the main character is a poor woman who lost one of her silver coins, a heavy loss for a poor woman. Here she serves to portray divine intent in seeking out that which was lost, again meaning sinners and represents God’s joy when they are found; much in the same way that the father in the Prodigal Son will rejoice at the return of his wayward son.

These paired parables emphasis that is is through the ministry of Jesus God’s initiative and grace are extending in boundless fashion as they pass over the defection of the sinner and seek out instead such one individual to reform. If a mere human is willing to exert so much energy to recover a small item then how much more will God himself expand on a human made in his own image. As Genesis 1:27 states, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”. Here the reader can see Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees’ criticism of him and his company, the reason why he eats with such sinful people such outcasts.

Jesus then rebukes and teaches both groups of people in the audience in the aptly but incorrectly named “prodigal son” parable as the final parable of Luke 15 when he says, “ 11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

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. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

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! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.

“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.

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.’

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. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So 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. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

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

The previous two parables are about finding what is lost and this one does as well. This “prodigal son” parable is often seen as the apex of all Jesus’ parables and has been the subject of much discussion and interpretation due to its good description of the human condition by early theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. This parable is often considered by many to be the apex of Jesus’ parables due to the simple teachings on God’s mercy toward both the sinner and the   individual as well as its insight on the human condition.

The parable has also inspired much art such as Rembrandt’s depiction of the prodigal son’s return in Rembrandt’s famous painting The Prodigal Son as well known Catholic minister and missionary Henri J.M Nouwen states after seeing and meditating on Rembrandt’s painting for several days, “The more I spoke of the Prodigal Son, the more I came to see it as, somehow, my personal painting, the painting that contained not only the heart of the story God wants to tell me but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God’s people. All of the Gospel is there… The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God. It is like a huge gate that allows me to move to the other side of existence… For many years I tried to get a glimpse of God by looking carefully at the varieties of human experience: loneliness and love, sorrow and joy, resentment and gratitude, war and peace. I sought to understand the ups and downs of the human soul, to discern there hunger and thirst that only a God whose name is Love could satisfy. I tried to discover the lasting beyond the temporal, the eternal beyond the temporal, the perfect love beyond all paralyzing fears, the divine consolation beyond the desolation of human anguish and agony. I tried constantly to point beyond the mortal quality of our existence to a presence larger, deeper, wider, and more beautiful than we can imagine, and to speak about that presence as a presence that can already now be seen, heard, and touched by those who are willing to believe” (Nouwen, 15-16).

It has also led to a few interesting comments on the human condition by noted philosophers Nietzsche and, more recently, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the famed Canadian psychology professor at the University of Toronto in his biblical lecture series when he says this on the relationship and meaning of the father and sons, “[The prodigal son] is insuffictionally respectful to his father… and so what does the father mean [symbolically]? A father is a man, a man among men, but there’s the father as such and the spirit of the father and insofar as you have the father so you have both at the same time. You have the person of the father, that’s a man among men just like anyone other’s father but insofar as that man is your father that means that he’s something different than just another person and what he is is the incarnation of the spirit of the father and to disrespect that carelessly [the prodigal son] makes a mistake and goes and wastes [his father’s gift]. The story is laying out a danger and the danger is that maybe if your disrespectful to [the father] and you transgress the spirit of the father and if you transgress against the spirit of the father and lose the respect for the spirit of the father then that is likely to transform you into [something you don’t want to become] and that’s an interesting idea [because] it\’s particularly germane to the current cultural situation because [the father] receives intense criticism that is directed toward our culture and the patriarchal culture, so to speak, we’re constantly [abusing the idea of] the father figure. And to be careless of disrespecting the father is dangerous because you’re inhabited by the spirit of the father insofar as you’re a cultural construction which of course is something that the postmodern neo Marxists are absolutely emphatic about and to be disrespectful toward that means to undermine the very structure that makes you. Not all of what you are certainly, but a good portion of what you are insofar as you’re a socialized cultural entity. And if you pull out the foundation from underneath that what do you have left? You can hardly manage on your own, it\’s just not possible and so [the prodigal son] make this careless error about [disrespecting] the father, something like that, he does it without sufficient respect and he’s contrasted with the other son [who respects the father] and so maybe that’s what makes [the older son] strong and that’s what that story means it has something to do with respect and it\’s worthwhile to treat [the father] with respect” (Peterson, 2017).

While there could very well be many things said on this parable in relation to the universal characteristics of life, any philosophy in regards to this parable must consider the fact that this is a Lucan text, part of the Lucan gospel, meaning that it must be seen in the light of the Lucan theme of God’s forgiveness of the lost sinner. As Jesus continues in his teachings to the crowd when he begins the “prodigal son” parable “11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.” Here, Jesus introduces the three characters of this last parable to the audience of the Tax collectors and Pharisees in Luke 15. Given this opening statement on this parable, it is Luke’s intention for the story to be about the man and his relationship with his two sons rather than just the younger, prodigal son.

Likewise, it would also be a mistake to only focus on the older son for the same reason. The father is the constant in all three acts of the parable. Act one of the parable would be the fall of the younger son in 15:11-19; act two is the return of the younger son in 15:20-24, and the third and final act is the older brother’s reactions and the father in 15:25-32. Moreover, all three acts heavily focus on the dialogue between each of the individual sons and their relation and interaction with the father. Thus, emphasizing all the more than this parable is a story about the father and his goodness to his sons rather than the younger, rebellious son alone.

Jesus continues his parable when he says, “ 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.” Here we have the beginning of the first act of the parable that begins with the openly disrespectful request of the younger son. This request of  ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ is openly disrespectful mainly due to the reason that it was customary for a father to divide his estate amongst his sons, being his heirs, upon his impending demise but not until then. Here, the younger son disrespectfully requests, for his share of the estate while the father is still in good, at the least fair, state of health. Thus, the younger son has just told his father that he wishes he were dead, or perhaps die sooner. As Snodgrass states on this parable, “The boy may not have literally wished his father dead, but his actions show that he did not really care for his father or desire a relationship with him. He wanted the father’s money, not the father.” (Snodgrass, 131).

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.” Here, Luke emphasizes the younger son’s disrespect toward the father; not only did the younger son demand his share of the estate but then abandons his father, who was likely old and would need others to assist in caring for him, but moreover, wastes his new estate by squandering it in wild living far away from house and home. “Not long after that…” it is unclear as to why the younger son waited at all to leave or for how long he waited. This helps to emphasize how parables are not pictures but only extended metaphors for teaching purposes. Likewise, it is unclear as to what Luke means by “wild living” but given that Luke states the younger son “squandered” his wealth we the audience can only assume that the wealth was wasted.

14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” Here we see Luke painting the contrast between the son’s inheritance of the estate and the present, downward, degradation and desperation state. Scott’s commentary puts it, “In the final [verse], the son is reduced to wanting to eat the pigs’ food. This makes him like an animal so that he abandons even his humanity. His degradation must now be at an end.” (Scott, 115). The younger son is without food, family or tribe, and he seems to have lost his humanity. Jordan Peterson might very well be correct in correlating disrespectfulness toward the father and becoming something one does not wish to become.

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! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I 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.” “When he came to his senses…” This suggests that the younger son recognized his mistake, his sin, and wished to repent of, meaning to turn from, his   behavior. The younger son sees his situation in only legal terms as evidenced by him planning to plead for the position of hired servant and not plead to be restored to sonship. He believes he can earn at least some of the favor of his father that he betrayed. Recognizing that he has sinned against heaven and his father by dishonoring his father thereby breaking the fourth commandment of “Honor your father and mother” found in Exodus 20:12. The movement of the younger son in verse 20 is noteworthy. “So he got up,…” which suggests that the parable is about to change direction from a downward spiral and tragedy to be reversed and perhaps even suggests that he might be restored by the father.

“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.

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.’

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. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

Again in the second part of verse 20, the movement of the father must be noted. Here is the full proof needed to see that the younger son will be restored by the father to sonship. During this time it would have been considered dishonorable for a patriarch to run to anything, let alone a wayward son. And the father not only runs to his son but also hugs and kisses him, these being signs of forgiveness. It can even be inferred by the second part of verse 20 that the father had been waiting on the lookout for the return of his son, perhaps even knowing that he would return home someday. However, that is somewhat speculative given that it is not found directly in the text.

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.’ The son, even after his father has shown his acceptance of him, still insists on attempting to earn his way back into the father’s favor, but the father cuts him off before he can finish his speech. The father as the main character and point to the story is now back in the center of the stage and demands one of his servants to carry out his orders “Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” This not only emphasizes his main role and control in the story but also emphasizing the restoration of the younger son back into sonship.

As stated previously, Luke is an intentional writer; the robe, ring, and sandals are symbols for the younger son’s restoration. The robe is a symbol of authority, the ring is likely a signet ring so that the son can now act with the father’s authority, and the sandals were worn by free people. So not only is the son restored as a son, but he is also made free.

23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Continuing his control and the main role of the story the good father makes his prodigal son an object of honor and joy as he commands a celebration for his returned son. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ This verse helps to emphasise how that which is lost represents an individual in a state of sin and being found represents being restored, or made new.  It is important to note that the father uses the language of “…dead and is alive again…” in a figurative sense of the adjective nekros that is also found in Luke 9:60. It is figurative in that it is either meant to mean “thought to be dead” (because he was no longer part of-of the father’s household [familia]) or morally “dead” (because of his dissolute life). “Life” would then mean either life in the family or spiritual life (that of a reformed penitent). (Fitzmyer, 1090).

25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came into the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So 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.’  In verse 25 the reader can see another return, this time from the older son. To further the contrast of the two sons this son was working in the field for his father. Later, in a few verses, we will see that he does not work in the field as a loving son caring for his elderly father but rather as a worker, a slave laboring for wages from the father. The fattened calf would have been the most valuable animal the family would have possessed. This helps to underscore the joy of the father at the return of his wayward son along with the music and dancing that was occurring as well.

28“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” At verse 28 the reader sees and is moreover shocked at the older brother’s reaction to the celebration and how the good father was gracious to him as well, wishing him to join in the celebration. We see at verse 29 that the older son was, in much the same vein of his younger brother, not actually wanting the father himself but merely working for the father’s gifts. Thus, in this parable, there are two wayward sons, the younger being wayward in action the older being wayward in the heart. The older son still doesn\’t accept that his younger brother is restored to sonship by referring to him as “this son of yours” (30) rather than “my brother”. The father’s response to both sons is the point of the parable, as he says, “31“ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” Notice that the older son’s reaction or response is not recorded while we do know the full story of the younger son. But that knowledge distracts from the main point of Luke’s writing about the good father “who had two sons”.  

Thus, this parable is not solely about the younger son’s rebellion and his return nor is it about the older son’s rebellion but it is about the goodness of the father toward both sons. Both sons were disobedient in their own right, one in action and the other in the heart. This parable represents God the Father’s goodness in dealing with both the sinners and the self-righteous Pharisees who are present at the time of this teaching. The sinners in the audience would have identified with the younger son and the Pharisees with the older son because the sinners would have been rebellious in action and the Pharisees in the heart by way of their self-righteousness.

Therefore, naming this parable “the parable of the prodigal son” is incorrect and should be titled the “parable of the good father” given that it shows how God deals with both the wayward sinner and the self-righteous sinner. Thus, given the “prodigal son” parable and its context the reader can see that Luke’s purpose in writing this was to first to emphasize the compassion of God, which is one of the main features of Jesus’ ministry and message. The context for the “prodigal son” is important in that the reader can better understand the parable by seeing the similarities in all three of the parables in Luke 15. Similarities such as the joy of the seeker when the lost item is found and the value of the lost item to the seeker. The second purpose is that it is an invitation to rejoice, as seen in verses 23-24, over the redemption of the lost sinner, and lastly to defend Jesus’ association with the sinners. The parable’s incomplete ending serves to function as an invitation for the audience to take the same attitude toward sinners as the father does toward the prodigal son.

Citations

Scott, Bernard Brandon. Hear Then the Parable: a Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Fortress Press, 1990.

Via , Dan Otto. The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension. Fortress Press, 1967

Metzger, Bruce M., and Herbert G. May. The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Oxford University Press, 1965.

Tolbert, Mary Ann. Perspectives on the Parables: an Approach to Multiple Interpretations. Fortress Press, 1979.

Buttrick, George Arthur, editor. The Interpreter\’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4, Abingdon Press, 1962.

Donahue, , John R. The Gospel in Parable . Fortress Press, 1989.

Fitzmyer,, Joseph A., translator. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke. Second ed., vol. 28A 28A, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1985.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming. Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Walking with God: Noah and the Flood.” Lecture, 19 Aug. 2017.

Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Scott, Bernard Brandon. Hear Then the Parable: a Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Fortress Press, 1990.

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