The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Luke 15.33-48: A parable continued

Posted by Ron George on September 8, 2015

33 And it came to pass that the father died, leaving all he owned to the elder son.

34 When the period of mourning was complete, the elder son said to his younger brother, “You have sinned against heaven by living a profligate life and squandering our father’s estate on high living with people of disrepute. Our father suffered greatly all the while you were gone, and it made him glad that you returned.

35 “Our father showered you with gifts you did not deserve. He treated you with respect you had not earned. He might have punished you severely or even turned you out of our house forever, but he did not, because he was blind to your scorn and your desire only for the pleasures of this world.

36 “You did not change. Our father might have made you a servant in his house, as you said, but instead he made you a prince; and, as he had done all your life since the death of your mother in childbirth, he demanded nothing of you, not even respect.

37 “His forbearance of your rude behavior as you were reared amid plenty under his roof was maddening to all, and the result was inevitable, as you left home taking what was yours and wasted it.

38 “And then, as our father lay dying, you would not trouble yourself to hold his hand or lay a cool cloth upon his brow.

39 “All the while I was constrained by respect and obedience to hold my tongue and keep my distance, because he believed that you would come to yourself and become the loving, honorable son he always wanted you to be.

40 “But you did not; and now, I am no longer constrained by our father’s will to overlook your selfish behavior and lying ways. You are forever banished from this place, taking nothing but the clothes on your back and the sandals on your feet.

41 “You are not worthy to be called your father’s son, and I will not have you as a servant in this house. Be gone.”

42 And the younger son fell upon his face before his brother and, weeping, raised his voice.

43 “My brother, what have I done that you would condemn me to death, for surely I will die in the world without means? Am I so evil that you would deprive me of the life that our mother bore into this world?

44 “Have you no pity? For both of us have lost our parents, and now we need each other as we have not before.

45 “I have sinned against heaven, but did not our father forgive me and rejoice that his lost son had been found? Can you not, for his sake, protect me from a destitute life? Can you not forgive me, too, that we might be reconciled and begin anew?

46 “Have mercy on me, my brother. Have mercy on me, a miserable sinner, and live in hope that, with your help, I might become a better man. I do not deserve it, but may I receive your blessing and be given leave to remain in our father’s house?”

47 And the older brother replied, “You are not needed here, and you are not wanted.”

48 And the younger brother was cast out.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Ghislaine Howard

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Ghislaine Howard

If Jesus actually told the story of the prodigal son, which is unlikely, it’s clear that it was meant to portray artfully God’s love for strayed humanity. Early Christian tradition certainly attributed to Jesus this sense of God’s fatherly love, even if Jesus didn’t tell this story himself. It rhymes with the Good Shepherd tradition, another parable that transcends practicality to make the point that God’s love is absolute as it pertains to every human being, especially the lost.

We prefer to think of this parable as a story with a happy ending, but there is nothing in scripture to suggest that the older son was mollified by the father’s commentary on his younger son’s return. The story makes its point, but it also raises some open-ended questions; for example, why would the father so graciously accept the self-serving return of the younger son; and did the older son ever really accept his unruly brother.

Biblical scholarship warns us against eisegesis, the interpretation of scripture that reads into the text what was not intended; but we are entitled to use our creative imaginations to reflect on what ancient stories leave unsaid. I’m thinking, for example, of The Red Tent by Anita Diamont and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. (See these links for novels based on the Bible, novelistic portrayals of Jesus and films based on the Bible. It is likely that these lists are incomplete.)

It’s a defensible view – though certainly not within the intention of the author of Luke’s gospel – that the father spoiled the younger son to the extent that the poor lad had no sense of obligation to anyone but himself and his appetites; and that the older son so deeply resented his brother that he would take it out on him after he became master of the house. That’s not the point of the parable, of course; so, what would be the point of supposing a continuation of this charming parable would be such a downer?

None, perhaps, except that it provides a little leverage on the origin and meaning of these stories to acknowledge the gut-level humanity of these characters and their issues. It’s helpful, too, to acknowledge our own feelings and culture-bound responses to stories in the Jesus tradition by investing ourselves as more than just readers and hearers of Christian scripture.

What does it mean for the prodigal son to get his comeuppance? Depends on the reader.

What does it mean for an author to tack such a down-slope ending to one of the more popular biblical stories of all time? Can’t say, really, except that I’ve always been skeptical of the prodigal son’s return and doubly doubtful that the older son ever forgave him.

Perhaps there’s even more to this story. Will the older brother ever relent? Will the younger brother ever reform? Will they ever see each other again?

Will anything like the love of God in Christ Jesus ever heal this broken relationship?

I honestly hope so.

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