[Those so inclined may view my bracha for interfaith study]
In my last post, I initiated this series on the Parable of the Prodigal Son by pointing out that Jews and Christians are likely to read this parable in different ways. I mentioned that this parable has been described by some Christians as the “gospel within the gospel”, because (as at least one author has written) it “illustrates the mercy and forgiveness of God and the joy over a sinner who repents and returns.”
In this sense, the “gospel within the gospel” is like what theologians call “a canon within the canon”. A “canon within the canon” is a portion of the Bible, or a “key”, that we can use to understand the Bible as a whole. Sounds good, right? We can all use a little help to better understand the Bible. But the business of canons within canons is controversial. Some say that “one canon is enough”. D.A. Carson acidly describes the canon within the canon as “a subset of scriptures taught in exclusion to those that would result in true doctrine.” The problem with canons within canons and gospels within gospels is that stuff gets left out, and sometimes stuff gets brought in, to make sure we don’t miss the Bible message. There can come a point where we are no longer using the “key” to understand the bigger gospel or canon – all we are looking at is the key itself.
If there can be a canon within the canon and a gospel within the gospel, can there also be a “parable within a parable”? By this I mean a portion of or key to a parable that’s commonly used to understand the entire parable. In this post, I’m going to argue 2 things:
- There is a parable within the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and it’s the one I noted above: the idea that this parable illustrates God’s grace and forgiveness.
- While this parable within the parable is part of the parable, I don’t think this is the entire parable or even the most important part of the parable.
Our first step to understanding the parable within this parable is to read the whole parable. Forget for the moment what I say, or what anyone else says. Let’s see what Jesus said, or in any event what the author of Luke thought Jesus said. Here is the New Revised Standard Version text of the parable, found in Luke 15:
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
What a great story.
Next, let’s focus on the parable within this parable. I think that the “parable within” can be found in Timothy Keller’s terrific book The Prodigal God. Keller gives us a good summary of the parable, but I think this summary falls into the trap of the parable within the parable.
There was a father who had two sons. The younger asked for his share of the inheritance, received it, and promptly left for a far country, where he squandered it all on sensual and frivolous pleasure. He returned home penitently and, to his surprise, was received with open arms by his father. This reception alienated and angered the elder brother greatly. The story closes with the father appealing to his firstborn son to join in the welcome and forgiveness of his younger brother. [bolding added]
Compare the parable in its entirety to Keller’s summary. Naturally, Keller’s summary is shorter – Keller has to leave out parts of the story to produce a summary of five sentences. But where I want to focus is not so much on what Keller leaves out, but on certain elements that Keller included in his summary. Some of the elements of Keller’s summary may not actually be present in the parable.
To begin, consider that Keller describes the younger son’s conduct in the “far country” as the pursuit of “sensual and frivolous pleasure”, but this description does not match the account found in the original language of the parable. The original language of the New Testament is Greek, and the Greek word used to describe the younger son is ἀσώτως (pronounced “as-o’-toce”), meaning “wasteful”, “prodigal” or someone who doesn’t save anything (see also Vincent’s Word Studies here). Most English translations of Luke take the Greek a bit further – they accuse the younger son of “riotous living”, implying that the younger son was uproarious and boisterous, if not exactly sensual. Other translations say that the younger son engaged in “wild” living, “reckless” living, and even “foolish” living – but again, there’s nothing necessarily sensual in these descriptions. We do get a few translations that support Keller: “loose” living is one, and the highly respected New Revised Standard Version uses the phrase “dissolute living”. But from the Greek and the majority of translations, we learn only that the younger son was a spendthrift (and perhaps a noisy one). His “sin” may have been mere extravagance. He might have been nothing worse than a couch potato.
So, why does Keller tell us that the younger son chased “sensual” pleasure? Why do other commentators claim that the younger son wasted his money “among harlots”, or in “drunkenness”? One reason is that this feeds the parable within the parable. The parable within the parable is about repentance and forgiveness, so it helps if the younger son’s sins go deeper than an inability to find a job.
Next, let’s consider whether the younger son returned home “penitently”, as Keller states. “Penitent” means to feel or express remorse, and “remorse” means “moral anguish” or “bitter regret” arising out of a feeling of guilt for some misdeed. But the parable does not indicate that the younger son felt anything like “moral anguish” or “bitter regret”. True enough, the younger son did confess that he had “sinned” against heaven and his father, but we can hardly call this speech “anguished” or “bitter”, given that the son was giving the exact same speech he rehearsed before he left for home. If the younger son was feeling “moral anguish” or “bitter regret”, he might have been moved to vary the wording of his speech. Or he might have shed tears – in the Old Testament, both Jacob and Esau cried when they were reunited, and when Joseph was reunited with his brothers he cried so loudly that “the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.” If the younger son wasn’t the type to cry, he might instead have prayed like the tax collector just three chapters later in Luke. Luke’s tax collector beat his chest in sorrow and said “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” If the younger son wasn’t the crying type or the chest-beating type, he might have fallen to his knees, as in the Rembrandt painting above.
I think that Jesus’ audience would have expected a repentant younger son to show more emotion. We see the father’s emotion in the parable – the father “ran” to his younger son, “fell on his neck”, and kissed him. The Greek word used to describe the father’s kiss is καταφιλέω, pronounced “kataphileó”, and it indicates more than a mere kiss (which would be just a “phileo”) – it means to kiss passionately and fervently, or repeatedly, or affectionately. The parable seems to go out of its way to portray the father’s emotional state, which makes it more remarkable that the younger son’s emotions are not described.
So, is the younger son “penitent”? In the parable within the parable, yes. But in the parable itself? There’s reason to doubt.
Let’s turn back to Keller. Keller states that the father appealed to the older brother to join in the forgiveness of his younger brother, but you’ll search the parable in vain for the word “forgiveness”, or for words like “absolution”, “exoneration”, “exculpation” or “mercy”. The parable lacks the words “apology” and “atonement” – even the simple phrase “I’m sorry” is missing. The parable does express what the father is feeling: compassion. Compassion is a lovely sentiment, one I find entirely appropriate for this parable, but the dictionary says that “compassion” is pity for the misfortune of another, and pity is not the same thing as forgiveness. “Forgiveness” is part of the parable within the parable, but it appears in the parable itself only with some effort of interpretation.
There’s something more we should note. Keller’s parable within the parable says that the father appealed to the older brother to join the party. But that’s not what the parable says. Read carefully the following text from the parable, which marks the first appearance of the older son in the story:
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”
Let’s unpack this scene. The younger brother has returned home. The father has given the younger son the best robe, a ring and sandals. The father has ordered a feast to be prepared complete with the kosher slaughter of the fatted calf, and kosher slaughter is an involved process – even the non-kosher slaughter of a cow takes time. The feast includes music, which means that either someone hired musicians or the father has a house band. Guests have been invited and have arrived, and the party is underway. Time has passed since the younger son returned home, quite a bit of time, more than enough time for the father to inform the older son that his brother has been found and a party is in the works. After all, there was enough time to inform everyone else present at the party. Yet as the older son approaches the party, he does not yet know that his younger brother has returned home. The older brother learns of his brother’s return for the first time, outside of the party, from a slave.
We’re not given the reason why the older brother was the last person in town to learn of his younger brother’s return. Either no one bothered to tell the other brother, or the father decided to keep the older brother in the dark. In either event, the older brother has been excluded from the celebration.
This exclusion of the older son is not part of the parable within the parable, again for obvious reasons. The parable within the parable is highly critical of the older brother, viewing him as a self-righteous killjoy who believes that he can earn his father’s love with good works – in essence, the older brother is compared to the Pharisees who get criticized by Jesus throughout the New Testament. This reading works, so long as we believe that the older brother chooses not to enter the party.
But once we escape the parable within the parable, we see the older brother’s situation in a different light. In the culture of Jesus’ day, the older brother was expected to be present at his father’s feast from its inception, to serve the guests and act as the maître d’. Not only has the older son failed at this duty through no fault of his own, but he’s arrived late to the party after a day in the fields, dirty and wearing his work clothes. He might as well have arrived at a black tie party two hours late and wearing gym sweats. No wonder he’s angry: he’s been set up.
Keller’s summary reflects the standard Christian understanding that the older son should join the party, but once we escape the parable within the parable, it’s not at all clear what the older son should do. He can’t very well enter the party without cleaning up and changing his clothes (elsewhere in the New Testament, we learn what happens to those who don’t dress for the occasion!). There’s also the question we considered earlier: was the older brother excluded from the party intentionally, or accidentally? If all concerned simply forgot the older brother, then this becomes a 1st century version of “Home Alone”, and the goal should be to reunite the divided family. But if the older son was intentionally snubbed, then there’s no good way to proceed. Even the elaborate rules governing hospitality in the Middle East do not address what to do when someone is required to be present at a feast but is not invited to the feast, and then stumbles over the feast by accident. And when the feast’s host is the father and the person snubbed is the oldest son, even Miss Manners would have to punt.
It is at this perplexing point in the story that the father leaves the party to talk to his elder son. Ideally at this point the father should provide his older son with some guidance, and as we see in Keller’s summary, that’s exactly what happens in the parable within the parable: the father appeals to his older son to join the party. But once again, this is not what happens in the parable. The parable says that the father came out to the older son and (depending on translation) “pleaded with him”, “begged him”, and most commonly, “entreated him”. Back to the dictionary. “Entreat” means “ask someone earnestly or anxiously to do something”, and it’s in this definition that we see the crux of the problem: we don’t know what the father asked the older son to do! Keller assumes that the father is begging the older son to join the party, but it’s also possible that the father is begging the older son to go away. There are two other possibilities: we’ve been told that the older son is angry, so maybe the father is begging the older son not to be angry. Or maybe the father entreated his older son, “just don’t stand there, do something!”
With this discussion in mind, I ask that you go back and take another look at this parable. Is the parable within the parable still working for you? Does the younger son now seem as repentant to you, or the father quite so wise, or the older son quite so self-righteous? I hope not! If I’ve managed to raise a few questions, good, and if I failed to answer these questions, that was my intent at this stage. We’ll talk more about how Jews read scripture, but one cliché about Jews reading scripture is that we ask a lot of questions, and the questions can be more important than the answers. This is something you might have to get used to, if you’re not Jewish and you want to engage Jews in dialog. But if what you seek are answers, don’t despair, because this is a multi-part series. Please stay tuned. Much more about this parable will follow in the coming weeks and months.
I’ll end here with D. A. Carson’s prescription for the problem of the “canon within the canon”, which is “to listen to one another, especially when we least like what we hear.” If you’ve found what I’ve written here to be irritating (hopefully, no more than slightly irritating), but you’re willing to read more, then the hegemony of the parable within this parable may be in danger. Don’t get me wrong: we’re always going to understand that this parable speaks to the nature of God’s forgiveness. But this “parable within the parable” might have to make room for other readings, other ways of understanding.
This is what comes of interfaith dialog.
 I cannot read the Greek of the New Testament. I’m relying here on online tools. I welcome critical comments.
 In this as in many other things, I am greatly influenced by the work of Amy-Jill Levine. See her speak on this parable here.
 If you’re hoping for additional guidance from the original Greek, sorry. The Greek word used to describe the father’s communication to the older son is παρεκάλει, pronounced “parakaleó”, and while this word can mean beseech, entreat or even beg, the primary meaning of the word is “to call to or for”. In context, Luke 15:28 describes the scene like this: “ὁ δὲ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐξελθὼν παρεκάλει αὐτόν”, which literally translated might mean “but his father, having come out, called to him”. It does not appear from the text that we know what the father was asking his older son to do, and we cannot even be sure that the father was asking his older son to do something or not to do something.