The Prodigal Project (Part 2: The Parable Within The Parable)

[Those so inclined may view my bracha for interfaith study]

Prodigal-Son-Painting-150x150In 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).[1] 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.[2]

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”[3].  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.

[1] I cannot read the Greek of the New Testament. I’m relying here on online tools. I welcome critical comments.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

  • AJ

    Good post – I like getting into the actual text. A few reactions…

    1. About the younger brother’s “sins”…

    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”…?

    I’m not sure I understand the force of the question. In verse 30 the older brother says explicitly that his younger brother “has devoured your property with prostitutes”. So isn’t it reasonable for Keller and others to interpret the “dissolute living” of verse 13 along those lines (especially in a short synopsis)? Unless you want to argue that the older brother misrepresented his younger brother’s actions to be worse than they were, and in fact he really was just a “couch potato” like you say.

    2. About his being “penitent”…

    I agree – when I first read the parable I didn’t get the sense of sincere repentance on the part of the younger son. His contrition doesn’t seem to be motivated by a “spiritual awakening” but rather by lack of FOOD. Verse 17 says: “When he came to himself”, meaning he had some sort of realization. What was that realization? The verse continues: “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” Only THEN does he come up with a plan to go back to his father in contrition. Which leaves the reader with the distinct impression that if he weren’t dying of hunger, he would never have devised this plan to return to his father and confess his “sins”! And I think you make a good case that it does sound calculated and rehearsed rather than emotionally genuine.

    On the other hand…

    Lots of people get motivated to repent not because they truly realize the error of their ways, but because they’ve hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn. And we accept that the words people use at the time they confess/apologize are not simply ones of pure, sincere regret over past actions, but that they typically contain a large measure of expedience and appeasement. It’s part show, part verbal manipulation, part embarrassment, part regret for landing themselves in their situation, part regret for “sins” committed, and part sincere readiness to turn their life around. We understand it’s a mixed bag, and that even the positive intent to change often fades all too soon. That’s part of what makes them so pathetic as to arouse “compassion”. (In fact, one could argue that full/true penitence negates the need for “compassion”, since the forgiveness is quasi-deserved, “earned”.) In other words, nobody’s perfect – even in repentance. Or to word it more radically, the imperfection of the repentance is part of what makes it so perfect!

    What’s more, the father in the parable doesn’t seem to be concerned with his son’s degree of sincerity, or even with words of penitence at all. He runs to him and hugs/kisses him BEFORE his son ever delivers his line about having sinned. And the father doesn’t seem to react or care about these words. Right after the confession/apology, the verse says, “But the father said to his slaves…” The word is “BUT”, as if to say that he wouldn’t hear of what his son was saying – he just wants to celebrate his return!

    You could say that maybe we’re blessed with being naive in this way, taking people back even if we know that in all likelihood they haven’t truly changed their ways. Point being, the act of “coming back” itself seems to be regarded as penitence enough.

    3. About the older brother…

    It’s an interesting point about the older brother not being informed about his brother’s return or about the celebration. You’re right – it could point to his being “excluded”, or simply forgotten. On the other hand, it could simply be a narrative device to heighten the emotion of the “finding out” (like Joseph incredulously letting all that time go by without telling his family he was viceroy of Egypt, but which gives the reunion scene its emotional “punch”). In this case, it heightens the sense that there’s a celebration happening, and the older brother is “outside” and doesn’t want to go in. I like your creative alternative readings here, but I see the plain meaning of his father’s “pleading” as explained by the verse immediately before: “Then he became angry and refused to go in.” The pleading thus reads something to the effect of: “Please don’t be angry with your brother or with me. Please come in and join the celebration.” That’s why he then explains his reasoning behind the celebration.

    Notwithstanding what I said in an earlier comment about looking at the story “per se” and not just the parable, I find it very difficult to escape the meaning of the story now that I’ve read it in context! The first 10 verses of Luke 15 (before this parable) indicate very clearly what our parable is about: Welcoming back sinners with joy. And further: that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (verse 7). It’s therefore clear who the older brother represents: “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (verse 2). The older brother is the grumbling righteous person who needs no repentance (“righteous” in that he did the right thing all those years, and “grumbling” in the sense of “all these years I have been working like a slave for you” – i.e. he felt no great joy in the work – he was resentful about it). He doesn’t want to eat with his brother the “sinner”. In fact, he doesn’t even refer to him as “my brother” but rather “this son of yours”. The father’s celebration over his lost son is the “joy in heaven” for the penitent sinner which is greater than the joy for the righteous – and it’s also the reason the older brother never had a party thrown for him before. So yes, there is a feeling of the older brother’s “exclusion” from the celebration – but the parable tells us (again with the first verses of the chapter in mind) that this exclusion is entirely self-imposed.

    My sense is that if someone wants to argue otherwise, they have to do a lot of talking!

    I have more to say about the “message” here, but I’ll leave that for a later time. Again, great post.

    • lbehrendt

      AJ, thanks for the nice words, and on to your reactions.

      1. OK, you caught me! Yes, the assumption that the younger son wasted his money “among harlots” IS probably based on verse 30. But: how could the older brother have known what his younger sibling had been up to? I plan to go deeper into this, but there’s at least the possibility that the older son is, to paraphrase the Ninth Commandment, bearing false witness. Consider that, as the older son accuses the younger of consorting with prostitutes, he is also revealed as the last person in town to know of his younger brother’s return. He’s not exactly looking like the world’s greatest expert on his younger brother!

      2. I don’t think the younger brother was dying of hunger in verse 17. If he was dying of hunger, how did he manage the penniless journey back home? If he was dying of hunger, then how come his father didn’t order the slaves to bring the son a hot meal along with the robe, ring and sandals? Other than this, I agree with what you said that that repentance is a mixed bag, and that lots of people sincerely repent only after first hitting rock bottom. In particular, I love what you said about the perfect imperfection of repentance. We will need to go much deeper into the meeting between the father and the younger son – right now, all I’m trying to do is to get you thinking, and it looks like I succeeded!

      3. In upcoming posts, I will look more carefully at what the older brother did or did not know. Yes, perhaps we should read the story as if the older brother had been told of the prodigal’s return in a timely way, so that it’s just for dramatic effect that the parable shows the older brother learning of the prodigal’s return outside of the welcome home party.

      Good for you that you’re reading this parable in context! You’re quite right that the parable of the prodigal son needs to be read in context with the two parables that come before (lost sheep, lost coin), and as a response to the grumbling Pharisees in Luke 15:2. I WILL get to that context, and soon. But you’re right: while the word “repentance” appears nowhere in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it DOES appear in the two preceding parables. Some quick thoughts in response. First: coins do not repent; neither do sheep. Amy-Jill Levine says that these parables are not so much about repentance as they are about the searching, and the joy in finding, and the party afterwards. We can connect this up to what you said above: repentance is a mixed bag. The searching and finding may be connected to repentance (at least, I see that connection), but not be the same thing as repentance. Second: you’re quite right to focus on the parable’s wording in Luke 15:28 – the older son “refused” to go into the party. That’s another point in the story that requires some hard thinking. Clearly, the older brother doesn’t much like this party! Clearly, the older brother’s initial choice is not to enter the party. But that doesn’t mean that the older brother was welcome at the party. The use of the word “refuse” may not mean that the older brother turned down an invitation. I could say that I refuse to spend my evenings in wild and drunken revelry, and someone could fairly respond, “so, who ever asked you?”

      • Niccolo Donzella

        Great post and topic!

        As to 1: it seems to me that the older brother is relating information he has received about his sibling’s activities from some source in that “distant country,” as he knows that his younger brother has “devoured” his father’s “property”, even if he doesn’t know he has returned. That the older son also knows how his sibling has “devoured” that property does not indicate false witness to me. Rather, it seems to me word or gossip has gotten back to him.

        With respect to the father’s “property,” by the way, I note that the father states “all that is mine is yours,” which to me is an acknowledgment that the younger son has already received his inheritance and is entitled to nothing more. Is the elder’s son’s concern about the potential for double-dipping perhaps in play here as part of the anger and refusal to “go in”?
        Also, the father’s statement that “we had to celebrate” does support the theory of exclusion, as does the older son’s rather specific complaint that he had never been provided with a goat to “celebrate with my friends.” What seems to be bothering him here is not only the celebration for his brother, but the lack of one for himself. He wants to entertain his friends as host, and apparently would be satisfied with a goat over a fatted calf! What are your thoughts on all that?

        With respect to 2: I agree that the younger son does not seem to be acting out of hunger and, more importantly, does not seem at all penitent. His action appears to derive from the more practical calculation that he would be better off working for his father than for his current employer. I am interested in what will happen when the party is over. Does the younger son now indeed go to work for his father, sans inheritance and as an employee? That might demonstrate repentance. And how does the elder brother feel about all this if his sibling does not pose a threat to his own inheritance and is likely at some point to be his own employee?

        Also, the younger son’s claim to have “sinned against heaven” is odd. What does that mean in the context of blowing through an inheritance and then facing the consequences? The sin against his father, I suppose, is that this foolish conduct places the father in a poor light. But why heaven? Can we confidently take “heaven” to mean “God” in this context? Does God (or heaven) command that he preserve his estate? What do you think is going on here?

        • lbehrendt

          Niccolo, thanks!

          As to 1, yes, it’s possible that the older brother received reports about his younger brother’s recreational activities in the far country. But then, he’s repeating gossip, and he’s reporting gossip as fact, and both of those things are nasty things to do. I’d argue that “false witness” is not merely a problem of intentional lying. I’d argue that we “bear false witness” if we repeat hearsay as fact, not knowing whether the hearsay is true.

          We will struggle together to understand the father’s statement to the older son that “all that is mine is yours”. Whatever this statement means, it does not appear that the family property all belongs to the older son. There’s the matter of the best robe, ring and sandals, all now in the possession of the younger son. If “all that is mine is yours”, then how did the fatted calf get slaughtered without the older son’s permission, and where did Dad get the money to hire the musicians and put on a feast? Yes, we DO have to ask what happens to the younger son once the party is over – will Dad treat younger son as one of the hired hands? The younger son has been restored to the family (at least, that’s the way it seems to me), but have his inheritance rights been restored as well? So many open questions! Jesus gave his audience a lot to think about.

          Good point about “we had to celebrate”! What I notice is that this sentence is written in the past tense. If the father had said instead “we have to celebrate”, then the use of the present tense potentially includes the older son in the “we”.

          It’s not easy to understand the older son’s statement that he’d never received so much as a goat from his father. I assume that the older son’s statement is literally true. But I don’t know if the older son really wants to throw a party of his own. There’s no indication that the older son ever asked his father for a goat, and as for celebrating with friends, exactly WHERE are the older son’s friends? I think they’re eating BBQ with Dad and younger son. With friends like these, etc., etc. The older son may simply be making a comparison: younger son broke Dad’s heart, and got the fatted calf; older son slaved for Dad, and never got so much as a goat. It may not be the party the older son wants. The older son may want nothing more than to make a point. It’s complicated, I’ll admit. We have a lot of work to do to understand the older son. Lucky for me this is a multi-part series!

          Another area we have to explore is that of repentance. Yes, I think that “heaven” means God – I’ll postpone until later why I think that. Another thing we need to explore is the distinction in Judaism between sins against man and sins against God. For example, the Talmud indicates that Yom Kippur (the “day of atonement”, the holiest day of the Jewish year) only atones for sins against God, and atonement for sins against other people requires a different process. It may be that Jews of Jesus’ time were aware of this distinction, and that the younger son’s recitation of “sins against heaven and before you” may reflect a then-common understanding of how repentance is supposed to work. Also, I’m glad you brought up that matter of the 5th Commandment. We may not know what the younger son’s sins might have been in that far country, but we know for certain that the younger son acted horribly to his father. THERE is the sin we know about for certain.

          • Niccolo Donzella

            Good point about hearsay, which is why we have that evidentiary rule.

            ” If “all that is mine is yours”, then how did the fatted calf get slaughtered without the older son’s permission, and where did Dad get the money to hire the musicians and put on a feast?”

            I see the matter of the “all that is mine is yours statement” differently, I guess. My understanding of what happened was that the father granted the younger son’s wish to take his inheritance — presumably one of half the father’s estate – now. That doesn’t mean the other half went to the older son at the same time. Rather, I think it meant that the older son would take his inheritance later — presumably after he and his father make it bigger? That seems to be the implied contract — younger son gets half of what there is now, but then is responsible for it. Older son keeps working and shares responsibility with father and, to the extent successful, gets something larger. In the meantime, the father remains in full possession of the remainder of the estate and can do what he wants with it — the robe, the ring, the fatted calf — without consulting the elder son. But that does raise the issue, from the elder son’s perspective, of wastage.

            It also raises the larger question of why are they doing this in the first place? Is the father intending to finance the younger son’s business venture? If not, a pretty odd arrangement — I’ll take mine now and just retire. Why would the father agree to that?

            I wonder about the hosting issue. The elder son’s plaintive wish to celebrate with his friends (and I see the parable as silent on where his friends are, they obviously haven’t told him about the party either, if they are in attendance) is striking to me. It implies some kind of cultural or social display, perhaps of authority or favor, but maybe it is something else entirely. It’s the idea of “celebrating with his friends that interests me — he isn’t saying celebration with family or celebration of him by family, but rather celebration with his friends and perhaps without family.

            I was hoping you would have something to say about Judaism and repentance and what you say is very helpful. As to that certain sin — what is it? Is it the wasting of the father’s hard work, his reputation? What did he do so horribly? He mainly injured himself, I think.

            • lbehrendt

              Niccolo, many commentators regard the younger son’s request for his inheritance as if the younger son had said to his father, “you are dead to me”.

              To understand the parable, we’ll have to spend some time understanding the rules governing inheritance in Jesus’ day, if only because people writing about this parable have focused on this. But there’s a difference between saying “everything I have is yours”, and “when I die, you’ll get whatever I haven’t given to your younger brother”. As an attorney, you know that there’s a relationship between gift and inheritance, that both are techniques used to move wealth to the next generation. If Dad has given younger son his share of the estate, then in some sense that places a limit on what gifts Dad can give to younger son. Or looking at this from the opposite direction, if Dad keeps giving generous gifts to his younger son, then he’s effectively restored the younger son to a share of his estate.

              Yes, there’s a problem that the younger son wasted his inheritance, and that he did so in a Gentile land. Is that a sin? If so, is the sin against heaven, the father, the older son, the community or something else? Good questions. I will have things to say about this, but at the moment I’m not sure I know the answer. I DO think that the biggest sin is the son’s treatment of his father, but the younger son’s waste of his share of the estate can probably be seen as a continuation of this shabby treatment.

              As for the elder’s son’s statement about celebrating with his friends … this isn’t an easy request to understand. Yes, I think there’s stuff in the literature criticizing the older son for speaking of a party with his friends and not his family. If the older son is jealous of his younger brother, why didn’t he simply ask to be the guest of honor at a subsequent party thrown by his father? Why mention a different kind of party? We’ll need to look carefully at this, but here are some thoughts. If the older brother wanted to throw a party for his friends, what was stopping him? If all he wanted to do was serve roasted kid, I’d think the older brother could throw the party without his father’s permission – he could just grab a goat and light the charcoal. If the older brother wanted his father’s permission to throw a party, he might have asked. Instead, the older brother asks why Dad never gave him so much as a goat. It’s not clear to me that older son wants a party, or even that he wants a goat.

              Perhaps it’s not the goat or the party that we should be focusing on. Perhaps it’s the idea that Dad has just given a series of gifts to his younger son, and the older son wants to be given something, too. I’m not sure what it means, but I’m thinking of Luke 15:16, where the younger son is feeding pigs “and no one gave him anything.” Is this significant, that both sons face crises at the moment when they desire gifts but none are forthcoming?

              • Niccolo Donzella


                I understand what “you are dead to me” means. These are serious words. On its face, this comment explains much about the father’s joy and the older brother’s anguish. The story is older than what occurred in the other “country.” What would drive him to a Gentile land? What would make the father grant a request that acknowledges his own death to his younger son? Is the father’s forgiveness for his younger son, or for himself?

                As to grabbing a goat and lighting the charcoal, sure, but why hasn’t he done that? Is his father’s involvement and approval important to the community display or to the older son personally? Or did the father forbid such things, and did that denial result in the younger son leaving, and now we have the irony of younger son receiving the very thing denied to both through disobedience?

                I would like to know more about how gift and inheritance operated in First Century Israel. Specifically, could a father effectively disenfranchise an heir through gifts? A robe (even the best one), ring, and sandals alone wouldn’t do it, I think.

                I think you have something here. Looking forward to more.


      • AJ

        Larry – thanks for the responses.

        there’s at least the possibility that the older son is, to paraphrase the Ninth Commandment, bearing false witness

        I see it as a pretty remote possibility, since the father doesn’t react to it like a false accusation, nor does it seem like news to him. If anything it sounds like he’s justifying his actions IN LIGHT OF this truth about the younger brother.

        He’s not exactly looking like the world’s greatest expert on his younger brother!

        My sense is that news of the younger brother’s escapades and ruin got back to the family, but that they weren’t exactly in regular contact and didn’t know his immediate whereabouts (or even whether he was alive or dead). I think it was a surprise to everyone that he came back. Although… the verse does say: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion”, which might indicate that the father was “expecting” him, or at least hoping, always keeping half an eye out.

        Actually, I just thought of something rather nifty. That verse, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion” is a beautiful point in the parable sense – meaning even while the sinner is still far off (i.e. not fully penitent or changed), God sees them and is filled with compassion. Which to me resonates with Deut. 30:4 – “And if your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back.”

        (BTW, there are classical Jewish sources who interpret Deut 30:4 verse along these lines, in the sense of “far away” spiritually, as opposed to the plain meaning which means far from the land of Israel.) (BTW #2, I also found Jewish sources – e.g. the Baal Shem Tov – who speak about what we’ve been calling the “mixed bag” of repentance, whereby it’s accepted even if part of it is sincere and part not.) (BTW #3 – It occurs to me that these points I’m bringing up “by the way” might be precisely the kind of thing which could facilitate constructive dialog here – i.e. showing points where traditional Jewish thought “intersects” with Christian scripture/teachings.)

        I don’t think the younger brother was dying of hunger

        I agree. I was really just making the point that his motivations sound more about physical needs than a spiritual turnaround.

        right now, all I’m trying to do is to get you thinking, and it looks like I succeeded!


        Amy-Jill Levine says that these parables are not so much about repentance as they are about the searching, and the joy in finding, and the party afterwards.

        Very true. The parables are weighted on the side of “God’s POV”, i.e. how precious people are to God, and how God cares about each and every one and rejoices when any of them are “found” (i.e. come back/repent).

        But that doesn’t mean that the older brother was welcome at the party.

        Call me a bore but I read it the usual way – that part of what the father begs him about is to enter the party, which means he’s more than welcome. Put it this way (and I apologize if I’m being presumptuous) – I think Jesus would’ve been THRILLED if any of the “grumbling righteous” folks stopped grumbling, said “Aw, what the heck!” and sat down to dine with him and the “sinners”. Actually, I imagine he’d accept such a person at the table even if they were still grumbling, so long as they were even willing. After all, if God has compassion on the sinner even when they’re still far off, how much more so for a righteous person who’s still far off!

        Best, AJ

        • lbehrendt

          AJ, I’m not sure we can take anything from the father’s failure to react to the accusation that younger son consorted with prostitutes. It’s always hard to argue from silence. Silence might mean assent, as you say, or it might mean something like “I won’t dignify that nonsense with an answer”, or it might mean that the father doesn’t think this is the time to lecture his older son about loshen hara. I think we should also distinguish between what we learn from the parable narrator directly, and what we hear the characters say. The younger son said that he was starving to death, but we’re not buying that. The older son says that he’s been working like a slave for his father (he says this in the presence of actual slaves), and I’m not sure we should buy this, either. So, I don’t think we should be too quick to trust the older son’s statement that his brother had wasted his inheritance on ladies of the evening. The narrator says that the younger son was prodigal. That’s the best evidence we have for what went on in the far country.

          You are clearly going to be a big help in this project! Yes, we’ll encounter many Christians who read “while he was still far off” the way you do. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited about this parable – it’s Christian and it’s Jewish. I welcome your help in bringing out the Jewish part, as you’ve done so nicely here.

          Regarding the party … no, I won’t call you a bore. You are correct in my view – in fact, you’re getting to the point of the parable – what the father wants from his oldest son is being compared to what Jesus wants from the Pharisees. But it’s not clear that the father wants the older son to join the party, any more than it’s clear that Jesus wants the Pharisees to join him at the dinner table along with the sinners and tax collectors. My own opinion, which I’ll need to develop across many posts, is that Jesus wants something else from the Pharisees. Join the project, yes. Join the party? I’m not sure.

          You’ve raised a very, very difficult question: did Jesus’ compassion for sinners and tax collectors also extend to Pharisees? In theory, the answer is “yes”. But in the New Testament, the Pharisees receive mostly rough treatment from Jesus. This parable might be the most sympathetic piece in the New Testament addressed to Pharisees. After all, if the older son represents the Pharisees in this story, then the Pharisees are always with Jesus, and everything Jesus has belongs to the Pharisees.

          • AJ

            Silence might mean assent, as you say

            It’s more than silence – like I say he justifies why he’s having the party, which sounds like a “Yes, I know son, but…” kind of statement. I agree it could possibly mean something else, but since the younger son represents the sinner, it seems to me the point is better made if the sin is “juicier” than just couch potating (if I can make that into a verb). That way we can say: “Even” if you sin by spending all your inheritance on prostitutes, God will still welcome you back.

            My own opinion, which I’ll need to develop across many posts, is that Jesus wants something else from the Pharisees.

            I look forward to hearing more on the topic!

            if the older son represents the Pharisees in this story, then the Pharisees are always with Jesus, and everything Jesus has belongs to the Pharisees

            Good point! I guess my first question would be: Does the father represent Jesus or God? To me, this particular line makes more sense if we assume the latter, although I recognize that this is due to a distinction I make between Jesus and God that’s undoubtedly very different than the distinction made in Christian theology.

            To me, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” sounds like God speaking to the righteous person who has worked so hard and remained faithful (“never disobeyed your command”), reassuring them that despite the fuss made over penitent sinners –

            1) They are always right there with God, close at hand in a way that others aren’t – perhaps like a trusted servant in the house (see Num. 12:7 regarding Moses, and note that “servant” and “slave” are the same word in Hebrew – “Eved”) as opposed to a special guest who has a fuss made over them but is not around all that often.

            2) The Kingdom is theirs, which could either mean: a) every bit as much as the penitent sinners, and since the Kingdom is infinite indeed they can have it “all” and still share it with others, or b) that their inheritance is different and total in a way that’s qualitatively or quantitatively greater than that of penitent sinners.

            Again, I don’t know if this reading is consistent with Christian theology or scripture, but that’s my initial take on it.

            • lbehrendt

              AJ, I think we’ll have to file away our points of view on the younger son’s sins. I’d prefer not to reason from silence, but I think it’s reasonable to infer that at the moment of his conversation with his oldest son, the father is not focused on the sins of the younger son. Is it because he knows of these sins, but chooses to celebrate anyway? Is it because he does not know and does not care to know? Hard to say. There’s an old joke about the football coach who approaches an underperforming player and asks, “what’s your problem, son? Is it apathy or ignorance?” The player responds, “Coach, I don’t know and I don’t care.”

              As for “juicy” sins, I sometimes wonder how the story would go if the younger son had murdered someone in the “far country”. If God welcomes back sinners, does God welcome back murderers? If so, what is the nature of the welcome? Is this a Cain and Abel situation? In any event, it’s a lot easier to join in the parable’s celebration, given that the younger son’s sins in the far country aren’t nearly as bad as they might have been.

              As for what the father represents … if we’re going the allegorical route, I’d say that he represents God, and that Jesus is saying that Jesus’ own welcoming of sinners and tax collectors is like what God does. But this potentially opens up difficult and complex Christological issues that I think we should discuss (if at all!) at the end of this series.

              As for the meaning of “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” — again, this is going to be difficult to figure out, but I think we’ll take an initial step at unpacking these statements before too long. You’re diving into a tricky area, which is how do we understand the righteousness of the older son? For that matter, how do we understand the statement earlier in Luke 15 about the 99 righteous people that need not repent? Who doesn’t need to repent?

              Let me plant a thought in advance that I’m not ready to discuss, but one you might want to think about. I think that when Jesus’ audience heard this parable, they would have thought of the Jacob and Esau story. Here’s something I’m puzzling: when Jacob steals the blessing of his father Isaac, exactly what is it that Jacob got? Jacob didn’t get any “stuff” — all of Isaac’s tangible possessions went to Esau, just as the parable father’s “stuff” seems headed to the younger brother. We might say that Esau was the heir to the property and that Jacob was the heir to God’s promise made to Grandpa Abraham. At least, that’s how it worked out: we Jews are the “Children of Israel” (Israel being the name given to Jacob after he wrested with the angel). Is the older brother’s inheritance potentially something like Jacob’s? While the connection is not clear, the business about being heir to the promise is big in the letters of the Apostle Paul.

              • AJ

                how do we understand the statement earlier in Luke 15 about the 99 righteous people that need not repent?

                My take: Either Jesus is talking about theoretical people in the “completely righteous” category (like Job – i.e. paradigmatic of being sin-free), or he means people who “basically” keep all the laws to the letter, and the verse “need no repentance” just means they have no major sins.

                all of Isaac’s tangible possessions went to Esau

                News to me! Where is this idea coming from? Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. (Gen. 25:33) The Hebrew word for birthright is “bechora”, which means the firstborn’s right to a double inheritance of the father’s possessions. It could be that Jacob never received it, but according to the “deal” they made which Esau swore to, he should have.

                That said, Esau and Jacob do come to mind in this parable. One point is the striking resemblance between:

                “he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
                “And Esau ran toward him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him” (Gen. 33:4)

                And of course in both cases, the one coming back was worried that the person they wronged would be angry. Though that makes Esau like the father and Jacob like the younger son, which is odd.

                Another is Esau’s coming in hungry and saying he’s going to die, so what use is his birthright? (Gen 25:32), and the text then saying that Esau “spurned his birthright” (25:34). That has Esau sounding like the younger brother, who wastes his inheritance and makes an important decision when dying of hunger.

                As for the relationship between the brothers, if you want to say that the younger brother “stole” something which rightly belonged to the older brother, that would make the younger brother like Jacob and the older brother like Esau. Or if the inheritance ended up in Esau’s possession (the text doesn’t say what happens to Isaac’s “stuff” upon his death in Gen. 35:29), then I suppose that could be “stealing” based on the the “stew deal”, which would make Esau like the younger brother and Jacob like the older brother.

                And if we want to speak about Esau/Edom as representing Rome and (eventually) Christianity, as Jewish/Rabbinic tradition has it, then it sounds like the older brother would be Jacob (i.e. the Jews) and the younger brother would be Esau (i.e. the Christians).

                And then there’s the issue of the “blessing” (and this goes to the “heir to the promise” idea). Jacob comes in and steals the blessing, and Isaac tells Esau not to worry, that he too gets something good. This makes Jacob parallel to the younger brother and Esau to the older brother, who is likewise reassured.

                So as much as there’s a lot about Jacob and Esau that comes to mind, I have to confess that I can’t make heads or tails of it!

                • lbehrendt

                  Well, I don’t think Isaac rewrote his will. But when Jacob flees to Paddan-aram, there’s no report of his taking any portion of Isaac’s estate with him. The next time Jacob meets up with Esau, in Genesis 33, it’s Esau who accepts property from Jacob, not the other way around. Jacob then establishes himself in Succoth, separately from Esau. Isaac dies at the end of Genesis 35. Genesis 36:6 reports that Esau then moved to a land some distance from Jacob, taking with him his entire family, “his cattle, all his livestock, and all the property he had acquired in the land of Canaan.” It’s interesting to note Genesis 36:7, that Jacob’s and Esau’s possessions “were too great for them to live together; the land where there were staying could not support them because of their livestock.” So, at what stage did Jacob get the birthright, or for that matter, any of Isaac’s estate? It sounds like the brothers have become so wealthy that the birthright has been forgotten. I don’t see the birthright being mentioned after Genesis 25, except for Esau thinking back on the lost birthright in 27:36. Thoughts?

                  • AJ

                    I don’t know whether Isaac rewrote his will either. But Esau does say: “Isn’t it because his name is ‘Yaakov’, and he ‘yaakoved’ me (i.e. shafted/cheated/supplanted/outsmarted) me twice – he took my firstborn-right, and look, now he took my blessing!” (Gen 27:36) Which is actually interesting to see that Esau views the firstborn-right as having been “taken” from him. Yes, it was a “sale”, and Esau took an oath, and the text concludes that Esau “spurned his firstborn-right”, but Esau views it (perhaps properly, perhaps not) as having been “taken” from him, presumably meaning that he was taken advantage of, to sell it and swear under duress. This may have made it a bad sale under the law of the day (or not, I don’t know). I get the impression the Torah itself has some ambivalence about it (i.e. how “kosher” this was of Jacob to do), but I’d have to look into that more.

                    In any case, Isaac knows about the sale. I would say he probably knew about it before, but like the parable, it’s not stated explicitly what Isaac knew before and what he does with the info now – but he doesn’t protest it or act surprised (in stark contrast to 27:33, where “Isaac trembled very exceedingly” upon finding out it wasn’t Esau who came to him the first time).

                    As far as the inheritance, I wouldn’t expect Jacob (or Esau) to have taken it while Isaac was still alive, although again that’s an interesting question about inheritance customs of the day. As far as I recall, I can’t think of any occasion in the Torah that speaks about material possessions being doled out upon the parents’ death, or even during their life. Aside from Jacob giving Joseph’s sons a portion of his estate like his own children (in effect giving Joseph the double-portion), it’s always God who’s spoken about as doing the giving, e.g. “And the Lord blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen 24:1), and significantly Jacob’s saying to Esau, “Please take my blessing that was brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have everything.” (33:11) Even regarding Esau it’s God who says: “As an inheritance to Esau I have given Mount Seir.” (Deut 2:5)

                    You mentioned Gen 36:7, and the idea that the firstborn-right may have been inconsequential at that point (very true!), but also check out the previous verse, 36:6: “Esau took…all the wealth he had acquired in the land of Canaan…” The verb is “acquired” (Heb. “rachash”), which occurs in only four verses in the Torah: Once regarding Abraham and all he and Sarah acquired in Haran (Gen 12:5), once regarding Esau (above), and twice regarding Jacob – re: all that he acquired when working for Laban (31:18) and again when coming to Egypt, re: all that he acquired in Canaan (46:6). Point being, “acquired” does not mean “inherited”. The idea seems to be that both Jacob and Esau acquired/earned everything they had, and that it was all done by God’s blessing.

                    I’m not sure where that leaves us, but if we’re just focusing on the point of Esau receiving Isaac’s inheritance, I don’t see that substantiated in the text.

  • I love this discussion as it has made a story that I thought I knew well, unfamiliar and fascinating. I am moved by the notion of the father’s “appeal.” The contemporary word is a powerful one: it connotes attractiveness, a request for charitable donations, as well as a legal proceeding. Apparently the word “Appeal” comes from the French and Latin — to address and also to “drive.” “Appeler” in French means both to call (including to telephone someone) and is also used to say what your name is (Je m’appelle Stephanie = I call myself Stephanie) It seems to be that this word brings us to one of the hearts of the matter that you are dealing with: what is the parable calling us to do? How are we being addressed? How are we being named? Towards what must we/.should we be driven? Thank you.