11And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. 13Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants."' 20And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate.
25"Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' 28But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' 31And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Lk 15:11-32).
The parable of the prodigal son may be the most popular of Jesus’ parables. But in my experience, preachers and commentators haven’t done it justice. Here’s an example of a scholar whose interpretation, in my opinion, goes seriously awry:
It is surely hard to find in the history of literature any man who so completely condemns himself with his own words as this older son…Amazingly, a small group of modern scholars find the older son’s attitudes perfectly natural and reasonable, K. Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans 1983), 196,200
There are certain distinctions we need to take into consideration
1. Point of View
This parable is complex inasmuch as it contains about four different viewpoints:
i) The viewpoint of the narrator
ii) The viewpoint of the father
iii) The viewpoint of the younger son
iv) The viewpoint of the older son
The father is basically the normative character. He represents the viewpoint of the narrator.
The older son is the foil character. The viewpoint of the younger son changes. His perspective could be subdivided into “before” and “after.”
The servant (vv26-27) is basically a mouthpiece for the viewpoint of the father and the narrator.
A parable involves an analogy between the fictitious world of the parable and something in the real world which the parable is meant to illustrate.
The parable is meant to invite a comparison. However, that can involve a point of contrast or disanalogy.
The parable of the unjust judge is a case in point. Who does he represent? God? If so, that comparison involves discontinuity as well as continuity. The unjust judge is like God in one respect (answering a petitioner), but unlike God in another respect (in terms of character).
In the parable of the prodigal son, the correspondence goes something like this:
i) The father stands for Jesus
ii) The younger son stands for penitent sinners who come to Jesus (v1).
iii) The older son stands for the judgmental scribes and Pharisees (v2).
It’s important to keep these two levels distinct. Although Jesus is the father’s analogue, the father isn’t Jesus in the parable. We need to be careful not to mix and match a parabolic character with his real world analogue. It’s not how Jesus relates to the two sons. Rather, Jesus is to x as the sons are two y and z.
The relationships in the parable have their own self-contained logic. Their own psychological integrity.
When we apply the parable to the real world, we need to apply whole to whole, not part to whole or whole to part. The whole parable to whatever it symbolizes.
Bailey vilifies the older son. But I think that commits a level-confusion. There’s no reason to cast the older son as the bad guy in the parable itself. I think that short-circuits the parable.
Bailey may be supposing that if the father represents Jesus, then we should side with Jesus. And, of course, there’s a roundabout sense in which that’s correct. But it’s also premature.
We need to arrive at what Jesus is teaching the reader by means of the story. Not subvert the exercise by jumping straight to the conclusion.
We can’t leave the parable unless we enter the parable. Until we inhabit the characters. I think the reader first needs to assume the viewpoint of each character, appreciate the perspective of each character, see the situation through the eyes of each character, before he’s in a position to identify with the viewpoint of the storyteller.
Within the story of the parable, the older son has a legitimate grievance. He’s hurt. Dishonored. Unappreciated. Taken for granted.
His kid brother gets all the attention because his kid brother demands more attention. The older son is the responsible, reliable sibling. Yet his kid brother is treated better. He gets away with it. Indeed, he’s rewarded. And that’s unfair.
Indeed, equal treatment would be equally unfair when the older brother has been so dutiful and dependable while the younger son has been so thoughtless and rebellious.
I don’t think we can really appreciate the full force of the parable unless we take his complaint seriously. For many siblings have been in that very situation. Jesus is trading on the psychological plausibility of that reaction. He’s banking on the fact that some readers no doubt sympathize with the galling experience of the older son.
You can imagine servant’s tone of voice as he excitedly tells the older brother about what’s happened. And you can imagine how that would further enrage the older son, who’s been outside, doing his job–while all the while his ne’re-do-well brother is partying inside. And his pent-up rage is likely the cumulative effect of years in which he got the short end of the stick.
Moreover, the father’s response is fairly insensitive. To say “all that’s mine is yours” misses the point. To begin with, “all” is what’s left over after the younger son got his half upfront. And having returned, the younger son is now eating into the remainder of the older son’s share. With this lavish party thrown in his honor, the younger son is still squandering the estate–at the older son’s expense.
If you stop and think about it, Jesus is going out of his way to depict a thoroughly an outrageous contrast. To play on the natural indignation of the audience. How would you feel if you were put in that situation?
But this is also where we need to distinguish between the parabolic level and the application. For the scribes and Pharisees forgot a foundational truth about the history of Israel:
4 "Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
6"Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people (Deut 9:4-6).
The parable is designed to illustrate mercy over than justice. Grace over law.
Within the world of the parable, the older son has a point. As a matter of strict justice, the older son is justifiably resentful.
But in the real world, the scribes and Pharisees were adoptees. God favored Israel, not because Israel deserved his favor, but in spite of the fact that Israel was no better than her pagan neighbors.
The sense of entitlement which the scribes and Pharisees nursed was unwarranted. And their conformity to the technicalities of the law, their adherence to the externals of the faith, blinded them to the depths of their own iniquity. To their own impenitence. And that, in turn, kept them from the Savior.