Prodigal Son: context

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year C. The gospel is one of most familiar of all parables: the Prodigal Son, part of a trilogy of parables thematically joined with joy over the recovery of what was lost. All three parables of Luke 15 (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son) point to the idea of the return of one that was lost.  To the simple structure of lost/found/joy, in the Prodigal Son parable, there is further development of the theme of God’s love and the contrast of the older brother’s hostility. Luke uses this motif to teach a newer, more full meaning of repentance. 

In the first two parables, Jesus addresses his listeners directly: “What man among you …?” “Or what women..?”  However attractive the extravagant response of the shepherd or woman, the practical answer is “no one.” One stays with the 99 and one likely does not spend so much effort for such a small coin. But the unspoken reply is “And this is what God is like…” In a split second we are drawn into God’s world, seeing and acting as he would. The shepherd’s joy is like God’s joy; his dedication to the individual sheep, carrying it back to the flock, is a reflection of God’s love. The joy in heaven is over the “one sinner who repents” (metanoia) as compared to the “…ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.

A different image is used in a second parable to the same effect. The woman has lost one of her ten drachmas, Greek silver coins. She turns her house upside down in search of this one coin in ten. Her joy is like the joy in heaven over one repentant sinner. This parable repeats the point that such joy needs to be shared. It is too great for one person. She and the shepherd invite their friends and neighbors for the thanksgiving party. What about the other nine silver pieces and the ninety-nine sheep — are they not important, too? Surely, but the joy of the kingdom breaks out of the ordinary categories of reason and good business. What was given up as lost has been found. It is like a new life, a resurrection, and must be celebrated.

The gospel has a familiar title: the Prodigal Son. After years of teaching Bible Study I find that it is not uncommon to discover many people associate the word “prodigal” with sinful life as suggested in vv.12-13 of the parable. In fact “prodigal” simply means “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure.” [Merriam Webster]. It is certainly clear that the young man wasted his inheritance. And so, the traditional title of the parable focuses on the younger son who left home, yet it is the father who seems to be the pivotal figure. Should the word “prodigal” be applied to the father? Is he wasting his love on his two sons? One seems to have conveniently returned and not necessarily with remorse. The other seems to have been angered at his brother’s return and the quick acceptance into the familial embrace. Should this parable be called “The Prodigal Father” or perhaps “The Parable of a Father’s Love”? Just something to think about.

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