The Parable of the Lost Sons

“The Parable of the Lost Sons”
A reflection on Luke 15:11-32
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C)
©️2022 by Gloria M. Chang

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them Jesus addressed this parable:

“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (Lectionary)

In the Parable of the Lost Sons, a father’s heart aches for the love of two sons who are deeply estranged from him. The story opens with the younger son asking for his inheritance and squandering it among Gentiles in a distant country. When famine strikes, he joins himself to one of the local citizens who sends him into the fields to feed the swine.

In desperation, the starving prodigal, having forsaken the privileges of sonship, decides to hire himself out as a servant to his father. He devises a speech to arouse his father’s pity and trudges back to the village, ready to face the wrath and scorn of the community in a kezazah (“cutting off”) ceremony at the gates.1 For having sold the family’s property and lost the assets to Gentiles, a large pot, jar, or barrel full of produce would be shattered in front of him to symbolize his shattered relationship with the community. The practice, still alive in Jesus’ day, ceased by the end of the first century.

While the son is still a long way off, his father catches sight of him and runs. Compassion throws decorum to the wind in this gesture of humility, for dignified, Middle Eastern men do not run. Determined to preempt the kezazah ceremony, he reaches his son before anyone else, embraces him, and kisses him—a clear sign to all of the father’s acceptance. 

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 

The prodigal’s prepared speech drops the request to become his father’s hireling in this overwhelming shower of mercy. At this point, the father’s servants arrive at the scene with the crowd and are ordered to dress his son like a prince. A banquet of a fattened calf is prepared as if for a wedding.

But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.

The extended family, community, and servants of the master take their cues from the father and join him in celebrating his extraordinary act of reconciliation.

The older son, alone, demurs. Resentment toward his brother and father, unexpressed for years, explodes in his rejection of both. New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey finds the older son complicit in the family breakup at the start of the parable. When his younger brother asks for his share of the inheritance, he stands by silently without protesting or mediating a reconciliation. In Middle Eastern culture, the older son is expected to object vigorously to such an untimely acquisition of patrimony. He, too, receives his portion, but without the exercise of disposition.2

While the younger son lavishly spends his inheritance abroad, the older son stews in resentment within the father’s house. 

Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. 

The father successfully averts the kezazah ceremony, but now the older son insults him publicly by refusing to participate in the banquet. According to custom, the older son is expected to greet the guests and officiate the party.3 Instead, he lashes out without even addressing his father by title, and unleashes the resentment in his heart.

He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ 

The older son sees himself as a slave, and not the son of his father. The verb for “serve” (douleuó) comes from the noun for “slave” (doulos). “To me, never did you give a young goat…” The Greek word order unfurls a self-centered plaint (Luke 15:29). Then slander exaggerates his brother’s offenses. Nothing in the preceding text mentions harlotry. Bailey notes that the Greek text and the majority of Syriac and Arabic translations simply state that the prodigal spent his assets in “wasteful” or “expensive” living (Luke 15:13).4

In this accusation, “my brother” becomes “your son” as anger escalates and the older son dissociates himself from the family and community. In such a tight-knit village, the reference to “my friends” is peculiar, as all of his associates are at the banquet celebrating. While the younger son had drifted into foreign company physically, the older son yearns to leave spiritually. “My friends” are elsewhere and do not include his own family.

Once more, the father absorbs the humiliation heaped upon him and reaches out in mercy to his son.

He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. 

Luke 15:31

Overlooking his son’s insolence, the father addresses him with the affectionate title of teknon (“son” or “child”). Envy and rivalry are checked with the assurance of the father’s love for both sons. Grace extended to one does not diminish grace to another. 

Jesus used the same phrase, “everything of mine is yours,” in his prayer to the Father during the Last Supper Discourse (John 17:10), revealing the essence of sonship. The same divine love given to the younger brother is also given to the elder.

But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

The parable ends without a response from the older brother. Jesus’ listeners are left to examine their own hearts for any signs of resentment for his compassion toward their brethren.

Whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come. 

2 Corinthians 5:17

References

1 Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), Book I, 167.

2 Ibid., 168-169, 202.

3 Ibid., 194-195.

4 Ibid., 170, 199.

One Reply to “The Parable of the Lost Sons”

  1. Dear GMC, thank you for your beautiful reflection. It gives us new and wonderful insights into this parable. Some of which I have never heard before and appreciate now. Thank you for being a source of goodness and hope for all of us. May you have a wonderful Laetare Sunday. And may we continue to pray for peace in Ukraine.

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