Three years ago when I reflected on the parable of the prodigal father I suggested that this is a story in three parts.
The first part is the story of the father and the younger son – it’s the interesting part, the dramatic part and the genuinely surprising part. It’s also the easiest bit to interpret. The second part is the father and the older son – less dramatic (at least, to our modern sensibilities) and less surprising. It’s full of rich meaning, but it’s frequently the part that gets overlooked.
But the third part is by far the most important part of the story and it’s the part of the story which is missing. Deliberately so. Jesus deliberately misses part 3 and leaves it to his hearers to work out what happens. The third part is the story of the older son and the younger son after the father dies!
Act 1 – the younger son and the father, in which the younger son wishes his father were dead.
Let us not pretend for even a moment that the younger son has any redeeming features. This is not a misguided youth, who accidentally causes a few problems. What the younger son is asking is a complete violation of the commandment to honour father and mother. In the eyes of the community in which this tale is told, the younger son is “asking his father to drop dead”. A literal translation of the text is:
Give to me that part which belongs to me of your substance.
And he divided among them his life.
The father’s agreement is no less appalling than the son’s request. He goes against all the injunctions of the Old Testament; he surrenders his control of his family, not to the younger son but to the older who gets two-thirds of his father’s life.
The younger son takes himself to the land of the gentiles. He is profligate. He squanders everything he has. The life he claimed from his father is gone. The boy’s attachment to gentiles signals the loss of his life amongst his own community and the loss of his faith. Pigs doesn’t mean bacon; pigs means apostasy, the abandonment of the Torah and the traditions of his ancestors.
We are told that, when he could sink no further, the younger son “came to himself”. Whatever that phrase may mean, it doesn’t mean that he experienced Christian repentance. Luke loves to use the language of repentance, but he doesn’t use it here. He says nothing more than “he came to himself”.
The younger son sets out on the journey to the place that was once his home. And the viewpoint of the story immediately changes. Now we are sitting upon the father’s shoulder. And we, the listeners so horrified at what we have already heard, are now doubly and triply offended.
The old man is looking for his son. Searching and hoping for the one who should have been cut loose from the family. And the old man sees him, and he runs, disgracing himself and his family by hitching up his skirts in public. And the old man shocks the audience with his compassion – compassion! not judgment and rejection – and he falls on his neck and he kisses him again and again and again.
Brandon Scott describes the scene thus:
The father has gone too far. There is no test of the son, no questioning of his motives. This son has behaved in an outrageous fashion, insulted his father, lost the inheritance, committed apostasy. The list could go on and on. The father makes no judgment, demands no price from the son. He is back. No questions asked. Dead and alive. Lost and found.
And the curtain comes down on Act 1 and the younger son.
Act 2 – the older son and the father, in which the older son sees himself as dead.
How is it for the older son when he is not even notified of his brother’s return, when he has to approach a “boy-servant”, a very junior member of the household, for information which he should have been the first to hear, and when he is told that the best clothes and a ring of authority have been given to his younger brother and that a celebration is in full swing?
He feels dead. The older son is the one who was given his father’s life, and now it appears it has been taken away from him.
Now, before we feel too much sympathy for the older son, we must first note what he now does. Now he takes up the language of insult and rejection. When our ears hear “Then he became angry and refused to go in” we don’t hear the intake of breath of Jesus’ listeners as they recognise that the older son is now turning away from his father; he, too, envisages a life in which his father is dead.
And his words of anger and resentment when the father comes out are insult added to injury: “this son of yours… who has devoured your life with whores”.
Is it now that the father is finally forced to defend himself and his honour? Is it now that the father will claim back his life and force his elder son to accept his decisions?
No. No, the father is not going to force anyone to do anything. We are told that, when the father hears of his older son’s refusal to come in, that he comes out and pleads with him. And when his son argues with him and insults him, he calls him “my dear child” – the language of the doting father for the innocent child. “The father strips away the hierarchy” of family and society and reaches out to his child as an elder to a baby.
The life that the elder son thought he had lost is there to be found: “Everything I have is yours.” While the father may have had the authority to give what he has to the one who appears to be his favourite, that’s not how it is. “Everything I have is yours.”
I wonder if the younger son inside with a ring on his finger and fine robes on his back, I wonder if he realises that the older son is still the one with all the property and all the power?
And Jesus finishes the story right there. Which is either a very good place or a very bad place to stop. Because the audience knows that there is much, much more to come. Fathers don’t live forever and whatever short-term solution is stitched up between the father and his two sons, sooner or later it’s only going to be the older son with all of the property and the power and the younger son with nothing but whatever his brother will give him.
Act 3 – the two brothers, in which … ?
Three years ago, I suggested that this is a story about divine hospitality. Divine because it is undeserved. The younger son’s initial request does not deserve to be honoured. But he is given what he does not deserve. The younger son does not deserve to be welcomed and kissed and given gifts and celebrated. But he is given what he does not deserve.
When the older son turns on his father, he doesn’t deserve his father’s willingness to come to him and reassure him and love him. But the older son is given what he does not deserve. Divine hospitality.
Act 3 asks the audience, “Will the older brother give the younger brother what he deserves? Or will the older brother do as his father did? Will he offer divine hospitality to one who does not deserve it?”
That’s the question Jesus asked his audience to wrestle with. That’s the question God asks us. Will we give others what they deserve? Or will we give them divine hospitality?
Can we be the father?