In each of the three parables in Luke 15, the “finder” takes the initiative. That seems quite straightforward in the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. The owner of the sheep leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the lost one. The woman is the only one in the second parable who can take any initiative. After all, coins do not call out to be located.
This perspective may be harder to support in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the younger son, after all, who has some sort of personal epiphany and heads for home. That being said, it is the father who sees him coming at a distance, who runs to greet him, who embraces him, restores his stuff, and throws a party. In addition, it is the father who comes out of the house during the party to encourage the older son to come in and join the festivities.
The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Sheep is the sheep owner. The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Coin is the woman householder. The pattern remains consistent, I think, and the protagonist in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the father. Whether that was the case in Jesus’ original telling may be difficult to discern. But the structure and sequence of the Lukan narrative makes it clear, I believe, that the primary actor in the third parable is the father.
Trevor Burke also sees the father as the main actor in the parable. In addition, Burke argues “that this story is as much about a ‘prodigal father’ for his behavior is highly unusual and appears to be every bit as rash and unconventional as the younger and older sons” (page 219). But is the father’s “prodigality” a positive trait, or is it a negative and foolish trait like the wastefulness (see Luke 15:14) of the younger son?
Burke examines three “prodigal actions” of the father. The first is the distribution of his property to the sons. Remember, in response to the demand from the younger son, the father divides his property between them (see Luke 15:12). This was weird behavior on the part of the father. “Such an action would have been surprising to those listening,” Burke writes, “especially [since]…fathers were specifically cautioned against giving their inheritance to their offspring or to anyone else during their lifetime” (page 222). That wasn’t an ironclad rule at the time, but this premature distribution would have been regarded as strange, and perhaps foolish.
The father does not exercise authority or discipline over either son in the parable. The younger son blows off the old man and then comes running back when things get tough. The older son won’t do as he’s told and tells the old man off in front of God and everybody. The father is “prodigal” with his patience and property in both cases, in spite of and in disregard to the responses he gets from each of the sons.
The second scene of the father’s prodigality, according to Burke, is when the younger son returns. The father runs to the son, hugs him, and kisses him. Burke subscribes to the “old Middle-eastern men don’t run” line of thought, although not all commentators agree on that fact. But, in any event, “Once again the impulsive and reckless father in the heat of the moment acts out of character and breaks with the social norms,” Burke writes, “he does not do what the first hearers would expect him to do” (page 225).
The father’s extravagance takes on material form in the ring, the best robe, shoes, and the well-fed calf. No one would have seen this coming, in the context of the parable. The younger son may have wasted his inheritance on loose living. But the father outdoes the younger son’s extravagance by an order of magnitude and without a second thought.
The third scene of paternal prodigality, according to Burke, is the conversation with the older son. The father leaves the house, the party, and the guests, and thus risks embarrassing himself in the eyes of his invitees. He goes outside the house and absorbs the older son’s tirade where everyone in the village could see and hear them. In the face of all this dishonor, the father dialogues with the older son rather than disciplining him. “Evidently the maintaining of the relationship by his patience and compassion,” Burke writes, “is more important to the father than his own social standing, position or winning the argument” (page 227).
Burke wonders if the Lukan author is just oblivious to the social and cultural conventions of the period or if there is a point being made. Given a variety of evidence in the text, Burke concludes that the Lukan author “is fully cognizant of the expectations vis-à-vis parents and their offspring and draws on widely held cultural assumptions in order to affirm them” (page 228). The parable of the Prodigal is, therefore, not a product of cultural ignorance or misunderstanding.
But the Lukan author also has no problem with overturning social conventions and structures under the impact of the Good News of Jesus. The Lukan account, after all, is at its heart the story of the Great Reversal. Burke quotes Brendan Byrne’s assertion that the Gospel’s essential purpose is to bring home to people a sense of the extravagance of God’s love. And the Gospel account is filled with characters who perform extravagant gestures in response to God’s salvation (pages 228-229).
Who are these other “prodigals” in the Lukan account? Burke points to the massive and unconditional generosity of the “Good Samaritan” as one example. In addition, there is the extravagant love of the women who comes to Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. She does not stop expressing her devotion even when she is rebuked. Instead, she is the one who has offered prodigal hospitality to Jesus – precisely what Simon should have done as the host. Her actions demonstrate extravagant gratitude.
Those who accompany Jesus to Jerusalem put their most expensive and valued articles of clothing on the road as he passes. “Such a generous and unexpected action appears rash, hasty and spontaneous in the circumstances,” Burke observes, “but it is a no less appropriate response and expression of devotion to Jesus the Messiah who had come to deliver his people” (page 233).
The clincher in this argument, of course, is Zacchaeus in Luke 19. His promises of reparation are the definition of extravagant and prodigal. Most important, in my estimation, is the conclusion that Jesus brings to this interaction. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The connection to the parables in Luke 15 is obvious.
Burke offers this summary. “When the father’s behavior in Luke 15 is viewed against this portrayal of the magnanimous actions of others (cf. Luke 9:17) in Luke, his actions are essentially a hermeneutical key for the rest of the Gospel since he is not the only ‘prodigal’ in Luke; rather, the author has a proclivity for portraying the conduct of a number of different people as also being ‘prodigal’ in order to get his point across” (page 234).
But, Burke then wonders, what exactly is the evangelist’s point being made by all this extravagance?
The father is an image of God in the third parable, just as the sheep owner and the woman are images of God in the first two parables. Burke suggests that “in the kingdom of God grace is always bestowed upon those who least warrant or presume upon it.” In addition, “in the divine scheme of things, no one gets what they deserve for God’s mercy is not contingent upon the actions of others.” In sum, the parable portrays “a God whose love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity” (page 237).
Yes, here’s an obvious connection to the first reading. God’s ways are not our ways, thankfully…
Richard Swanson notes that this extravagance does not “count the costs” of loving. This parable, he argues, “is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.” After all, we don’t know how anyone responds to the father’s extravagant love in the long run. We don’t even know how things might have gone at the breakfast table the morning after the party (although we might have some educated guesses).
On the one hand, it is grace that produces repentance, not the other way around. We see that in our parable. We see it as well in the story of Zacchaeus. Both the younger son and Zacchaeus may have come with mixed motives at best. The younger son may just have been hungry. Zacchaeus may just have been curious. Maybe he just loved a parade. It was the invitation of grace that made any change of heart and mind conceivable…and worth the risk.
“Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love,” Swanson writes, “And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love,” he hopes, “might indeed re-create the world.” As we hear this parable again, the question is there for us. Will God’s indomitable love in Christ re-create us? (Yes, that’s an obvious opening to the second reading –Yay!).
Resources and References
Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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