What is the “right” name for this parable? I want to name it “The Parable of the Generous Father.” The father gives everything to each and to both of the sons. That’s why part of the “punchline” for the parable comes in the father’s encouragement to the older son. “Child,” the father says with tenderness, “you always are with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). The father holds nothing back from either son – neither stuff, nor forgiveness, nor love.
This the Parable of the Generous Father. This is a portrait of the Generous God embodied and proclaimed by Jesus.
Each of the sons, however, created and projected an image of their father that served their prejudices and pet projects. The younger son saw the father as his personal piggybank. The older son saw his father as his slaveholder. Just as the sons created and projected images of their father to suit themselves, so we create and project images of God to serve our interests.
Miroslav Volf talks about two of these images in his fine book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. He describes “God the negotiator” and “God the Santa Claus.” I want to discuss these images in reverse order because I think that’s how they appear in the Parable of the Generous Father.
“A Santa Claus God demands nothing from us,” Volf writes, “A divine Santa is the indiscriminately giving and inexhaustible fertile source of everything that is, and everything that is to come our way” (page 27). Of course, God is indeed the source of all that we are, all that we have, and all that we need. But, Volf asks, is it indeed the case that God demands nothing? No, he argues. In fact, God “demands” that we would grow into the fully flourishing human beings that God has created us to be.
“Here is what we do as worshipers of a Santa Claus God,” Volf continues. “We embrace the conviction that God is an infinitely generous source of all good, but conveniently forget that we are created in God’s image to be in some sense like God…To live well as a human being,” Volf suggests, “is to live in sync with who God is and how God acts” (page 27).
For me, the connection between this image of God and the image the younger son had of the father is obvious. The younger son took his stuff and wasted it. He didn’t use it to make himself into the person that he could be. Instead, he used what he got to diminish himself – financially, physically, socially, and emotionally. The parable makes clear that the only one impoverished by the younger son’s behavior was – the younger son himself.
What is the difference between a Santa Claus God and a gift-giving God, Volf asks? “The bare-bones answer is this: a Santa Claus God gives simply to we can have an enjoy things; the true God gives,” Volf concludes, “so we can become joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers” (page 28). To become joyful givers is both to imitate the real nature of God and to grow more and more into what God has created us all to be.
The other image Volf describes is “God the Negotiator.” I think this is the image the older son brings to his relationship with the father. The older son’s image of that relationship seems purely transactional. He has worked like a slave for his father. He’s always been obedient but has never been rewarded for that obedience – not even with the gift of a young goat so he could party with his friends. The younger son has violated the terms of the agreement, as the older son sees it. Yet, the father has rewarded that behavior by throwing a gigantic party.
The older son wants to sue his father for breach of contract.
How many of us, Volf wonders, see our relationship with God in those purely transactional terms? Volf suggests that its not a very smart arrangement, if in fact this is how things work. We have nothing with which to bargain, since God needs nothing that we have to offer. Even if we could negotiate such a deal, Volf continues, we can’t make God fulfill any contract. And before we even get to the negotiating table, God already has expectations of us as God’s creatures.
But God is not a negotiator. God is the Giver. Volf writes that “the God hanging on the cross for the salvation of the world is not a negotiating God! On the cross, God is not setting up the terms of a contract that humans need to fulfill in order to get what they want” (page 26). Instead, God is most fully God (to play a little fast and loose with our language) when God is giving us what we could never get for ourselves – what Luther calls “forgiveness, life, and salvation.”
The father in the parable is neither a fool nor a fraud. The father is generous, no matter how the sons may regard him or treat one another. God is neither Santa Claus nor negotiator, neither fool nor fraud. God is the giver. When God is imagined as Santa Claus, God is described as loving in order to get approval. When God is imagined as the Negotiator, God is described as loving in order to get obedience. But God doesn’t love in order to “get” anything. God loves in order to give.
Volf takes us to Luther’s description of God’s love as we find that description in thesis 28 of his work for the Heidelberg Disputation.
The best discussion of God’s love in the thesis comes from Tuomo Mannermaa’s monograph, Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. In thesis 28, Luther argues that “God’s Love does not find in its object what makes it lovable but rather creates it. Human Love, by contrast, turns itself or is oriented toward that which already ‘is’ something in itself and as such is good and beautiful “Kindle Locations 134-136).
Human love seeks to get something from the object of that love. I don’t think Luther viewed all human beings as psychopaths. But human love is always focused on the object of that love – something or someone that already exists. Just think about how hard it is to love someone for them instead of for me. Human love tends to be possessive, obsessive, and acquisitive. “In other words,” Mannermaa writes, “human beings always seek their own, that is, their own good, in the objects of their love” (Kindle Locations 145-146).
That’s not Divine Love. God’s love creates, gives life to, that which God loves. God loves, by definition, in order to give. “Just as God has created everything out of nothingness and caused what is not or what does not exist to come into existence-to be,” Mannermaa suggests, “in the same fashion God’s Love calls its beloved out of nothingness and surrounds its object with its own goodness and good things” (Kindle Locations 152-153).
God, the Giver, loves Creation into life. That’s why the Parable of the Generous Father is a resurrection story. Twice, we are reminded that the younger son was lost and is found, was dead and now is alive. The father proclaims that resurrection first to the servants as they scurry to round up the ring, the robe, the shoes, and the fatted calf. The father proclaims that resurrection again to the older son to demonstrate that in the light of this miracle, some celebration was required.
God’s love makes us and all of Creation into what God longs for us all to be – ourselves as fully flourishing creatures. As fully flourishing creatures, we are then equipped to love like God loves: not for what we can get but rather for what we can give. “In other words,” Mannermaa writes, “God’s Love helps human beings, first of all, to love God as God and not only the goodness received from God, and, second, to love other human beings for themselves and as persons, instead of loving only their precious qualities and for what could be gained from them for the benefit of the one who loves” (Kindle Location 201).
Volf correctly notes that when we are fully flourishing creatures, we participate in God’s loving. That’s really the plea, I think, from the generous father to the older son. Come into the house and be a part of the loving! “Your brother,” the father pleads with the older son. “It is not just that Christ sends the goods to flow into us,” Volf writes, “Christ makes the goods flow from us as well, truly indwelling, motivating, and acting through us” (page 51). As Mannermaa would argue, Christ is present in us through faith.
“The flowing of God’s gifts from us to others is the overflowing of those very gifts that Christ brought into us with his presence,” Volf observes. “The flow of gifts both in and out of us happens when we receive the one Gift of God: the Christ who dwells in us and works through us” (page 51). In Luther’s words, the plain fact is that God never works in us without us.
Thus, we find ourselves as both sons of the Generous Father. We often squander what we’ve been given, only to find ourselves welcomed back to the family table to try again and to do better. And when we’re at that table, we are invited to be partners in the Giving, growing ever more fully into the image and likeness of God renewed in us through Christ by the power of the Spirit.
“Faith receives the good deed of Christ, and the task of Christians is to love God and God’s will without self-interest and to be Christ to their neighbors,” Mannermaa writes, “This means, to do for their neighbors as Christ has done first for them: to give the good gifts they have received to their neighbors in need, and to relate to the neighbors’ sins, weaknesses, and needs as if these were their own. In this way,” he concludes, “Christ, Christians, and their neighbors form one body in God and God’s love” (Kindle Locations 401-402).
Resources and References
Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.
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.
Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.
Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.
Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
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