Did the younger son “repent”? The answer to that question requires a more complex response than might first be imagined. Translation matters a great deal in the interpretation of this parable. Verse 17 is deliciously ambiguous in the Greek. “But as he was coming (in)to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s paid laborers have more than enough bread, but here I am, being destroyed by hunger!” (my translation). The verse offers divergent possibilities for interpretation.
I subscribe to Richard Swanson’s weekly e-comments/blog at “provokingthegospel.” In this week’s post, Swanson makes some helpful and interesting points. First, we hear that the younger son was “coming (in)to himself.” Swanson suggests that this “could imply that he experienced a deep, life-changing realization that remade him completely. Maybe. But,” Swanson continues, “it could also merely imply that he did the math and realized that, on his current trajectory, he would crash and burn in a short time.”
One response is at least the beginnings of repentance. The other is the self-serving counsel of prudence. The one thing that I wish translators wouldn’t do is make the decision for the non-Greek reading student. The Today’s English Version translation, for example, has something like “when he came to his senses.” That’s not “wrong” as a translation. But I think it over-reads the text and over-determines the outcome.
Sometimes overdoing the translation is a no-harm/no-foul action by translators. But here, I would argue that’s not the case. If one of the intentions of the Lukan author is to challenge us to wrestle with the ambiguity before coming to our own conclusions, then overdoing the translation actually violates the intention of the text. So, let’s wrestle with the text rather than resolve it prematurely. What does it mean for the younger son (and/or for us) that he “came (in)to himself”?
Swanson argues that “the translators of this scene have papered over a clue to the son’s moral state.” He is talking about the translation we get in the NRSV that describes the paid laborers as having “bread enough and to spare…” He suggests that this is a fair enough translation, but it doesn’t convey the real tone of the younger son’s complaint. It’s not that the hired help has “enough” bread, according to Swanson. The younger son is irritated as he remembers (accurately or not) that the hired hands have “more than enough” (that is, too much) bread.
The contrast is with those who have too much and don’t “deserve” it, and he who has too little even though he “deserves” to have it all. “The fact that he contrasts his situation with that of servants (who should be glad just to have a job),” Swanson writes, “suggests that he believes his status entitles him to more food. Does this sound like life-changing repentance?” No, Dr. Swanson, it doesn’t.
We should stick with this interior monologue for a bit in order to hear the real tone of the son’s conversation with himself. The use of interior monologues with the self is a consistent feature in the Lukan account and especially in several of the parables. Interior monologues are quoted seven times in the Lukan account, and six of those times are in the parables. Dinkler suggests that these monologues are consistent with the foreshadowing found in the Song of Simeon, where the elderly prophet declares that the judgments of the hearts of many will be revealed (see Luke 2:35).
Dinkler notes that in ancient Jewish literature, such as in Psalm 14:1, “what one says in/to one’s soul conditions and reflects one’s relationship with God, especially indicating wisdom or foolishness” (page 382). Most often, this self-talk emphasizes “the folly of wicked self-address” (page 383). A survey of Jewish literature within and beyond the biblical canons demonstrates “how, for many ancient Jews, an individual’s thoughts were a reliable indicator of her or his posture toward God. Usually,” Dinkler notes, “in the contexts of these writings, the thinker is not wise but foolish” (page 384).
Dinkler describes the various parabolic inner monologues in some detail. They include the foolish farmer and the unfaithful servant in Luke 12, the prodigal son in Luke 15, the crafty steward in Luke 16, the unjust judge in Luke 18, and the owner of the vineyard in Luke 20. Leaving the parable of the prodigal aside for the moment, four out of the five monologues offer negative portrayals of the characters.
The owner of the vineyard asks a question of himself, which might be neutral (but also might not). In the overall narrative of that parable however, the landowner acts recklessly and foolishly. The landowner’s folly leads to the quite predictable death of the son. Many commentators read the parable and see the landowner as yet another foolish character who talks to himself.
What about the inner monologue of the younger son? Dinkler argues that this is not such a clearcut case of a negative rhetorical evaluation of the character. He notes that the son begins as a negative figure, based on the description of his lifestyle. Traditionally, interpreters have seen a change in that description precisely at the moment when the younger son “comes in(to) himself” and begins to talk with himself. But that interpretation may miss a great deal.
“Despite the son’s apparently humble interior monologue, however,” Dinkler offers, “several clues suggest that he may not be truly repentant” (page 387). There is no mention of repentance here, as there is in the previous two parables. In addition, the son’s plans and preparations are not what produce the gracious reception on the part of the father. “Although the son’s self-talk is not overtly negative, as in the prior interior monologues,” Dinkler concludes, “narrative details converge to indicate that he misreads the situation and misunderstands his father; his thinking is incongruent with his father’s will” (pages 387-388).
In all six parables, therefore, the characters who conduct inner monologues demonstrate foolish and even arrogant thinking. They are self-serving and destructive in their relationships with others. None, Dinkler notes, would quality as a Hellenistic hero. None is wise or honorable in Jewish terms. Dinkler goes on to wonder, then, how these characters’ interior lives might impact rhetorically the Lukan readers/listeners and makes several suggestions.
Interior monologue brings us into direct and intimate contact with the characters. This contact can lead us to empathize and identify with the character. “The soliloquies invite readerly identifcation, and this invitation has an evaluative dimension to it,” Dinkler writes. “The narrator constructs the story so as to elicit particular readerly judgments with respect to the characters; these judgments, in turn, prompt readers to consider whether their own views align with the narrator’s perspective,” he continues, “thereby encouraging the μετάνοια— “change in thinking”—that is so prominent in Luke’s Gospel” (page 394).
In other words, Dinkler says, these interior monologues can lead us to consider what we would say to ourselves in similar situations. He suggests that the farmer’s “What should I do?” in Luke 12:17 turns into “What should I do?” for the reader. It’s no surprise that the same question appears in Luke 20:13 in the Parable of the Vineyard. “In a case of ironic reversal,” Dinkler suggests, “a reader who sympathizes with a thinking character’s incorrect perspective will also experience the narratorial judgment that follows” (page 394). We may find ourselves drawn into the reckless foolishness of the characters and be jolted awake by the experience.
“Luke’s moments of interiority are a kind of fusion between Hellenistic literature’s structural uses of inner speech,” Dinkler notes, “and Hebrew tropes about the danger of foolish self-talk” (page 398). We find that Luke’s characters who talk to themselves are not wise or heroic. They’re quite human, and we can easily identify with their moments of self-centered folly. In contrast to contemporary urgings to follow one’s “gut,” for example, the biblical perspective reflected in Luke suggests that our inner monologues are as likely to lead us astray as they are to give us helpful guidance.
All this being said, did the younger son “repent”? “Notice that it is only when the son plans what he will say to his father that he evinces a willingness to surrender his status,” Richard Swanson writes in his blog post. “When he speaks to himself, he notes that the servants have more food than they should rightly have, given their status. Internal monologue reveals the heart,” Swanson concludes, “and this revelation is disturbing. If the young son is finally a selfish manipulator, what will he do in the future?” Swanson asks. The storyteller,” he reminds us, “leaves this crucial question without an answer.”
Or perhaps the narrative gives us a sort of an answer. The younger son crafts and practices his speech all the way home. He is surprised by his father’s rush to embrace him, but he launches bravely into his script. The father interrupts the speech halfway through. This is so surprising that some manuscript copyists filled in the missing last part of the speech on their own! But that obscures the point. The son’s speech cannot and does not manipulate the father into forgiving. That has already happened before the son even opened his mouth.
We don’t know how the younger son responds to this gift of grace. The interrupted speech is the last word we get from the younger son. The speaking and acting from that point on belong largely to the forgiving father. While we can wonder how it turned out for each of the sons in the parable, we can have no doubt how things turned out for the father.
That seems significant, eh?
Resources and References
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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