11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am nolonger worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”
I recently came across some commentary on this passage that helped me understand the thrust of what is being communicated. I couldn’t help but think, “Where has this reading been all my life?” Anywho, I found it worthy of being shared.
In short this is a story about a son who disgraces his father, goes off to a distant land, squanders his inheritance before coming to his senses and returning home to a father who is shamelessly compassionate and a bitter older brother who stayed put all along. The echoes of Israel’s own story–the story of exile and return–are loud and clear.
Exile and restoration: this is the central drama that Israel believed herself to be acting out. And the story of the prodigal says, quite simply: this hope is now being fulfilled–but it does not look like what was expected. Israel went into exile because of her own folly and disobedience, and is now returning simply because of the fantastically generous, indeed prodigal, love of her god. But this is a highly subversive retelling. The real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus’ own ministry. Those who grumble at what is happening are cast in the role of Jews who did not go into exile, and who opposed the returning people. They are, in effect, virtually Samaritans. The true Israel is coming to its senses, and returning to its father, as Jeremiah had foretold (cf. Jer. 31:18-20); and those who oppose this great movement of divine love and grace are defining themselves as outside the true family.
With this context in mind, the ministry of Jesus, characterized by radical inclusivity and compassion as seen in his table fellowship with the outcasts of society, becomes a real life enactment of the celebration feast imagined in the above story. The long awaited restoration of YHWH’s people is taking place in and through the ministry of Jesus and that means that all are welcomed to God’s love feast.
Jesus is claiming that, when he [eats with sinners, welcomes the outcast, etc.], Israel’s god is doing it, welcoming sinners no matter whether they have passed all the normal tests for membership, as long as they will accept the welcome of Jesus.
More than teaching us something about the nature of God, this parable acts. It creates a story world that shatters the normal telling of the story of Israel. It forces those who find themselves in the role of the older brother–that is, those who are opposing the paradoxical restoration of Israel in the person and ministry of Jesus–to make a decision. They are cast into the role of Pharaoh or the Samaritans–those who have always opposed the freedom and restoration of God’s people. What’s more, the parable ends without a great deal of closure. The older brother is left outside the party faced with a decision that he must make.
Perhaps this is the decision that many of us are left with today. How do we view the radical inclusivity and generosity that characterized the ministry of Jesus? In what ways are we uncomfortable with the outcasts that are invited to our Lord’s table? Are we willing to be a part of this restoration movement that has been inaugurated in the person and work of Christ? If so, in what ways can we enter this story?
*The above reflections were inspired by N.T. Wright’s discussion of this parable in Jesus and the Victory of God. The block quotes are taken from that work.