Who is the father in the parable of the prodigal son?

Mon, 01/10/2012 - 14:45

Who is the father in the parable of the prodigal son? We mostly take it for granted, of course, that the father is God and that the central point of the story is that God forgives the repentant sinner. I have pointed out before that this is not a story about personal salvation by grace rather than by works—the younger son rejoins a family which still includes the older hard-working son; and I recommend reading this post in conjunction with the earlier one. But on a bumpy flight down to the south of France a couple of days ago I began to think there may also be grounds for questioning the traditional attribution of paternity. I can’t check the details of the argument at the moment, but I will sketch here my reasons for suspecting that the father is not God but Abraham.

The first, and probably most important, point to make is that there are two theologically significant “fathers” in Luke’s Gospel, occurring in two distinct contexts.

The father Abraham passages

The motif of the relationship of children to father Abraham in Luke is found in the context of the recurring controversy with the Pharisees and other leaders of the Jews over who will share in the eschatological life of the people of God following judgment—who will sit down at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the age to come.

1. John berates the crowds which come out to be baptized for claiming to have Abraham as their father. If they do not produce “fruits in keeping with repentance”, they will not escape the impending wrath of God against Israel (Lk. 3:7-9). If necessary, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham”.

2. The wretched Lazarus is carried by angels to the side of “Father Abraham” after his death; the rich man calls out from Hades, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (Lk. 16:22-24). I have argued that this is a parable about the reversal of fortunes that will come about with the judgment and restoration of Israel. The rich will be brought down and excluded; the poor and weak will be lifted up and included.

3. When Jesus gets in trouble with the ruler of a synagogue for healing a woman who had suffered from a “disabling spirit for eighteen years”, he argues, “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Lk. 13:16).

4. Zacchaeus is reckoned as a “son of Abraham” because he gives half of his goods to the poor and offers to recompense those whom he has defrauded (Lk. 19:8-10).

The father God passages

The motif of God as father has to do with the special status of Jesus and his disciples, especially insofar as they are weak, vulnerable, and exposed to hostility: they are assured that their Father will be with them as they go through suffering for the sake of the coming kingdom and will finally vindicate them.

The boy Jesus says that he must be in his Father’s house (Lk. 2:49). His disciples should love their enemies and be merciful, “even as your Father is merciful” (6:35-36). The defeat of Satan has been revealed first to Jesus and then to the disciples by their Father (10:21-22). The disciples are to pray, “Father, hallowed be your name…” (11:2). They should expect their “heavenly Father” to give the Holy Spirit to them. The “little flock” of disciples should not be afraid, for “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32). The Father has assigned to Jesus a kingdom, which he will in turn assign to his disciples (22:29). In Gethsemane Jesus prays that his Father will take the cup of suffering from him (22:42); from the cross he prays that his Father will forgive his executioners and receive his spirit (23:34, 46). After the resurrection Jesus tells the disciples he he will send “the promise of my Father upon you”, with reference to the Holy Spirit (24:49).

Jesus’ parable of two sons

So the fatherhood of Abraham motif belongs to the dispute with the Pharisees and others over the grounds for participation in the people of God at a time of eschatological crisis. The fatherhood of God in Luke is essentially a discipleship theme—it defines the relationship of the disciples to God, derived from their relationship to Jesus, as they followed the narrow path of suffering that would lead to life in the age to come. The distinction appears to be consistently maintained.

The parable of the prodigal son clearly fits the first category of “father” sayings much better than the second—it is a story not about discipleship but about membership. So we are bound to ask whether it makes better sense to read it on the assumption that the father is not God but, in effect, Abraham.

1. The three stories in Luke 15 are told because the Pharisees and scribes had grumbled (diegonguzon) about the fact that Jesus was receiving tax collectors and sinners and eating with them. The connection with the Zacchaeus story is obvious: when Jesus entered the house of Zacchaeus, people “grumbled” (diegonguzon) because Jesus had gone to be a guest at the house of a man who was a tax collector and sinner. Jesus declared Zacchaeus a “son of Abraham”, saying that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”. The tax collector is exactly in the position of the prodigal son who was lost and needed to be restored to his family.

2. The parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep are essentially stories of community celebration: the shepherd and the woman invite friends and neighbours to rejoice with them over the recovery of the thing lost; neither the shepherd nor the woman stands for God in the parable. Jesus tells the stories to justify his practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners. The parable of the prodigal son makes the same point: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Lk. 15:32).

3. The traditional interpretation of the parable is unable to explain what the son takes from God when he demands his share of the property. If the father is Abraham, the son takes his share in his Jewish heritage or in the promises made to the patriarchs and squanders it. The “tax collectors and sinners” have become alienated from the commonwealth of Israel; they have become like Gentiles.

4. When the son gets home, he says to his father, “I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Lk. 15:21). Since “heaven” is an indirect reference to God, it is difficult to understand why the son would express himself in this way if, in Jesus’ mind, the father stood for God.

5. The son repents of his recklessness and returns. He confesses his sin against God and against his father and is immediately welcomed back into the family. The servant explains to the older son that his brother has returned and that his father has killed the fattened calf “because he has received him back safe and sound” (15:27). It is important to note that nothing is said about forgiveness, though it is often interpreted as a parable of divine forgiveness. The emphasis is entirely on the fact that the son has been restored to the family.

There are some potential sticking points: I wonder whether we should expect Abraham to be characterized in quite such a vivid and dynamic fashion; and doesn’t the older son’s claim that he has never disobeyed his father’s “command” evoke Pharisaic adherence to the Law of God? Perhaps, but this is a parable, and the details have a natural narrative justification. Abraham is given an active speaking role on the rich man and Lazarus story.

So I would suggest that the parable of the prodigal son is essentially of the same type as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: it is a story about what it means to belong to the family of Abraham at a time of eschatological crisis. The issue addressed in the Lazarus story is not the scandal of table fellowship but the fact that the Pharisees are “lovers of money” (Lk. 16:14), but the polemical point is the same: the leaders of Israel cannot accept the idea that the poor, the wretched, the oppressed, the “tax collectors and sinners” are at this critical moment being restored to the family of Abraham.

Comments

It’s an interesting, if esoteric, point of view. I’d have thought that the ‘father/son’ motif, especially in the life of Jesus, is as much, if not more, to do with divine privilege and messianic promise (from 2 Samuel 7 - v13, and Psalm 2 - v7 especially) than protection of the weak and vulnerable.

I also feel there were problems with the former post alluded to -

that this is not a story about personal salvation by grace rather than by works—the younger son rejoins a family which still includes the older hard-working son

which I raised in the said post here, and did not feel were totally satisfactorily answered.

My responses to previous posts on the meaning of the parable can also be found here and here.

For the obsessively inclined, yet another post on the parable from opensourcetheology.net, the progenitor of postost.net, can be found here (23.12.2008). I should point out that the exposition of the parable in the Finnish loghouse in relation to Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal’ can only be made if the exegesis of the preceding posts which I have offered in this comment is accepted as correct.

I took another look at this, and of course, your argument, Andrew, is more subtle than I have given credit for. I still think it reduces a superb literary tour de force, which leaps from its context to other contexts, as described, to something bland and of antiquarian interest only. It turns a three dimensional work of art into a rather flat two dimensional allegory.

But what was Jesus’s intention for the parable? I think it’s a stretch to make the father in the story into an Abraham figure, and of course Abraham is never mentioned. I also think it’s a stretch to take the term ‘father’ in the story, and link it to selected examples of ‘father’ in Luke as protector of the weak and vulnerable.

There is clearly a criticism of the Pharisees in the person of the elder brother, who is not a representative of righteous Israel, but rather self-righteous Israel, from whom the kingdom was withheld. There is also a nod to the sinners whom Jesus was attracting to himself, in the person of the younger brother. Older and younger contain more than a hint of the old (historic national Israel), and the new (the people whom Jesus was gathering around himself as the reconstituted people of God). As ever, we have to take into account the probable immediate context, in terms of guessing the identities of those whom Jesus was addressing.

I agree that the story is a polemic, or dramatic parabolic criticism, but with more than a little reader-response thrown in. One third of the story describes the older brother. He, and his attitude, are as important as the younger brother. The contrasting treatment of older and younger in the story form two-thirds of the story’s emphasis.

The other third is the father. If the story were simply an allegory, in which the three characters are simply representative figures, the object of the story becomes primarily to work out their identities. Identifying the father as ‘God’ might be a problem, albeit a slight one. But then your comment:

doesn’t the older son’s claim that he has never disobeyed his father’s “command” evoke Pharisaic adherence to the Law of God? Perhaps, but this is a parable, and the details have a natural narrative justification.

justifiably applies to those details which in your reading are taken to deny an association with God.

The force of the story is then, in my opinion, lost, if we cease to consider our own reactions to what is taking place, and the conjectured reactions of Jesus’s audience, and allow the story to criticise us, as well as the original audience.

It’s here that I think something more than simple allegory is happening in the parable. If all it was “about” was what it means/meant to belong to the family of Abraham at that time, then your reading has some force. But the impact of Jesus’s teaching in the parables is, I think, more than that of retailing pedagogical instruction. Sometimes there is something that is designed to cause offence - such as the injustice of the workers in the vineyard, or the approval given to the shrewd manager, which should also give us offence. These parables have a way of inviting identification with (or disapproval of) a person or persons in the story, which then may come back and bite us.

In this parable, the offence is the younger son’s behaviour, and the reception given to him by the father. It should offend us today, and if it hasn’t, the story has been inadequately understood. But a false identification may also take place. Most people who have been participating in churches for more than a few years, and many for much less than that, would want to identify themselves with the younger son as describing their lives, either spiritually or more literally, before they came to Christ. Arguably, they should be comparing their lives with the older brother, which is what most become, or tend to become.

This is the gist of Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal’: a wonderful autobiography, in which the author explores his own life as, in turn, prodigal, elder brother and eventually father-figure. In his reading, the older brother is dealt with tenderly, even sympathetically, because it is himself. Inadmissible? In your reading maybe.

I think we need to be sensitive to the literary force of Jesus’s teaching in this parable, and others, which I think breaks the boundary of simple historical allegory. They have a way of tripping us up, finding us out, and coming back and biting us. I hope that won’t happen to you Andrew, or me, or any of the contributors to this site. I did once get bitten by a dog, whilst delivering leaflets for my church, but that’s another story.

I still think it reduces a superb literary tour de force, which leaps from its context to other contexts, as described, to something bland and of antiquarian interest only. It turns a three dimensional work of art into a rather flat two dimensional allegory.

That might be true if you’re not a first century Jew or if you lack any sense of connection to the historical conditions under which the Christian movement was formed. From an exegetical point of view, however, modern literary sentiments are irrelevant.

…and of course Abraham is never mentioned.

Neither is God. But as I pointed out, thematically the story fits with passages that speak of Abraham as father much better than with passages that speak of God as father.

…the elder brother, who is not a representative of righteous Israel, but rather self-righteous Israel, from whom the kingdom was withheld.

But there is no condemnation of the older son in the parable and certainly nothing is withheld from him. The Father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31). Jesus acknowledges that the hard-working Pharisees are part of the family of Abraham. The rich man in Hades still appeals to his father Abraham.

I take your point about allegorization, but the parable is told explicitly to address the objections of the Pharisees about Jesus eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (15:1-2). The thrust of the three stories is that it is right to celebrate the recovery of what has been lost. The tax collector Zacchaeus was one of those who was lost and found again by the Son of Man. There seems no reason to deny that Jesus meant the lost sheep, coin, and son to stand for people like Zacchaeus and the older son to stand for those members of Israel—principally the scribes and Pharisees—who grumbled about the fact that such a person might repent and be restored.

We don’t need to allegorize the father, but in the story he is head of the family to which the son is restored, and I am inclined to think that that position is better occupied by Abraham than by God.

The force of the story is then, in my opinion, lost, if we cease to consider our own reactions to what is taking place, and the conjectured reactions of Jesus’s audience, and allow the story to criticise us, as well as the original audience.

Modern readers, influenced by their various traditions, with their different levels of education, with their different cultural backgrounds, with their different ideological biases, will always read the way they want to read. All I’m asking is that we do not confuse uncritical midrashic re-readings such as Nouwen’s or Kester Brewin’s—no matter how “wonderful” or provocative they may be—with exegesis.

Sorry Andrew. You are oversimplifying your response, and assuming uncritically that your point of view is absolute and exclusive. That assumption is particularly unsound in your reading of this parable. I find the charges you bring against alternative readings to your own, which hold yours up to criticism, untrue and insensitive.

You’re entitled to see things differently. I’ve given my reasons for reading the parable the way I do. There’s no point in me repeating them.

I don’t see what’s insensitive about labelling Nouwen’s interpretation as an “uncritical midrashic” re-reading. That’s exactly what it is. That doesn’t mean it’s valueless. I don’t think Kester Brewin’s re-reading is valueless—it’s just not what the historical Jesus intended.

If you are going to argue for a reader-response understanding of the parable within its original setting, you should really provide some evidence that this is an appropriate hermeneutic for such literature under such cultural conditions. I think it much more likely that Jesus spoke prophetically to Israel with a fairly clear communicative intention in mind. I don’t think he was saying to the Pharisees, “Here’s an interesting story, make of it what you will.”

By the way, Nouwen’s reading falls well within the bounds of the exegetically permissible, if reader-response is taken to be the way the parable works - through identification/disapproval. Let’s not be arrogant and say that unsophistciated 1st century minds would not have worked that way. Kester Brewin just seems bizarre.

Then this comment caught my eye:

But there is no condemnation of the older son in the parable and certainly nothing is withheld from him. The Father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31). Jesus acknowledges that the hard-working Pharisees are part of the family of Abraham. The rich man in Hades still appeals to his father Abraham.

This is where your interpretation runs aground. There doesn’t need to be a condemnation of the older son, and he is certainly not commended for his hard work. The amazing thing is that he never appreciated all that had been his in the father’s house, and it wasn’t through a failure of information, but a hardness of heart. “He became angry, and refused to go in”. He excludes himself. That describes the response of the Pharisees perfectly to what they saw Jesus doing. The son’s attitude does not change, and neither did the Pharisees’. The son is consumed with bitterness and resentment, and in a way, rightly too.

It’s also here that the father is more appropriately associated with God than with Abraham. Jesus is exploding popular ideas about both God and what it meant to serve him. That is as true today as it was in his own time and context.

I’ve only just noticed that you placed a thumbnail of the son from Rembrandt’s picture at the head of the article, with the question mark over the head. It’s a clever device. I refer again to my Finnish loghouse post. I took a large size print of the painting to a Christian group in Finland four years ago, and spent a week teaching on it. It was just a few weeks after my own father died. I’m just pleased that, perhaps in ways you had not intended, Rembrandt is being included in the discourse.

I do see comletely what you are wishing to demonstrate about the parable, viewing it through the lens of the ‘coming eschatological crisis’ which you describe. Maybe it fits within that framework of understanding. I’m sorry I’m not contributing to the promotion of the viewpoint. But I have understood it, just in case you were wondering.

For the information of those who find the references here totally baffling, and the even smaller number who may be interested in finding out, the figures in the loghouse post form part of an internal narrative on the website (opensourcehteology.net), and represent contributors to the site at that time. Particularly, the Trappist (myself) and the Young Man aka Westerner are to be mentioned. The latter is a thinly veiled representation of Andrew.

Andrew, are you familiar with Kenneth Bailey’s work on Luke 15? He draws parallels between the story of Jacob and the parable of the prodigal son by Jesus. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

This is all very interesting… although it really does not change the meaning for the reader today. As a matter of fact the discussion really clouds the issue.

The real question should always be “Which person (in this story) am I?” In most cases (and indeed mine) it is the younger son.

Of course, on another level, you could say that the younger is the church. Has the body of Christ wandered off? But let us leave that for another discussion.

One last point… It really does NOT matter who you think Jesus means to be “the father” as people on either side of this argument will end up in Heaven together and Jesus will give them both the answer.

Lighten up! :-)

Brad, I don’t have his book to hand. Next time I’m in a library….

Notice was Jeremiah says in [Jer 31:31] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I shall make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah …”

Notice the 2 groups are distinct; the House of Judah separate from the House of Israel?

How long did Judah stay in Babylon [2 Kings 20:17]? Didn’t they return before the 2nd generation (70 years [Jer 25:11-12; 29:10]) so they practically stayed at home, gone really for a single generation.

How long did Israel stay in Assyria [1 Chr 5:26][2 Kings 17:6]? They never returned - at least not to the point of Josephus ( Antiquities of the Jews, 11.5.2 )

Ezekiel certainly had the same 2 groups in mind when he penned his reunification prophecy “Son of man, take a stick and write on it, “For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him”; then take another stick and write on it, “For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.” And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand.

Similarly, Hosea saw the same two characters (children of a protestitute), and prophecied about them as ‘No Mercy’ in [Hos 1:6] and ‘Not My People’ [Hos 1:9]. Hosea also saw the reunion Ezekiel saw “And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head.” [Hos 1:11]

Similarly when Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” [Matt 13:44] this is very reminiscent of the idea of the Prodigal Son, the treasured possession [Deut 14:2; 26:18] that departed for distant lands, not yet returned.

The connection to Abraham is clear enough - God promised Abraham two things, a nation (Judah) and a company of nations (Joseph or the House of Israel) [Gen 35:11]. We know there was emnity between these two sons [2 Kings 16:6]. We also know that these two sons were at the forefront of Jesus’ mind [Matt 10:6; 15:24]. It’s hard not to see this connection between the Lost sheep of the House of Israel and the Prodigal Son when Jesus says “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” [Luke 15:6] sounding very much like ” For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” [Luke 15:24] especially given Micah’s comments in [Mic 2:12] “I shall surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I shall gather the remnant of Israel; I shall set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men.”

Biblically at least, who the father is, and who the sons are is clear enough - but still subject to rejection. People don’t want to believe what is otherwise plain.

I would guess that most of the words of Christ could have more than one valid and valuable meaning. The mercy and grace shown in this would be seen in a slightly different way by Jews, gentiles, Romans, and even 21st century Americans or Africans. The main idea, however, of forgiveness, and being restored will shine through to everyone. Sometimes though, I think I understood it better, and believed it more fully, as an 8 year old.

Some of you might want to take a look at James Jordan’s investigation 13 years ago. He convinced me that indeed it was Abraham as the model and it gave new insight in how to discern Paul’s Romans 9-11 also in my estimation. The older son is the Jealous Jew derived from Abraham while the Gentile story is found in Ishmael.Who else goes off and eats with the pigs?

In my estimation Andrew is spot on in reading this from the perspective of the intended audience. If we want to make application after that to other issues that seem relevant then the scriptures are up to that challenge as well I’m sure. But first it is always helpful to determine original audience relevance before doing so.

Rom 9:6-8 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Rom 11:11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.

No. 117: Call Me Ishmael, Part 1 by James B. Jordan May, 1999

http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-117-call-me-ishmael-part-1/

No. 118: Call Me Ishmael, Part 2 by James B. Jordan June, 1999

http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-118-call-me-ishmael-part-2/

Norman, thanks for the comments and the links. I had a quick look and will try at some point to consider Jordan’s argument—and others like it—in more detail, but for now I’m not persuaded that Jesus intended the parable to be read as a retelling of Israel’s history, whether Isaac and Ishmael or the return from exile. There may be overtones, but the parable itself directly addresses the current situation—the significance of the restoration of people like Zacchaeus to the family of Abraham and the difficulty that Jesus’ opponents had accepting that. I certainly don’t see how Jesus could have the Gentiles in view.

Andrew,

Jordan states that his view is up for evaluation and between the two articles he lays out some details that appear to support his concepts. I’m of the opinion presently myself that Genesis is a product of exilic Judaism early on and all the stories are messianic themes of the redemption of not only the Jews but of the Gentiles as well. The story of the regathering of the Jews and Paul’s exploration of it is a complex theme from the OT to be sure. It seems to be built around God Fearing Gentiles whom often have been part of Judaism at one time. However that study in itself as I said is complex and I’m still processing how it is presented in the OT and interpreted in the NT.

Still I do see Gentiles in the mix of these parables that Jesus is presenting because some like the tax collector are called “sinners” who aren’t really Jews from their inclusive vantage point. Again though this gets into a subtlety of who comprised Gentiles from the vantage point of the Apostles.

Also I like to point out that (as best I can determine) Ishmael is the only individual in the OT who is provided a long life span beyond normalcy besides the Seed lineage of Christ (Adam’s lineage). In my reading of Hebrew literature that indicates that Ishmael is not a spiritually dead lineage concerning the promise. It also highlights Ishmael in a very prominent Jewish manner that is expected to be noticed significantly.

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