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.