A connoisseur of fine wine pays attention to the details of the texture and flavor of the wine. Because Jesus teaches us using parables, we have to become connoisseurs of the stories, noting the various hints and contours of what Christ has created for us in order for us to fully savor what He is revealing to us. His parables are not meant to be guzzled or gulped down but rather are to be slowly imbibed in order to experience and enjoy the complex and deep lessons.
Though the Gospel text Luke 15:11-32 is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it probably is better termed the Parable of the Loving Father. Note how Christ starts the parable: “A certain man had two sons..” – the “man” of the parable, the father of the two sons, really is the central character in the story. Christ doesn’t begin by saying there were two brothers or that there was a man who had a father and an older brother. Christ is telling a parable about the man, the father, the character who holds the whole parable together. The story is like an icon triptych with the two brothers being the side panels, but the father being the central panel and the main focus of the triptych.
There are many details in the parable we could focus on to understand either of the two brothers, and in Orthodoxy the most frequent reference point is the younger brother coming to his senses and deciding to return to his father – an image of repentance in these pre-Lenten days.
One thing we might explore is how what the younger son asks from his father compares with the Lord’s prayer – both are addressed to the Father. The younger son says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Contrast this with the Lord’s prayer in which we say: “Our Father … thy will be done … give us this day our daily bread.” In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for enough bread for the day not for everything our Father might give us in a lifetime in one day! The Prodigal is not interested in his father’s will and certainly he is not concerned about having his needs met for the day, he just wants to self-indulge right now.
When the younger son returns to his father, he says: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy (Greek: axios) to be called your son.’ The Prodigal Son acknowledges his own unworthiness to be called a son. He uses the word “Axios” which is used of the candidate at an ordination service in the Orthodox Church. We also see in this the son defining in his mind the nature of “sonship” – it is about worthiness, about earning the position (this actually is also going to be the same attitude as the older brother – both brothers misunderstand their father and his love and the nature of sonship! They don’t see the father giving them his love, they see themselves as earning their way and thus deserving his gifts – they really both are hired servants). The Prodigal realizes as a result of his own behavior, he is not a very worthy child, certainly not worthy of his father’s favor. He thinks that at least maybe he can be a hired employee of his father. But he has a very distorted view of what it is to be child of his father. He sees his father as the big daddy with the big bucks – the man who has all the power and he is trying to wrest some of that power to his own advantage. This by the way is what many ancient people thought was how to approach the many gods who infested their world – manipulate them to get things from them. They didn’t love their gods, they used them to get what they wanted from them, and so too the gods used the people for their own purposes and needs. No love in that religion.
But note that the younger son does not ask for forgiveness from his father nor does he do anything to seek reconciliation with his father. In his mind there is no way he can earn sonship back so he skips seeking reconciliation and looks to get hired on which is how he basically sees his father; besides he has already taken all the property and wealth that he could claim. He fails to understand what it means to be a child. What he still doesn’t understand is his father’s love is given freely, it is not earned, it is not deserved. In the whole parable, the father has not run out of love for his son. The son may have taken away half his father’s property and all the wealth he, the son, is entitled to, but he has not taken away all the father’s love nor could he ever squander all the love his father has. The father is still full of love which he eagerly gives to the son. That should be obvious in the parable. The father continues to treat the son as son and shows that for the father sonship is a relationship of love that can’t be lost or taken away. If being a child is defined in terms of inheritable property this young man is in trouble, but this father has little concern for the property value which has been lost. That is nothing compared to the relationship he has with his child.
Quite literally: The father has nothing but love for his child. He has nothing but love to give to his child.
When the father talks to the slaves (Greek: doulos), he commands them as slaves (doulos) to dress the son and adorn him and prepare a feast for the son. The father has plenty of slaves who have to obey him, but he is not interested in another obedient slave. He wants a son, a child not another hired servant. The father loves his son and the father clearly treats his slaves like slaves. But the father wants this child to be his child, not just a hired servant.
The older brother also has trouble understanding what it is to be a child of his father. First, I would note that the slaves in the parable do understand there is a difference between themselves and the brothers. The slaves say, “your brother has returned”. Your father is celebrating the return of your brother. The servants know they are servants, but this missing child of the father, the prodigal, he still is his father’s son. The slaves know there is a difference between themselves as servants and a child of the master, but the father’s own children don’t understand this distinction. They act as if they are nothing more than hirelings themselves.
When the elder brother hears the party for his brother in full swing,he refuses to go into the father to talk to him but rather, makes the father come out to him (In effect, he treats his father like his servant! Come here, I want to talk to you!) (Note the father also went out to greet the prodigal on his return – the father is willing to leave his home, to leave everything behind, in order to maintain or restore the relationship with his children). The elder brother says “these many years I have served (douleuo) you, I have never transgressed one of your commandments.” The elder brother sees his years of living with his father as nothing more than servitude. The elder brother whines that for all these years I have been your slave and totally obeyed you, though I resent it. He has not been a son acting in love but a slave. And it bears repeating, the father doesn’t want another obedient slave, he has plenty of those. He wants a son, a child, one who shares his life, his love and all his earthly goods. [St Symeon the New Theologian, in one of his poems has God saying this: “… ‹to learn› precisely that I am God creator of all things, (Sir 24.8) to know and understand that the person sitting in the deepest pit has been reconciled to Me, (Ps 87.7) and converses with Me without mediation like a friend to a friend, (Ex 33.11) having passed beyond the rank of hired servant and the fear of slavery, serving Me tirelessly, attending Me with love, associating with Me by obedience to the commandments. I do not mean those who serve Me as employees, nor again those who come to Me as slaves, but I speak of those who are my friends, familiars, and my sons by their actions.” (Divine Eros, Kindle Location 9096-9108) A very similar theme to what we see of the loving Father in the ‘Prodigal’ parable.]
The Elder brother harshly accuses the younger brother of consorting with prostitutes (15:30) yet early on (15:13) all the text says is that the younger son lived as a prodigal (wasteful, extravagant, excessive, self-indulgent) life. The text doesn’t list any sins of the intemperate younger brother. The older brother is sure that his younger brother is not merely foolish but a sinner and evil.
The father accepts his lost son back, but the elder son sounds just like the Pharisees at the beginning of this chapter in Luke 15:1-6 –
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’
The elder brother is a Pharisee – he accuses his father of receiving sinners and eating with them. The father is the good shepherd who goes out to seek and find the lost and celebrate being reconciled with them, no matter why they left to begin with.
The father says to his elder son: Child (teknon, child, but this time doesn’t call him my son!), you are always with me and own everything (note in vs 12 the father divided the proper and gave it to them (autois in the plural, not just to the younger son but to both sons!). The father is saying, you are my son, not my slave! Be merry and rejoice! I don’t want your obedience I want your love and joy. I want to be with you. The father says, by law all that I have is yours – but what he wants his son to have is love and joy which no law could make him accept or do! The father wants a relationship with his child that is based in love not law. The father is quite willing to do whatever the law requires, but his heart is in loving his children.
There are many lessons for us to learn from this parable and we can like wine connoisseurs savor the many lessons offered to us. We might also think about applying the lessons to ourselves. Which of three people in Christ’s parable are you?
The prodigal child – initially wasteful and foolish, who repents and begs mercy but who doesn’t believe he could ever be a child of the father because he is unworthy. The father loves him anyway and embraces him despite his faults and despite the fact that he can’t buy or earn the father’s favor.
The elder son – diligent and hardworking, faithful, but lacking in mercy, love and forgiveness, but who also thinks the father’s love must be earned. He too doesn’t s believe the father freely gives his love. Thus he is angry that the father shows himself to be loving, merciful, forgiving and generous to both his undeserving brother and to himself. He doesn’t believe in the father’s grace or love. He won’t forgive his brother or his father or himself. Really he rejects his father freely giving him or his brother good things. The elder brother is saying, “I earned your favor, you aren’t giving me anything, I worked for it.”
The father – full of hope, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness who is ever striving to bring about reconciliation and unity and to uphold what he values so dearly for his family? He gives freely and generously to those who are his children, and he holds no grudges, and he forgives all debts.
Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us. He has loved us like the father in the parable loves his children. Are we willing to do the same?