“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet… for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:21-22, 24, NRSV).
Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.
IT’S NO SECRET THAT there are many ways to read, study, and interpret literature. Such investigation and analysis is called exegesis. It involves the careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. Some call this “scholarly reading,” which I’ve learned to apply to my graduate studies in theology. Exegesis is described as reading in a way that ascertains the crux of a text; a type of “close reading,” deliberate, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, considering all the parts for a better understand of the text or verse as a whole.
There are three major approaches to exegesis: (1) the synchronic approach (meaning “within time” or “same time”), which can be considered a narrative-critical, social-scientific, or socio-rhetorical analysis; (3) the diachronic approach (meaning “across time,” focusing on origin and development and the “long view,” which is essentially an historical-critical analysis; and (3) the existential approach (something to be “engaged with,” looking at the reality beyond the text, “spiritual” truth beyond the “literal” truth). I will be using the existential method to analyze the story of the prodigal son. Please note this does not imply any connection to the philosophy of existentialism associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. Rather, existential exegesis is theological and transformative; it is done in the context of a specific religious tradition or theological purpose.
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Although many pastors, teachers, and biblical scholars refer to it as the story of the prodigal son, the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible. The son is best characterized as lost, emphasizing that all sinners are lost or alienated from God. To characterize him as “prodigal” casts too much emphasis on wayward lifestyle. If we limit our analysis of the prodigal son to his wanton worldly behavior, we will miss the point of the story. It is in fact more akin to the tale of the lost sheep. This story is meant to demonstrate that we do not have to stay in our hopeless state. Moreover, it is an example of Scripture imitating life, in that it shows us what repentance means: turning away from sin and back toward the Father; doing a 180 as they call it.
Eugene Peterson puts the story of the prodigal son under the heading The Story of the Lost Son in his translation The Message. This parable shows the nature of repentance, and, more importantly, the joy and the willingness of God to welcome and restore all who return to Him. It shows us the riches of the gospel and its efficacy to overcome any form of sin. Matthew Henry draws a unique parallel between our heavenly Father and the prodigal’s earthy father. He says, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when men look upon God’s gifts as debts due to them” (1). Scripture tells us to not seek the wealth of this world. Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
Matthew Henry draws a parallel between the prodigal son and our First Parents. Their foolish ambition to be independent from the Father is at the bottom of every sinner persisting in sin and autonomy. The First Sin relates to man’s departure from God, toward a willful reliance on his own thoughts and valuations rather than ascribing to God’s. We see from the prodigal son that his desire to be free from his father led to a vile, hedonistic, slavish state of being. When we walk in the flesh (fulfilling its every desire) we become the devil’s servant. Walking according to fleshly desires and instincts invariably leads to a state of constant discontent. This is what it means to be a lost sheep, wandering the face of the earth in search of constant gratification, separated from God.
The parable of the prodigal son reveals two distinct issues: one literary, the other theological. From a literary perspective, the story revolves around two brothers: one younger, the other older. This does not indicate two separate stories, but two parts that compliment one another. Because of this focus on two brothers, it is helpful to analyze this parable from both an existential and historical/sociopolitical perspective. Historically, the “share of the estate” that the younger son would receive on the death of his father would be one-third. Culture during those times dictated that the older son would receive two-thirds, often referred to as a “double portion,” and the second son would receive the remaining one-third (see Deut. 21:17). When the property “was divided” in the story of the prodigal son, the older son was made aware of his share of the father’s assets prior to his father’s death. This was unusual in the prevailing society.
From a sociopolitical perspective, when the prodigal son asked for his portion of the inheritance, it’s as if he wished his father dead! New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (2), who spent over 15 years in the Middle East, asked a number of people there what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime, so the request of the prodigal son was quite offensive. The father’s willingness to comply with his son’s request was generous beyond all expectations. In addition, the older son in such cases was typically expected to step in and help the father save face with anyone attacking his estate. This does not happen in the parable of the prodigal son; neither son lived up to what was expected.
The wasting of all the son had while “in a foreign land” is culturally understood as acting against the family, whose inheritance can be traced back to the promises of God to Abraham. The famine made employment and food quite hard to get. The “distant country” was likely outside strictly Jewish territory. It is no coincidence that the son also ended up with the demeaning job of feeding pigs—these are unclean animals for the Jews. He had fallen so low that “no one gave him anything,” which indicates a state of complete destitution and neglect.
From a theological perspective, it is important to note there were 100 sheep (15:4), 10 coins (15:8), and 2 sons. One is lost from each number. The sheep and coin were sought after diligently until they were recovered. However, the lost son was not sought after. He was personally responsible for his coming back home. His rebellion was deliberate and “of the heart,” meaning only a change of heart would suffice for his restoration. This is extremely important from a theological perspective. It is one thing to “know” in your head what is right and what is wrong, but it is a different matter to make a heart-felt decision to change one’s behavior, one’s path—to “do a 180” as I said earlier. This was quite true regarding my wandering in the wilderness for decades in active addiction, making choices that belied morality. I never considered this crucial element in the prodigal son’s restoration before now.
The lost son’s behavior is deemed “riotous living” (15:13). The Greek word is asotos, which translates “living ruinously.” It is properly interpreted as meaning “unsavedness” or, by implication, profligacy, suggesting excess or riot. It is from the root asôtia, referring to being “not savable; incorrigible, dissolute, beyond hope.” It also implies debauchery or drunkenness (see Eph. 5:18). Of course, theologically speaking, the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). His condition brought him to his senses and he realized how his riotous life would end. Further, he considered his current predicament as being worse than his father’s hired servants, who had bread enough to spare (15:17). He decided he would return to his father’s house and ask his forgiveness.
The prodigal son showed true repentance—confession of sin, genuine sorrow, and humility. The Greek word for repentance in this verse is metanoeo, meaning “to change one’s mind for the better” (see Luke 13:3). This is more than forsaking sin; it involves a complete change in one’s attitude and orientation toward all sinful behavior. In fact, it is this degree of repentance God expects from us as a condition for receiving His forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son demonstrated complete humility. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (15:21).
The motivation for the son’s return was hunger, but theologically it was to his “father” that he wanted to return; not to the dinner table. The words “against heaven” (15:21) can mean “to heaven,” indicating he believed his sins were so many as to reach the Heavenly Father—perhaps he believed his sins were ultimately against God. The Jews were aware of Yahweh’s “fatherly” love. Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” The son knew he had no right to return “as a son.” He imagined saying to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (15:19). In other words, he planned to earn his room and board when he returned home.
The Lost Has Been Found!
“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found! And they began to have a wonderful time” (15:20-24, MSG).
What does this parable tell us? We’ve looked at several specific words and phrases (lexical items), such as “loose living” (15:13), “came to himself” (15:17), and repentance (15:21; 13:3). Looking at these words and phrases as they appear in utterances, verses, stanzas, and the text as a whole, we see the “completeness” of this story. This great parable speaks of true repentance and the complete joy a father has for a penitent son. Jesus addressed the “murmurings” of the Pharisees early in the story, saying “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” (15:4-5). He then drove the point home: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).
The details in this story are vivid and moving. Further, they accurately reflect actual customs and legal procedures of the relevant time period. The older son is much like the Pharisees. He could not comprehend the meaning of true forgiveness. In fact, the viewpoints of the two sons are diametrically opposed. The lost son rises and returns; the older son turns and walks away from his father in disgust, falling in moral stature. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his unconditional love for both sons regardless of their behavior or their attitude. Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude toward the lost. He represents God’s perspective during his entire ministry on earth. This parable is one of the greatest examples of God’s willingness to forgive and to accept the return of every lost son or daughter.
Who are you in this parable? Are you the lost son, a Pharisee, a servant? Are you the older son who was bitter and jealous over the father’s forgiveness and blessing of the younger son who repented and returned home? Are you able to rejoice when a lost sheep is found, or are you taken captive by a righteous indignation, saying, “Why do you lavish him so? He disrespected and disowned you! I’ve been here all along. Where is my adoration?”
Family dynamics is rather fascinating. Even in the family of an addict or alcoholic we can see various roles played out: the Scapegoat (the one blamed for every wrong and ill within the family, sometimes the addict); the Punisher (often a sibling who has “always been there” for the family, and who doles out “consequences” on the addict or protects the family from the addict); the Enabler (usually a member who covers for the addict, trying to smooth things over or restore peace and order in the family, giving him or her enough rope to maybe change one day); the Hero (usually a Type-A personality who is hard-working, overachieving, a perfectionist, who is trying to create a degree of normalcy in the family); the Masot (often the funny, outgoing, class clown of the family always trying to quell the stress of the situation by supplying humor); and the Lost Child (often the middle or youngest child, shy, withdrawn, usually hates confrontation, and has difficulty with establishing outside relationships).
The parable of the prodigal son provides a wealth of theological meaning and puts an historical and sociopolitical spin on the nature of family dynamics during the era when this story was told. It can serve as an in-depth analysis of dysfunctional families today, showing us how easily we can resent the success of others; acceptance of a rebellious, riotous son or daughter who is welcomed back into the fold; righteous indignation by others in the family when a wayward son or daughter returns. It is not easy to forgive others who have harmed us or our loved ones. Thankfully, the parable of the prodigal son can serve to broaden our horizons regarding true repentance, unconditional love, and forgiveness. This is, after all, the point of the gospel itself.
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 962.
(2) Jirair Tashjian, “Inheritance Practices in the First Century,” The Voice, Christian Resource Institute (2018). URL: http://www.crivoice.org/inheritance.html