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Luke 15:11-32 – The Prodigal Son and His Brother

Summary

Jesus tells a parable about a man with two sons. The younger one demands to be given his inheritance in advance, leaves home, and later returns to his father's warm and generous welcome. The older son is critical of his father's desire to celebrate his brother's homecoming and complains that his own obedience has never been rewarded.

Analysis

This may be the most famous of Jesus' parables. Its basic story line is familiar to many people. Part of its meaning comes from its position in Luke (which is the only Gospel that includes it). It is the third of three parables (see also Luke 15:1-10) that describe the recovery of something that was lost and conclude in celebration. Jesus tells these parables immediately after certain Pharisees and scribes complain about his practice of sharing meals with notorious people, with "tax collectors and sinners." One of the points of the parable, then, is that generous celebration is the appropriate response when a "lost" person becomes "found."

One ambiguous detail in the parable is the motive that prompts the younger son to return home in 15:17. His situation is bleak: he has offended his father, deliberately disowned himself from family, lived wastefully and perhaps immorally, and found himself in the midst of a severe famine. The parable does not clearly say whether his plans described in 15:17-19 are an attempt to manipulate his father or a sincere expression of sorrowful repentance. Whatever his motive, his father's response upon seeing him is extravagant. The father is not interested in hearing why the son came back to him; he only desires to restore him to his status as a member of the household. Unable to finish his prepared speech, the younger son is surprised by grace.

The traditional title, "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," unfortunately detracts from the older son's important role in Jesus' short story. On one hand, this other son is a model of resentment. He vilifies his brother and speaks in a way that suggests his own alienation from the family. On the other hand, he also points out (apparently, with some justification) that the father does not operate according to certain standards of fairness. The elder son's commitment to these standards makes him unable to appreciate his father's extravagant generosity toward his brother. In the offense he experiences, the older son, too, is surprised by grace.

Luke 15:11-32

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother

11 Then Jesus* said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with* the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”* 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father* said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

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10 February 2011

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