Historical Culture Context
A rabbinic tradition cautions: “Let not a person associate with sinners even to bring them near to the Torah” (Mekhilta 57b on Ex 18:1). Feeding sinners is praiseworthy; eating with them is forbidden. “Hosting” or “welcoming” sinners, as Jesus does here (Lk 15:2), makes the Pharisees furious.
Jesus routinely deals with opponents by insulting them plainly and directly. The central characters (shepherds and women) of the twin parables are deeply offensive to the Pharisees …
… Jesus draws the Pharisees even closer with another double parable featuring a younger son (Lk 15:11-24) and an older son (Lk 15: 25-32).
Sin. The younger son’s request is equivalent to wishing his father were dead. By refusing to reconcile the younger son with father, the older son is equally remiss.
Repentance. Having squandered the inheritance, being reduced to tending unclean animals, and beginning to starve, the younger son “came to himself,” that is, “began to repent.” He acknowledged that by losing the inheritance he lost the means for taking care of his father in old age. Opting to become a hired servant would preserve his independence and enable him to build up the funds he lost and repay his father. Repentance will bring reconciliation with his father, but probably not with his brother or with the village.
Grace. The father’s behavior toward his returning son are dramatic deeds calculated to protect the boy from the anticipated hostility of the village. He runs the village gauntlet to meet the boy, wraps him in a protective hug, and kisses him again and again in a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Joy. Killing a calf rather than a goat or sheep means the entire community is invited to share in the joy. There is food enough here for more than a hundred people. The banquet is intended to reconcile the boy with the entire community.
Sonship. The father confirms the reestablished relationship: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found.” This is more than the boy dreamed of. The elder son, too, is lost. He refuses to join in the feasting. Instead, he publicly humiliates his father by arguing with him in the presence of the entire village. He addresses his father with no title. He repudiates his sonship (“All these years I served you!”). Amid his insults, the elder son insists, “Not once did I disobey your orders” He accuses the father of favoritism (“him a calf; me not even a goat”). He slanders his brother by introducing into the story an unfounded charge of cavorting with harlots.
How does the father respond? Once again he treats an offending son with love tendered in humiliation. The father addresses the boy with a title, “Son,” and assures him that his share of inheritance is intact. In return for arrogance, the father offers compassion.
The two sons in this parable are essentially the same and equally offensive. They differ only in their response to unexpected and undeserved love demonstrated by their humiliated father. Like these sons, all who hear this story must decide how they should respond to forgiving love.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University