The Foolish Father
Luke 15.31-32 You are always here with me , and everything I have
is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy because your brother was
dead and now he is alive.
The parable of the Prodigal Son
has a long and checkered history. For most of the time since it was
first interpreted by the author of Luke's Gospel, it has been seen as a
call by Jesus for repentance from a sinful lifestyle (the younger son).
He contrasts with wicked people who refuse the Good News (the older
Many now think that a better interpretation is to see
a forgiving God in the father. We will always be welcomed home (the
Church) if we turn our backs on loose living (the younger son). There
are those who angrily think the whole Christian thing epitomises blind
error (the older son).
The truth is much more dramatic.
Many in the 21st century are unable to hear this
parable as Jesus first told it because their culture is too different
from that of the first century. There are those in the older world who
stand a better chance because their cultures haven't changed that much
in the last two millennia.
The first hearers of this parable would have been
shocked at the father's behaviour. Their culture, based on tradition and
the Hebrew scriptures, warned specifically against any man giving away
his inheritance while still alive. The elder son would inherit
two-thirds of his estate. The younger son or sons would split the
remaining third. Women got nothing. These rules were in place not to
benefit the sons but to protect the family. No sound father in
Jesus' time would have accepted the insulting tone of the older brother.
He would have forced his son to capitulate and come to the party.
Instead, in the parable it is the father who capitulates. He demeans
himself intolerably when he pleads with his son instead of disciplining
The younger son was a scoundrel, the elder an
upstart, and the father a fool. All three put at risk the extended
family. Life in those times was precarious enough without such
self-centred nonsense. Worse still, this was a relatively wealthy
family. How could the father jeopardise its security by being so soft?
Those listening to Jesus would have been forcibly
struck by the parable. They would have asked themselves what Jesus was
getting at. What would have happened when the father died, for instance?
Every preacher at this point is tempted to take a next
step by asking, "What is the point of the parable?" That Jesus intended
his listeners to reflect on themselves and their situations in the light
of the parable is, I think, without doubt. But it's highly questionable
that he intended to make a specific point.
What does the wastrel son say to you? Which of the
three characters do you see yourself as? Should you be more pliable in
your life? Or are you called on to get tough with others?
The foolish father asks questions of each of us. He
supplies no answers. Parables cannot be interpreted, only reflected