The parables of Jesus are interesting and complex. There was a time when people believed that parables were complete allegories, and every detail of the parable had a corresponding truth in the real world. For example, I always get a nerdy kick out of reading Augustine’s analysis of The Good Samaritan.Throughout the ages theologians have hypothesized about the best way to interpret parables. For a while we thought that parables had to have one central idea that was the main theme of the parable. But what we have come to realize is that parables have multiple layers of meaning and can be viewed from many different perspectives.
One of the most famous parables ever is the parable of the Prodigal Son, found at the end of Luke 15. Most Christians are familiar with the story of the young son who took his inheritance early, spent it foolishly and found himself living amongst swine. We marvel at the grace of the ever-loving Father, who welcomes his son with open arms, running to meet the son as he comes trudging home in shame, asking only to be a servant in his father’s house. As sinners who see ourselves as coming home, we see ourselves so clearly in the story of the younger son. How many of us have gone off into a far country and spent the grace of Father in riotous living? We are grateful that our Heavenly Father has been willing to welcome us home. So many people have been moved by this story. But I have always wondered whether this was the primary message that Jesus wanted his audience to hear.
Context is important when looking at parables. The context is important here as well. If the parable were primarily about sinners returning home, then we should expect that the telling of the parable would be in that real world context. This is not the case. At the beginning of Luke 15, sinners and tax collectors are coming to Jesus and listening to Him speak. When the Pharisees see this, they begin to criticize Jesus for welcoming these types of people into his company. In response to their criticism, Jesus tells 3 parables – the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son. The important point is that the parables are given in response to criticism from those established church members who are upset that Jesus spends time with sinners. Furthermore, I have found that we are often so fixated on the return of the son in the story that we forget that the parable does not end there. The parable actually ends on a scene with the older brother and the father. When the older brother realizes what has happened, he criticizes the father for giving all these gifts to the wayward son, and laments that he has never received such favor despite the fact that he has been faithful. The father answers the son’s criticism saying, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” This is the father’s answer to the son, and this is Jesus’ answer to the criticism of the Pharisees and scribes. This was the primary thing that Jesus wanted those Pharisees to hear. Jesus wants them to know that God still loves them and cares for them, in the same way that the father loves and cares for his older son. But Jesus also wants them to rejoice for the sinners who are just now beginning to live again because of Jesus’ ministry. He wants them to be happy for those who are coming home after being lost in the world for so long.
I think the primary lesson that Christ wanted his audience to learn was a lesson about being the “older brothers.” He wanted us to learn about how to treat the younger brothers who are coming home. Instead of criticism, or scorn, or derision, we should treat them the way the father treats his son. We should be overjoyed at their return and willing to give of what we have to make them feel comfortable and welcome in the house of the Father. Those of us who have been in the church a long time (or people like me who never really left) this parable is about us. I am not saying we should never see ourselves as the younger brother who strays, but it is just as important that we see ourselves in the older brother as well. When we remind ourselves that we are often in the position of the older brother, we remind ourselves to avoid that brother’s mistake and show the love of the Father to those who are coming home.
Jason Hines is an attorney and doctoral student in Religion, Politics, and Society at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at http://thehinesight.blogspot.com.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6278