The Prodigal Son Returns

The Text


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“And he would gladly have fed on and filled his belly with the carob pods that the hogs were eating.”

  1. … There was a certain man who had two sons;
  2. And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the part of the property that falls to me. And he divided the estate between them.
  3. And not many days after that, the younger son gathered up all that he had and journeyed into a distant country, and there he wasted his fortune in reckless and loose [from restraint] living.
  4. And when he had spent all he had, a mighty famine came upon that country, and he began to fall behind and be in want.
  5. So he went and glued himself upon one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed hogs.
  6. And he would gladly have fed on and filled his belly with the carob pods that the hogs were eating, but they could not satisfy his hunger, and nobody gave him anything better.
  7. Then when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father have enough food, and even food to spare, but I am dying here of hunger!
  8. I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.
  9. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; just make me like one of your hired servants.
  10. So he got up and came to his own father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity and tenderness for him; and he ran and embraced him and kissed him fervently.
  11. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I no longer deserve to be recognized as a son of yours!
  12. But the father said to his bond servants, Bring quickly the festive robe of honor and put it on him; and give him a ring for his hand and sandals for his feet.
  13. And bring out that wheat-fattened calf and kill it; and let us revel and feast and be happy and make merry,
  14. Because this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to revel and feast and make merry.
  15. But his older son was in the field; and as he returned and came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
  16. And having called one of the servant boys to him, he began to ask what this meant.
  17. And he said to him, Your brother has come, and your father has killed that wheat-fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and well.
  18. But the elder brother was angry with deep-seated wrath and resolved not to go in. Then his father came out and began to plead with him.
  19. But he answered his father, Look! These many years I have served you, and I have never disobeyed your command. Yet you never gave me so much as a little kid, that I might revel and feast and be happy and make merry with my friends;
  20. But when this son of yours arrived, who has devoured your estate with immoral women, you have killed for him that wheat-fattened calf!
  21. And the father said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
  22. But it was fitting to make merry, to revel and feast and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!

Luke 15:11–32, Amplified Bible

The History

As recounted in Chapter 14, the writings of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews) are among those cited as extrabiblical corroboration of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. What are the other sources of the information that many people have come to accept as historical truth?

Foremost are the texts found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, both the gospel accounts and the epistles. Four gospels have been accepted as canonical: those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three are termed the synoptic gospels because they generally tell the same narrative, though the details vary considerably. The following is the scholarly consensus about when the gospels were written.

  • the Gospel of Mark was written 68–73 c.e.
  • the Gospel of Matthew was written sometime between 70 and 100 c.e.
  • the Gospel of Luke (and the Acts of the Apostles) was written 80–100 c.e.
  • the Gospel of John was written between 90 and 110 c.e.1

These four gospels would all have been written years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, which most scholars now date to sometime between 26 and 36 c.e., the years of Pontius Pilate's term as governor of Judea. Scriptures experts now generally hold that all the gospels were based on oral tradition—stories passed on by word of mouth—as well as on a hypothetical Q document and, perhaps, on the Gospel of Thomas, and that the actual editors, or redactors, of these canonical gospels were not the apostles whose names were co-opted to lend authenticity to the accounts. The consensus is that all the gospels were written in Greek, the common language of that part of the Roman Empire, though some scholars assert that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, the language spoken by some 1st-century Jews.

The earliest extant and reliable texts referring to Jesus are the epistles attributed to Paul. Born Saul, Paul was a native of Tarsus (in present-day Turkey), a member of the tribe of Benjamin and of the Pharisee sect, yet also a Roman citizen, and a rabbi who became a persecutor and murderer of those Jews who called themselves Christians (followers of Christ, the risen Jesus). Paul never met Jesus of Nazareth, yet on the road to Damascus, where Paul was traveling to conduct another punishment of Christians for defying the Law, he experienced a profound vision that turned his life upside down and made him a believer in Christ. Thereafter, he journeyed throughout the Roman world, receiving additional revelations from Christ, spreading what he called the good news, and founding many Christian churches. Before he was executed in Rome, Paul had written many letters to the churches he had established, offering them advice and criticisms and support. Scholars now generally believe that Paul himself composed the following letters: Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon, with I Thessalonians probably the earliest, composed about 51 c.e. The other letters traditionally attributed to Paul's pen are now considered to have been written by believers who usurped Paul's name to give authority to their writings.

Other books have also been accepted into the New Testament canon; these include the remaining Pseudo-Pauline letters, the epistles of James, Peter, John, I and II Timothy, and Jude, and the Revelation to John. Again, these were most probably not written by the cited apostles but, rather, by members of their communities.

Additional gospels and documents exist; these have not been accepted into the canon of the New Testament, and their authenticity is subject to interpretation, yet according to some scholars they provide important information and interpretations about the life of Jesus, not to mention data about life in 1st-century Judea. Called New Testament Apocrypha (Pseudepigrapha), these include the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (also known as the Birth of Mary and Infancy of the Savior), the Protoevangelium of James (also called the Gospel of James), the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Life of John the Baptist, the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the Nativity of Mary, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Nicodemus (also known as the Acts of Pilate), the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (also called the Gospel of Mary), the Acts of Peter, the Acts of John, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Stephen (also known as the Revelation of Stephen), and numerous others.

A few secular sources also mentioned the Christian sect, such as a letter of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan, dated to 112 c.e., and passages in Tacitus' Annals of 116 c.e.

Given the uncertain authenticity of the vast majority of these documents, a handful of scholars have posited the theory that the Jesus described in the New Testament never existed in the flesh but came to life only in the mythological and imaginative realm. While plausible, this conjecture does not fully account for the disciples' fearless emergence from Jerusalem after Pentecost, nor for Paul's profound conversion to Christianity and evangelization in the name of Christ. Perhaps humankind will never know what the man named Jesus actually did or said, but the accounts of his deeds and sayings, whether authentic or not, add up to a story that most people admire for its interior “truth,” its brilliant incorporation of diverse cultural and historical elements, and its inspiring message of hope for the downtrodden and outcast of society.

Biblical Passage Notes

Of all the writings of the Christian New Testament, the tale of the return of the prodigal son is one of the most famous parables spoken by Jesus. It is part of a three-part discourse in the Gospel of Luke, used to demonstrate the way in which God loves all people and will go to any lengths to welcome back those who have been separated from God by sinful living and deeds. The story is unique to this gospel, but the sibling rivalry and the jealousy between brothers makes the tale a universal one.

It begins with what could only have been seen by 1st-century believers as a horrific rejection. The youngest son comes to his father and asks for his inheritance. In Middle Eastern culture, this was nothing short of rude and ungrateful; it was as if to say, “Father, I wish you were dead, but since you are not, I want what you have now, instead of having to wait till you die in order to get it.” The older son is equally guilty in his silence. He does not speak up, letting the younger brother get away with his insolence. He therefore accepts his own share of the estate by not arguing for a reconciliation between his younger brother's wishes and his father's well-being. Under the laws of inheritance in Israel, the younger son walks away with one-third of the wealth, the older with two-thirds.

Having given in to his impetuous sons, where does that leave the ever-generous father? He apparently continues to live on the land of his children's inheritance, managing it as a caretaker, in essence, till the day comes when he will die. His older son, who could have pressed for his father's removal, to his credit leaves well enough alone2—that is, until his squandering vagabond of a brother returns and asks for help.

The cause then of the increased enmity between the brothers is the father's preparation of a great feast when the younger, having gone through all his inheritance, returns. The older brother wants to know why such wasteful behavior should be rewarded. The father responds in a way that could not have satisfied the older brother, but, the story leads us to believe, these are the actions of a loving parent (and by extension, the ways of God), whether we understand them or not.

The Preparation

At the core of the older son's hurt is the father's extravagance in calling for the wheat-fatted (in Greek, siteutos) calf (in Greek, moschos, or “young calf”) to be killed and served for dinner. The killing of this animal is not just a daily food necessity. Killing the fatted calf was the kind of action one reserved for only the most important of guests, for example, if the governor or the president were coming by for dinner. Hence the older brother was understandably angry. He had never been given even a measly skinny goat (the text says “kid,” in Greek eriphos)3 to share in revelry with his friends.

But this being a parable (a rabbinic teaching tool), there is a lesson to be learned. The loving father does not wish that any of his children be so reduced to hunger that they would beg for what “farmers” were feeding to the pigs. This was the absolute worst thing a Jewish father could have wished on anyone! True, it was a time of famine, and the son decided to seek employment rather than return home. Still, becoming a swineherd was the most abhorrent job a Jew would ever accept. A Talmudic proverb of the day reprimanded, “Cursed is the man who tends swine.” But the younger son came to envy those very pigs who were feasting on carob husks (some translations say it was corn cobs the swine were eating,4 yet that is a modern interpolation into the text, as corn was native to the Americas and would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible). And having the job of swineherd did not entitle the younger son to room and board. In fact, the text says that though the pig slop was right in front of him, as a hired servant he was not in a position where he could help himself; and to make matters worse, no one would even give him a bit of it. He was, to be sure, in terrible straits.

The younger son comes to his senses and reasons that his father's hired men “ have enough food (some translations say “enough bread”),5 and even food to spare. ” Should his father's hired servants have more than he, a foreigner's hired hand? If he goes back to his father (he reasons), at the very least he'd be fed what those servants were eating.

So he returns. His father sees him from far away and begins the preparations. The younger son never even gets to use his entire rehearsed speech. The father calls for the festive robe of honor (like the coat of many colors Jacob gives to Joseph); he calls for sandals for his barefoot (i.e., poor) child, and a ring for his hand, in symbolic recognition that they are united once again, and that regardless of what has transpired, the younger man retains his place and favor as a son.

The fatted calf is killed (one translation says “the grain-fed heifer is roasted”),6 the table for the feast is set, and all are rejoicing when the older son returns to reproach his father for having loved so extravagantly. Tipped off by one of the townspeople as to what has transpired (“Your brother has returned, and your father has killed that wheat-fatted calf”),7 the older son is beside himself with anger, remorse, jealousy—a whole range of emotions.

There is a secondary reality that must have struck him at this point: his father had begun the celebration without him. Not only was he left out of the proceedings once again, but as everyone knew, it was the responsibility of the eldest son to play host at a father's banquet. It is the eldest son who is to see to the seating of the guests, the serving of the meal—all the festivities surrounding the dinner. Not only was he not there to do so, he had not been informed about the meal, and even worse, he had not been invited! And upon discovering that the meal is in honor of his younger brother, he won't even go in to the feast. His father has to leave the meal, and not unlike the approach to welcome the younger son home, goes out to welcome the older son to take a seat at the table. The elder son refuses. He is hurt; his brother is a lout; his father is an insensitive and unjust parent.

But the father's love will not allow distinctions between the good deeds of one child and the irresponsible deeds of another (although at this point it's hard to know which is which and who is who!). In the end, he loves them both—perhaps not equally (depending on which son is speaking), but fully.

The early church used this story not only to demonstrate the magnanimous love of God but as a way of further describing the banquet feast that awaits believers, even those lately repentant. It leveled the playing field, so to speak, which was particularly important to the Lucan church, composed mostly of Gentiles, who had not been included under the original covenant with Noah by which the Israelites became the chosen people of God. This tale helped to demonstrate (among other things) that through Jesus, the love and promises of God were now extended to all who came to God, even those formerly excluded or thought to be unworthy. This was good news for some, sad news for others; but it was to be the “new way,” the “Path,” that set the tone for an emerging and ever-growing movement within 1st-century Judaism soon to take on the name of “Christianity.”

Notes

1. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 7, 127, 172, 226, 334.
2. For an excellent discussion of the Middle Eastern customs that are part of the subtext for this story, see Ron Grieb, Understanding God's Love: A Study of the Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation of God (Casco, Mich.: Christian Traditions Publishing, 1999), as found at www.domestic-church.com/CONTENT.DCC/20000501/ARTICLES/gods_love_review
3. It is perhaps noteworthy that these words, moschos and eriphos, are not used anywhere else in the New Testament. To our way of thinking, this underscores both the uniqueness of this story and the rarity of the action taken by the father. It is not only the older son who finds his father's actions untenable; the hearer of the story likewise sympathizes with the older brother. True, we would all like to believe we are worthy to have the fatted calf killed on our behalf, but most likely not at the expense of losing any of our inheritance.
4. “He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any” (Luke 15:17, The Message).
5. “And coming to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have abundance of bread, and I perish here by famine” (Luke 15:17, Darby Translation). The King James Version uses “bread” also. The Greek word is artos, which means “bread,” or “loaf of wheat.”
6. “Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it” (Luke 15:23a, The Message).
7. The Message translation reads, “Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!” As strange as this might sound, it is probably not too far from the truth. As we saw in Chapter 1, the only way to quickly cook a fatted calf would be to make top slices, cut the beef into small pieces (kebabs), and cook them on a stick over a hot flame.