Evangelium in Evangelio means the gospel within the gospel. It refers to the Luke 15: 11-32, the passage traditionally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, although more accurately it is the Parable of the Compassionate Father. I recently completed a series of posts on Kenneth Bailey’s study of Luke 15. There is so much rich information that it is easy to get lost in the details. I wanted to find some way to present the Parable of the Compassionate Father without having to flip back and forth between the scripture and commentary. It occurred to me that one way to communicate the richness of the parables would be to write them in narrative but a.) make explicit the implicit cultural assumptions and b.) amplify important linguistic issues. So here is my attempt to translate Bailey's work into one continuous flow and I hope I have not misrepresented any of his work. If you want the documented details behind this I highly recommend Kenneth E. Bailey's Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15.
The setting for the story is Jesus breaking bread with tax collectors and sinners. The scribes and Pharisees are deeply critical of his behavior. Jesus has just told them the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin just prior to telling this parable. (I have highlighted the actual NRSV scripture in bold.)
The Parable of the Compassionate Father.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father something outrageously insulting; “Father, give me the share of property that will belong to me.” No son asks this of his father. It is the same as wishing his father dead! Astonishingly, instead of responding in furious outrage, the father was willing to grant the son's request. So he divided his property between them. How curious also that the older son, who should have stepped in as mediator between his younger brother and father, is silent. He simply accepts his portion of the estate. While the sons now own the estate, the father still has a right to live off of the estate, using its profits for his own sustenance.
A few days later, the younger son gathered all he had and for good reason. As soon as the village discovers the outrage of asking for his inheritance, they will likely perform a ceremony that would ostracize him from village life. Even though it often took months to settle an estates, the younger son sold his estate for what he could quickly get and left town. He took his wealth and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. His behavior was not particularly disreputable. He simply was irresponsible in keeping track of his money. Unfortunately for him, when he had spent everything, a great famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. The citizen upheld the tradition of hospitality which made it uncharitable to refuse assistance. However, the citizen also used the culturally approved method to get rid of such people. He gave him a job he knew he would despise, thus encouraging him to move on. What could be more despicable for a Jew than feeding pigs? Nevertheless, the young man was in need and he would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating. These pods were of no nutritional value to human beings. He was a Jew wishing he were a pig! His situation was truly desperate and no one gave him anything.
The young man had been in denial about the hopelessness of his situation but 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!” This gave him an idea. He said to himself, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy at this time to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Maybe if he admitted his mistake, his father would have pity on him and take him in as a craftsman (not a slave or servant.) He could earn his way back to respectability. The odds are stacked against him. He had disrespected his father. Then he went and squandered his estate with gentiles! The village will jeer him mercilessly if he returns and he will almost certainly be ostracized. Furthermore, his older brother now owns the estate. What will his reaction be? But what other choice does he have? He knew what he had to do so he set off and went to his father.
But while he was still far off, both in geography and understanding, his father saw him. The father is a man of means and lives at the center of the village where all such people of wealth live. To see his son, he would have had to look out across the village to the road leading from the fields into the village. Being the man of means he was, he was no doubt attired in long robes that covered him to his ankles. He moved about with great dignity and purpose. He would not be caught dead running in public. To run, or even to show his ankles in public, would be a great humiliation. But this was no ordinary father. He does the unthinkable. He saw his son and was filled with compassion. Gathering up his robes, he ran through the village to greet him and put his arms around him and kissed him! A son in good standing with his father would approach, kneel and kiss his hand. A wayward son would fall face down in the dirt and kiss his father’s feet. This father grabs his son and kisses he repeatedly on the neck indicating total acceptance before the son can make a move. We might expect this from a mother, but not a man of this status.
The son is in stunned disbelief. At last he sees that money was never the issue. It was about a relationship, and he had broken that relationship. There was nothing he could do to "earn his way back." So then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. The son dropped off the last part of his speech because he could now see it was pointless. The fathers grace brought the son to true repentance and he recognized his unworthy state. But the father said to his slaves, “Quick, bring out a robe – the best one - and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. The slaves had raced after the father wondering what the spectacle was. Most of the village was witnessing these events as well. The robe the father requested would be his own robe and would communicate to the entire community the father’s total acceptance of his son. The ring was likely the father’s signet ring and would symbolize that the son now shared his father’s authority. The sandals indicated freedom, as only free people were permitted to wear sandals.
Furthermore, the father told his slaves to go “and get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” This was to be a "king" sized celebration as fatted calves were killed only in honor of visiting royalty and dignitaries. There was no freezer for the leftovers and the fatted calf could probably feed the whole village. The father is ready to celebrate his recovery of his son. It is true that his son has physically returned, but because of the tremendous grace the father has shown to his son, the son has repented and entered genuine relationship with his father. There is now shalom between father, son and the village. It is this that the father intends to celebrate. The community gathered and they began to celebrate.
Now the elder son was in the field out beyond the village; and when he came from afar off (probably down the same road as his brother), and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. The father’s house was likely a walled in villa, similar to many of the homes in southern Europe or Latin America today, with rooms built around the edges and an open courtyard in the middle. Children would not have been allowed into the house for celebrations so they did their celebrating in the courtyard. They would likely be the first people the older son encountered. Curiously, rather than simply entering the house to see what is happening, the older son stops along the way to gather some intelligence. He called one of the [young boys] and asked him what was going on. Repeating the buzz he had heard from the adults, he replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”
At such a grand celebration the older son would be expected to immediately enter and greet everyone. And then, possibly after a change of clothes, he would return and play the role of host, making certain everyone was having a good time. Instead this older son heard what had happened and then became angry and refused to go in, right in front of the whole village! His behavior was totally humiliating to his father. A typical father of his status would have instructed his servants to come and take the son away. He would lock him up to be dealt with later. But as we have seen, this was no typical father.
To the astonishment of everyone present, accept possibly the older son, his father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, with out even respectfully addressing him as “father,” saying, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” Does this father sound like the kind of man someone would have to “slave” for? The older son says he never disobeyed commands, but isn’t this the same son who abdicated his responsibility as an older brother and accepted his inheritance without protest and no attempt at bring reconciliation? He sees his father as an onerous burden. Continuing his invective, “Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” His father’s presence keeps him from freely using the assets the way he desires. The older son wishes his father dead every bit as much as his brother had. Yet in this case, he is wishing his father dead in front of the whole community! This was a grievous insult of greater magnitude then that of the younger son's offense.
Still not finished, the older son says, “But when this son of yours (who I refuse to acknowledge as my brother) came back, who has devoured your property with gentile prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Didn’t the older brother just come in from the field? How would he know what had happened to his brother’s wealth? He doesn’t. But he does know that if he can make such an accusation stick, no one in the village will give their daughter in marriage to the younger son. He will become an outcast. His intention is to drive a wedge that separates his brother from the community and destroys the shalom the father has restored. He is beside himself in anger that his father has not required hard penance for his brother's behavior. Furthermore, he has missed the point of the celebration. The celebration is not for the younger son. It is for the father in celebration of winning back his son.
Surely, now it is obvious that this older son is no good. Surely, the father will now show his outrage. We are overwhelmed once again by the father’s response because then the father said to him “My precious beloved son (teknon), you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. The estate is yours and nothing of yours is being taken. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours (and he is your brother) was dead and has come to life; he was lost and because of my sacrificial grace has been found. The father absorbs the scurrilous behavior of his son and extends to him costly grace in the hopes he may get his older son back as well.
The Missing Ending
Jesus gives no end to the story. He leaves that it to the scribes and Pharisees to “write” the end with their response.
The two brothers symbolize the rebellious law-breaker and the rebellious law-keeper. The inclination of most readers is to identify with the younger son. But how often do we resemble the older son? The invitation to write an ending to the story may not be to the scribes and Pharisees alone.
In the end, Jesus is not calling us to identify with either brother. The call is to model the father.