At the end of the last post, we left the parable at the point the prodigal son has "returned (or come) to himself," but not to his father. He has come to his senses about his situation and he is now plotting how he might return to his father's house.
18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
There are two key issues with translation here. First, in verse 19, “I am no longer worthy” can be translated two ways. It could mean that he permanently is no longer worthy. This is how it is most often translated within Western Christianity. However, it could also mean “I am presently not worthy” leaving open the option that he might once again be worthy at some future date. In other words, his current status renders him unable to be worthy but he could alter his status. This later connotation is the one Kenneth Bailey suggests.
Second, “hired hands” is not equivalent to slaves. In ascending rank in a large household were slaves, bondservants, free laborers, and family. The younger son sees himself occupying a role just one step below a family member while he earns his way back into his father’s good graces. He seems to see this largely as matter of financial mismanagement and is oblivious the damage he has done to relationships.
Bailey suggests the religious leaders listening to the story would almost certainly have been nodding their heads in approval up to this point in the story. “We must first acknowledge our guilt and then earn our way back into God’s good graces,” they would say. They likely envisioned the father’s response to the approaching son as one of disgust and anger. The village would likely cut him off from community life and the father might relent enough to allow the son to work on his estate. (The key word is “might.”)
20 But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Our Modern cities tend to have poor people in the urban core with increasing prosperity as you move to the periphery of the city. Not so in Jesus’ day. The wealthy lived at the center with decreasing wealth as you moved to the periphery. The fields would be just beyond the periphery of the village.
We know from the details of the story that the father is a wealthy man and therefore lives at the center of the village. Such a man would have had much dignity and respect. In public, they wore robes that covered them down to their ankles. They moved about gracefully in keeping with their social position.
The image Jesus paints is of this father at his estate in the center of the village looking diligently into the distance, anticipating the return of his son. It is entirely possible that if the son reaches the village and he is recognized, the townspeople will assault him.
The father sees him “while he was still far off.” The double meaning is distance in both geography and relationship. Jesus says the father “was filled with compassion” and then Jesus says, “he ran!”
To run, the father would need to gather up his robes, thus exposing his legs as he ran. (Envision a time when you have seen a woman in our culture trying to move quickly while wearing a long dress and you will get the picture.) For such a man to show even his ankles in public was not dissimilar to someone dropping their pants today. The image is of the father humiliating himself before the village as runs out to greet his son. Bailey points out that this image is so unseemly that many Arabic translations throughout the centuries have tried to translate it into something more dignified.
In fact, running to the son is what might we might expect of a mother. Bailey suggests part of Jesus message is that God, who is without gender and sex, has the traits of a loving mother. He avoids ascribing a sexual duality by including a mother in the story but rather cast God as the "motherly Father."
Jesus says the father hugged and kissed his son. A son in a good relationship with his father would approach, bow, and kiss his father's hand. However, a son who had committed such travesties against his father would be expected to fall to the ground and kiss his father’s feet. Here the father runs and grabs his son before the son can greet him and kisses his son the neck signifying complete acceptance and welcome. It is hard to overstate the shocking impact this picture painted for the first hearers of the story.
21 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.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe -- the best one -- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Notice what is missing from this passage. The son has dropped off the “treat me like one of your hired workers” idea from the greeting to his father. The astonishing love of the father has finally awakened the son to the reality that there is no way he can earn his way back into his father’s graces. He now realizes how much the father loves him and how horrendous were his deeds. He is overwhelmed by the grace his father shows him.
The father’s dramatic sprint through the city was certain to draw a crowd. These events were happening before the community. In front of the community, the father tells the servants to bring his best robe, a ring, and sandals. The robe means that the father’s confers his status on the son. The ring is likely a signet ring signifying the son has the father’s authority. The sandals signify that the son is a free man, as only free men wore sandals. The father imputed his character to his son in front of all the witnesses. Who would now dare to initiate a ceremony to cut the son off from the community?
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive
again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
Look closely a verse 24: “…he was lost and is found!” When in the story was the son “found?” The son was found when the father exhibited costly love toward his son and the son’s eyes were opened to see things for what they were. The son accepted being found and entered into relationship with the father.
But the phrase that precedes this is pivotal in our theological interpretation: … [he] was dead and is alive again; …” We have to make an interpretive decision. Was the son (A) alive, then died, and now is resurrected? Or was the son (B) always dead but has now been brought to life? The Western tradition has been to interpret it in the first way. Bailey argues for the second.
First, the Greek here is the word ana (up) joined to zao (alive) to form anazao (“up and alive” or “has come to life.”) The word is used in three other locations in the New Testament: Romans 7:9 and 14:9, and Revelation 20:5. It does not have the “again” meaning in Romans 7:9, it could be either in 14:9, and it is unclear in Rev. 20:5. This is inconclusive but it shows that it can be used according to option (B).
Second, in the Arabic and Syriac translations dating back to the second century, which would be closest to the Aramaic of the original story, it is always translated simply “[he] was dead and is alive.” Bailey points out that the two phrases,
[he] was dead and is alive;
he was lost and is found.
form a perfect couplet that would be “extremely awkward” if again were added. He adds that Semitic languages cannot add prepositions to words as in Greek, thus it is likely that the two phrases were identical in the telling of the story. (Finding the Lost, 159-160.)
The celebration is not of the son’s return. The celebration is of the father’s great work in recovering his son and bringing him to life. Just as with the shepherd and the lost sheep, and the woman with the lost coin, the celebration is about the finder not the found. It has profound eschatological implications. That the celebration is about the father comes from the father's own mouth in 15:24 and from the boy in 15:27 who plays a similar role to a Greek chorus. It is the angry older son in 15:30 that offers the interpretation that the party is for the prodigal son and for some reason we have come to embrace his interpretation and not the one stated by the father.
Killing a calf for the village to celebrate is the kind of action done for visiting royalty like a king or prince. To kill a fattened calf would mean that you are expecting a very large crowd. Once an animal was killed, it was assumed it would be consumed immediately. Truly, the father intended this to be a celebration of celebrations.
The parable of The Compassionate Father consists of two inverted Parallelisms. The first is about the younger son and contains eight stanzas. The second is about the older son and contains only seven stanzas, as we will see shortly. Here are the first eight stanzas as diagramed by Kenneth E. Bailey:
11Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons.
A. DEATH 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.
B. ALL IS LOST 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
C. REJECTION 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
D. THE PROBLEM? 17 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!
D. THE SOLUTION? 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
C. ACCEPTANCE 20 But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
B. ALL IS RESTORED 21 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.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe -- the best one -- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
A. RESSURECTION 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive
again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
These eight stanzas leave us with the relationship between the father and youngest son reconciled. This is the part of the story with which most of us identify. We identify with the prodigal son in this story and long for the love the father shows the son.
But Jesus’ story is not complete. The youngest son has been found but the oldest son is not yet home. There are problems yet to be resolved. Technically the father no longer owns the estate. The father has the right to make use of whatever he needs for his own needs but the older son owns the estate.
How will the older son respond to the lavish grace the father has bestowed on the younger son?