Kenneth Bailey lists eleven major theological implications of "The Parable of the Compassionate Father" (Luke 15:11-32) in Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15. (190-192)
- Sin. The parable exhibits two types of sin. One is the sin of the law-breaker and the other sin of the law-keeper. Each centers on a broken relationship. One breaks that relationship while failing to fulfill the expectations of the family and society. The second breaks his relationship while fulfilling those same expectations.
- Freedom. God grants ultimate freedom to humankind, which is the freedom to reject His love. Humankind is free to choose its own way even if that way causes infinite pain to the loving heart of God.
- Repentance. Two views of repentance are dramatically illustrated. The first: earn your acceptance as a servant/craftsman. The second: accept the costly gift of being found as a son.
- Grace. A freely offered love that seeks and suffers in order to save.
- Joy. For the father, joy in finding. For the younger son, joy in being found and restored to community.
- Fatherhood. The image of God as a compassionate father is given its finest definition in all of Scripture. The definition includes the offer of costly love to law-breakers and to law-keepers.
- Sonship. Each son returns to the father either defining (the older son) or intending to define (the prodigal) his relationship to the father as that of a servant before a master. The father will not accept. The father offers costly love to each, out of his determination to have sons responding to love rather than servants obeying commands.
- Christology. The father twice takes upon himself the form of a suffering servant who in each case offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love. The woman and the shepherd do some of the same on a lesser scale. There is a dramatic self-emptying in each case. The third parable embodies an implied one-to-one relationship between the actions of Jesus and the actions of the father in that each welcomes sinners into table fellowship. We would suggest that this unity of action also involves some form of a unity of person. The same theology is set in conceptual terms in John where Jesus first says in 5:17. “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (a unity of action). The John 10:30 reads, “The Father and I are one” (a unity of persons). This parable clearly affirms the first, and the reader at least “overhears” the second.
- Family/Community. The father offers costly love to his sons in order to restore them to his fellowship in the context of a family/community. Here and elsewhere in the NT, the family is a primary symbol of the nature of the church.
- Atonement. The father’s two acts of redeeming love are made at great cost. Because of who he is and because of the costly nature of the love offered, they generate incalculable atoning power. Some of the deepest levels of the meaning of the cross are clearly exposed.
- Eschatology. The messianic banquet has begun. All who accept the father’s costly love are welcome as his guests. Table fellowship with Jesus is a proleptic celebration of the messianic banquet of the end times. The parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:15-24 precedes our parable. Luke (or his source) present the reader with the former parable where to “eat bread in the kingdom of God” finally means to accept table fellowship with Jesus (Bailey, Poet and Peasant, 109-113). The same theme is woven into this parable as well. It is a joyous banquet that prefigures Holy Communion.
Luke 15 opens by letting us know that the Pharisees were put off because Jesus was eating with sinners. The Good Shepherd, the Good Woman, and the Compassionate Father are three parts of one parable Jesus told in response to their concerns. We can see how Jesus tapped into the Jewish tradition and re-framed the issues through metaphorical theology. If we refer back to the shepherd themes in the Old Testament passages, we can see Jesus' masterful incorporation of the ideas of a good shepherd, lost sheep, incarnation, costly sacrifice of love, repentance, celebration, and being welcomed into the household, running through this parable. But the final story of the three adds some rich texture to the vision Jesus is portraying. Here Jesus is drawing on another powerful image from the Old Testament. We will look at that in the next post but before we do I want to make a few comments about personal application.
Some have tended to see this parable exclusively in terms of individual salvation. That is a much too narrow reading of the passage but it is an essential part of it nevertheless. The two sons represent something essential to humanity. There are law-breaking sinners and law-keeping sinners. Henri Nouwen in his powerful book Return of the Prodigal Son relates how he came to relate different actors in the story over his life. First he identified with the younger son who had been outside the household but was welcomed in. Upon later reflection, it occurred to him that he had been in the household for many years and began to reflect on the possibility that he was the older brother, sometimes bitter and resentful. Then he began to realize he was a mixture of both. However, the real epiphany came when it dawned on him that Jesus was not inviting the Pharisees or us to identify with either son. Jesus ultimately wanted us to identify with the father! Yes, at one level the story is about bringing the Jews alive to God, but the Jews exhibit the two pervasive means by which we distance ourselves from God: Rebelliousness and resentful compliance. The solution for restoring the Jews is also the solution for restoring others: Costly grace leading to repentance.
Jesus wants us to have the heart and mind of God, seeking out law-breaking sinners and law-keeping sinners and bringing them into the household of God. That is the mission Jesus places upon us but in so doing he has also recasts the story of Israel. We turn to that next.