Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Friday is for Friends

The so-called parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32, is the 3d in Klyne Snodgrass’ treatment of the parables of lostness (Stories with Intent).
Famously, many have emphasized the the word “prodigal,” which means excessive, should be applied to the father of this parable instead of to the sinfulness of the son. Ah, why have to choose between these two?!
Again, the genius of this work by Snodgrass is its display of issues and evidence and questions that arise in the interpretation of the parable. The reader is given all that is needed for understanding. A good display of primary source material, with a clear statement that none of his from the Jewish directly impacts the parable but does provide material for understanding world and themes, etc.. I wish more would be so circumspect with the evidence.
One of the more interesting backgrounds is the Torah on the rebellious son (Deut 21:17-21). I give the text here because it may not be in your memory:


He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him. If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ?This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.? Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid. If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.


Some points:
1. Disrespect of parents was shaming and denounced in the Middle East.
2. Prodigals were uniformly denounced as well.
3. Farming swine was despicable in the Jewish world.
4. Running exposed legs and that was shameful.
5. Snodgrass concludes that many of Bailey’s parallels of the parable with Psalm 23 and the Jacob story are overdrawn or exaggerated.
6. Forgiveness and joy evoke the Jubilee theme of Luke 4:16-30.
7. The son’s request for an early inheritance, though imaginable in that world, was unusual and would have been disapproved.
8. Many “who focus on the sociological approaches become more intrigued with the culture than with the parable, more with what is not there than with what is” (132). There is a golden gem, I’ll tell you. I have myself done this a few times.
9. The parable needs to be read out of its context — table fellowship with sinners (Lk 15:1-2). Everything flows out of that.
10. The parable shows the Pharisees were not disowned; they were invited to sit at Jesus’ table and embrace the gracious work of God with sinners. But, the parable is a contrast between the father’s attitude and the elder son’s attitude toward the repentant: God is joyous, the older son stingy.
The parable shows the extravagant compassion of the father (God).
The parable invites us to join the celebration.
The parable defends Jesus’ relations at table with sinners who repent.

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Michelle Van Loon

posted March 28, 2008 at 5:43 am

Henri Nouwen’s meditation on this parable entitled “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming” makes the point early in the book that most of us can imagine ourselves in the story as the younger son. Fewer see ourselves as the elder son. God is calling us, contends Nouwen, to be the father, to live your #10 in all our relationships.
I am not there yet, but oh, how I want to be…

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Ray Fowler

posted March 28, 2008 at 6:19 am

Great points all around. Good caution in #8. Snodgrass’ book is currently on my wish list.
Also, I don’t usually point to links on my own blog, but I just posted this one earlier today: Parable of the Prodigal Puppy

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posted March 28, 2008 at 6:25 am

“9. The parable needs to be read out of its context ? table fellowship with sinners (Lk 15:1-2). Everything flows out of that.”
Ever since i started reading your books one of the things that has had a profound vision in my mind is the thing about “table fellowship with sinners”. And to see it in the context of this parable was refreshing. A light bulb just blinked in my head. What a beautiful picture. I cant wait for my book to arrive. Parables have been a constant pain to understand and interpret. This is cool.

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Jim Martin

posted March 28, 2008 at 6:48 am

Scot–Great points! I just got the Snodgrass book. This makes me want to begin reading. This series is very interesting and helpful.

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John Frye

posted March 28, 2008 at 9:12 am

Scot, what do you think of Klyne’s reluctance to see the NT Wright “Israel in exile and return” theme? Has Wright overdone it with the parable?

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Scot McKnight

posted March 28, 2008 at 9:19 am

Probably has overstretched the evidence, but I’d not wipe it out entirely. The evocation of exile is at least present somehow.

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posted March 28, 2008 at 9:47 am

I have to agree with Michelle and Nouwen. It is only after one contemplates the older son’s failings that one begins to comprehend this parable.

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posted March 28, 2008 at 10:10 am

On a more personal level, what aspect of the parable resonates most with you right now?

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Scot McKnight

posted March 28, 2008 at 10:23 am

The eating carobs part! 8)
Actually, for me the father’s party is the big part for me. The joy of God and the joy of the celebrants in the prodigal’s return.

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Dianne P

posted March 28, 2008 at 11:12 am

Agree w/ Michelle. Nouwen’s book is one of my all time favorites. This theme – of God’s extravagant grace juxtapositioned w/ our craving of *fairness* – is put forth in more than one place in the gospel. The equal payment for the workers in the field, though some started early and some started late, comes to mind.
We might not all relate to being the dutiful son who stayed at home and followed all the rules, but I think that at least on some level, we can all relate to the resentment that feeds inside us when someone does nothing, yet gets the same reward as us, when we’ve worked hard for it.
Truth be told, God doesn’t seem to be fair, but I love the expression that our pastor uses – “reckless grace”.

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John Frye

posted March 28, 2008 at 2:12 pm

I agree with Michelle and Dianne. Nouwen’s book on the prodigal son, brother and father is destined to be a classic. A quote, “The only authority the father showed was the authority of compassion.” I love that quote.

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posted March 28, 2008 at 7:04 pm

The parable is not unfair to the older son. In fact, the father tells him that “all I have is yours” or words to that effect. The father may be giving a feast for the returning son, but he is NOT changing the reality of what has happened. The son HAS spent his inheritance and the father makes no attempt to change that. There is forgiveness and joy, but also accountability and consequences. We don’t know what will happen to the younger son after the father dies … but a novel like Wuthering Heights might give us a clue. The older son’s power lies in the future: we are left hoping and praying that he will embrace the way of his father and not the way of resentment and revenge.

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posted March 28, 2008 at 9:30 pm

I find it interesting that with Cain & Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and perhaps even David and his brothers God seems to favor the younger. Just coincidence?
Also, the fact that the older brother uses the language of slavery to describe his service when the “prodigal” returns seems telling. Especially given the fact that all that remains technically belongs to him. It seems to me that describing himself as a slave in the place of his inheritance speaks loudly of Israel and exile.

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posted March 29, 2008 at 4:13 am

(#13)I am not there yet, but oh, how I want to be?
Michelle, When I find myself thinking like that, then I must confess that I have the focus on myself rather than our Saviour. In reality the reason that we finish the race is because He has finished it for us.
As I grow by His grace in the knowledge of Christ in me, the hope of glory, I find that it is important where I am since He put me there but it is even more important that where I am, He is. ( I can give you tons of scripture).
Most of us are willing to be sacrificial lambs. (As long as it doesn’t hurt.) To identify ourselves with the older or younger brother should be fleeting since Christ Jesus prayed that we would be one with Him ( our identity with our Master). As far as I’m concerened, feelings are for God’s use and we fall short in looking for our joy to stem from them.
Because He is, you are.

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Bob Brague

posted March 29, 2008 at 4:47 pm

J. Vernon McGee used to tell the story of “the prodigal pig” who decided to go with the younger son after hearing about how good everything was at the father’s house. They cleaned him up and gave him a ring and a robe and new shoes too, and he sat at the father’s table. And it was good for a while, but eventually the pig couldn’t suppress his essential pigness any longer. He yearned for the garbage instead of the father’s feast, and he didn’t like wearing a ring and a robe and shoes after all, and in the end he went back to the far country to live in the pigpen. Dr. McGee would end by saying, “I don’t know who the prodigal sons are and who prodigal pigs are, but I know if you stand at the intersection long enough, you’ll see, all of them will eventually get home to their father’s house.”
New twist on an old story, and food for thought.

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