The Prodigal Son: A Misnamed Parable

It seems to me that the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is misnamed.  It ought to be called the parable of the joyless brother.

At the outset, to stage the parable, St. Luke tells us that Jesus is receiving and eating with sinners (Luke 15:1ff).  The Pharisees and scribes grumble about this, thinking that to do so is to defile oneself and become stained.  So Jesus tells them four parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, and the shrewd manager, which is tied to the preceding three as we shall see.

The first parable of the lost sheep tells how the shepherd rejoices when he finds it.  “Just so,” says our Lord, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”  The second is like it.  A woman finds her lost coin, and upon fining it rejoices with her friends.  “Just so,” says our Lord again, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  The third parable is the Prodigal Son.

The wayward son slanders the father, squanders his inheritance on foul and nasty things, eats with the filth of creation, starves, and finally considers to return to his father where he will beg off being his son and simply exist as his slave.  He is a repentant sinner.  The father will have none of it, but runs to greet his son, embraces him, puts the family ring on his finger, dresses him, and has a feast in his son’s honor.  The older brother is joyless.  He’s angry that the younger was so received.  He did not rejoice with the angels in heaven over the sinner who repented.  “It is fitting,” our Lord says to those who do not rejoice over the repentant sinner, “to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”  It is fitting to rejoice.

Then He tells them why it is fitting to rejoice in the parable of the shrewd manager.  The shrewd manager made friends with repentant sinners (those who owed his master money) so that they would receive him into their homes.  The parable doesn’t single out repentance, but it can be assumed in parable fashion that settling the account – as the lost sheep and coin, and finally the prodigal son’s accounts were “settled” – includes repentance.  The repentant sinners rejoiced with the shrewd manager who had freed them from their debt (or lessened it considerably), thereby becoming his friends.  Why was this important for the shrewd manager? So that they would receive him into their homes.  Our Lord therefore says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth” – as the elder brother should have done with the younger – “so that they will receive you in the eternal dwellings.”

Not rejoicing with sinners who repent and are forgiven – received by Jesus –  is dangerous.  These sinners with whom our Lord eats and drinks are received by Him and will receive those who bring them the gospel in word and deed.  But they will not receive those who do not rejoice with them because they will not know them.  Not only so, but those who do not rejoice with them hold their debt over their head, thinking they are undeserving of the mercy given.  Such a one has no place in the kingdom of heaven.   May we be known by those over whom the angels rejoice that we too may rejoice with them in the heavenly places.

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