“But While He was Still Far Off” (or, what if God actually loves us?)

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion (Luke 15:20).

A lot of people have heard of “the parable of the prodigal (i.e., wasteful) son.” Some translations call it “the parable of the lost son,” which is better but not quite there. I prefer “the parable of the jerk loser son.”

Long story short (you can read the full version anytime you want to), the younger of two sons demands that his father give him his inheritance right now. This move is majorly disrespectful, for a inheritance is given only when the father dies and also the older son is supposed to get his first. The younger son isn’t being a little forward. He’s leaping over his older brother and in effect saying to his father, “you are dead to me.”

So, he left to live the life that mimicked Animal House and–spoiler alert–ran out of money. Of course, what should happen next but a famine and so he roamed the streets hungry and alone. He finally decided he actually has to get a job, and so wound up taking care of pigs–which, if you recall your Judaism, is about as bad an animal as you can come in contact with. He’s so hungry, he even started daydreaming about eating pig food.

He figured he needed to do something about his predicament before he starved, so his sense of self-preservation kicked in.  (If you haven’t caught on, this guy is pretty focused on himself, even here.) “I know, I’ll go back home and grovel a bit. ‘Oh father, I am not worthy to be your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.’ That should work.”

So, he sucks it up and heads back home.

I’m talking now to you parents out there, especially with high school and college age offspring. If you’ve ever been in the place where you son or daughter has left the straight and narrow, slammed the door in your face (actually or metaphorically), and began making some life choices that keep you up nights worrying yourself sick if they are OK, what they’re doing, are they alive, are they ever coming home–if you’ve ever been there, you know what’s going on here.

Or maybe things have not been all that dramatic for you. You child disrespects you and storms out the door to go who knows where and do who knows what with who knows whom. You’re worried and mad. The next day, the car pulls in the drive way and s/he clearly has that look of remorse.

If you’re a like most parents I’ve met (including me), you’re relieved but you also want to make a point. So you play it cool, stand at the door, and give you son or daughter that “I told you so, c’mon, admit it, admit it, you were wrong and I was right” look.

And this is where the parable hits me between the eyes.

When the son was still a far way off, rather than going back into his tent to play it cool (“Oh…You’re back. I hadn’t noticed. How have you been?”), rather than doing what normal fathers do, he was filled with compassion and ran out to meet him.

But while he was still far off…

He couldn’t wait. Even though the son had done his best to bring shame and hurt to his family and his faith…

…his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

The son delivered his limp, rehearsed, apology, hoping at least to get a bite to eat. Instead the father ignored the speech and ordered that his son be fully restored: a clean robe, a ring (representing family membership), and sandals where he had been barefoot.

As for a bite to eat? Forget it. How about a feast? And why not, as the father says, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.”

You get the feeling the father was pretty excited.

The father, obviously, represents God in this parable, but this isn’t a “get saved and go to heaven after you die” story. The son is, well, a son–already part of the family. In Jesus’ day, he was addressing his stubborn fellow Jewish countrymen, reminding them about the love of God and that it’s never too late to come home. When this and other stories were adapted for the Christian faith, that same point remained but with a broader audience.

The story isn’t about conversion to Christianity. It’s about God being on the look out for those in the family who have wandered off, and God simply can’t wait to welcome them home.

I read stories like this and I wonder, What if this is actually true? What if there is a God who is really like this?  What if God can’t wait to have us around–even with the garbage we keep carrying around and our half hearted “I’m sorries?”

What if God is glad to see us?

And the much more threatening question, What difference would really believing all that make in how I look at, well, pretty much everything?

And, what would it look like if I loved the way God loved?


  • http://priceofdiscernment.wordpress.com David M

    Peter, I cannot express my thanks for this article. I just read a chapter in Joseph Prince’s “Destined to Reign” that dealt with this same exact topic, and I wanted to write my own article to share my thoughts, but after reading this, I’d rather share yours. Maybe some other day.

    • http://priceofdiscernment.wordpress.com David M

      And by my thanks, I mean I am thankful that more people are presenting the Father in the light that Jesus intended us to see Him in, not in this schizophrenic and monstrous manner that we have grown accustomed to.

    • peteenns
        Thanks, David….though, you should write, too.
      • http://priceofdiscernment.wordpress.com David M

        Yeah, I just think I am going to let it sink in for a bit. Everywhere I go, I am running into solid teaching and thoughts about this story, and I know it is not a coincidence. I will come back here once I am done with it. Thanks for taking time to respond to your commenters, by the way. Means a lot.

  • Larry

    Peter, before we rush into allegory, I think you might linger a bit longer with the literal meaning of the story. I think you have it right about the jerk loser son, but what about the jerk dysfunctional father? What kind of parenting IS this? Aren’t we dealing with a younger son who could use a little tough love? What’s life going to be like after the feast is over? I picture the younger son taking his new robe, ring and sandals to the nearest pawn shop, to finance a little more debauchery in distant lands. Why not? There’s evidently no end to the father’s willingness to throw gifts at the younger son in an effort to do … what, exactly? Buy his love?

    Evidently, Dad feels no reluctance to finance his younger son’s propensity for prodigal sin. If Dad hasn’t changed, why should we imagine that younger son has changed? As for your reading of a “limp, rehearsed, apology”, a “half hearted ‘I’m sorry’” — you’re reading those things into the parable. The son never apologizes. The son recites only that he has sinned, and even if we think the confession is sincere (the rehearsed nature of the confession makes me doubt the sincerity), a confession is not the same thing as an apology. And while we’re on the topic, Dad never says anything about forgiving the younger son. Robe plus ring plus sandals plus fatted calf does not mean “apology accepted”. These acts probably DO mean that the younger son has been invited back into the family to play his accustomed role as spoiled jerk loser. OK, it’s probably better for the family to be together again than broken into pieces, but forgive me if I think that this family is dysfunctional.

    Finally, PUH-LEEZE spare me the business about “addressing his stubborn fellow Jewish countrymen”. We Jews already have a perfectly good parable about departing sons and the path to return always being open. “A King’s son went out into evil courses, and the King sent his guardian after him. ‘Return, my son,’ said he. But the son sent him back, saying to his father: ‘How can I return, I am ashamed.’ His father sent again saying: ‘My son, art thou indeed ashamed to return? Is it not to thy father that thou returnest?’”

    I think one perfectly good reading of Luke’s parable is that God is so loving, so forgiving, that this same behavior would be completely inappropriate coming from a human being. But while there are many more good readings IMHO, the idea that we should parent like the father in this parable is a terrible idea. Not, at least, if we love our children.

    • peteenns

      Larry, I think the mistake you make is in looking some meaning by reading the parable literally. It isn’t meant to work that way. No parable is.

      • Larry

        Peter, I’m heavily influenced by the work of Amy-Jill Levine. She’s a highly respected figure in the field. Levine has said point blank, if you look at this parable from the perspective of Jesus’ audience, this parable is not about repentance. If you don’t like Levine’s work, then there’s Keller’s book referred to below, and Keller would agree that this story would have positively scandalized Jesus’ original audience.

        Parables are not fables. We’re not dealing here with talking turtles and rabbits running races. These are stories meant to be heard literally, and figuratively, and allegorically, just like any other story. I’ll agree that I’ve missed the point if I only read the parable literally, but unless you dive deep into the literal meaning then the figurative/allegorical reading is whatever it is you want it to be. I fully understand that you already understand this, as you’re the one who referred to the younger son as jerk-face, and questioned the sincerity of his confession of sin, when we both know that the younger son is a jerk-face in only a literal reading of the story — allegorically, he is the Christian and the person we long to be when we’re seeking forgiveness for sin.

        MY only “mistake” was to stick with the literal reading longer than you did, and if there’s an established time limit for how long one can stick with the literal reading, perhaps you can point it out to me.

        To beat this particular point to a state close to death, please see 2 Samuel 12. David took that parable so literally, he was ready to order the execution of the rich man in that parable. Imagine how TAME that parable would have been if David had responded to Nathan, “who is the rich man in that parable supposed to represent?”

        • peteenns

          What does it mean to take a parable literally? Also, I think I am also saying this is not about repentance, right? I know A-J Levine’s work pretty well and I respect her greatly.

          • Larry

            Y’know Peter, if you hadn’t written that part about the “stubborn” Jews, I probably would not have felt provoked to respond. Then if my response was itself provocative, how can you really object? ;^)

            I’m pleased I provoked response, not pleased that I seem to have offended a few of your readers. SIGH. This is part of my education on how to engage in interfaith dialog. Lesson 1: gentler is better, even if I WAS provoked. I apologize here to anyone I offended. That was not my intent. Quite the contrary. I love this parable too. Lesson 2: this parable occupies a special place in the Christian heart. I must tread carefully, even if I think the parable is being sold short.

            Who doesn’t love A.J.?

            Perhaps I should recommend a “close reading” in place of taking a parable literally. After all, a parable is narrative.

            I don’t read you to say anything about what the parable is not about. Sorry for the double-negative.

    • Phil Miller

      The fact that you’re offended by the behavior of the father in the parable is kind of the point. In fact, the parable would probably be better called “the prodigal Father”. The meaning of the word “prodigal” carries undertones of wastefulness, recklessness, and extravagance. Sure the son exhibited behavior that could be called these things, but it was the Father’s behavior that would have been seen as really scandalous. First of all, distinguished men did not pick up their robes in run in Jesus’ time, and certainly they would not do it for a deadbeat, worthless son who had told his father he wished he was dead in the beginning of the story.

      • Larry

        Yup. Actually, I have no trouble imagining a father picking up his robes and running. Otherwise, agreed 100%.

      • peteenns

        Good points, Phil.

    • Loren Haas

      Our pastor taught on this parable two years age, mostly based on Keller’s “The Prodigal God”. I had pretty much the same reaction as you had about the poor parenting and relationship skills the story portrays. I acknowledge that it is meant as a parable about God’s unconditional love, but I did worry that some of those setting in the pews would take it as a model for family relationships. “It is in the bible right?” My wife and I have taught a divorce recovery group for seven years and this is not a good plan for reconciling with a wayward, prodigal spouse. I expressed my trepidations with our pastor and he did work recognition of this problem into the rest of his sermon series. The disciples had a difficult time understanding the parables of Jesus, so why should modern bible believers be any different?

      • Larry

        Loren, your comment caused my breath to catch. Wow. Thank you for sharing. I know of people who have remained in abusive relationships to the very verge of self-destruction, in the belief that they were supposed to overflow with unlimited forgiveness and accept their spouses back without condition in imitation of what they thought they were reading in the Bible. It is odd, because Peter criticized me for reading too literally, yet he is the one wondering if he should literally follow the example of the prodigal father. My “too-literal” reading of the parable understands the actions of the father to be admirable only when read allegorically as the action of God.

        I’ve also read Keller. He’s a major influence on how I read this parable.

        • Loren Haas

          I think that we should overflow with forgiveness, but that does not translate into enabling bad behavior. My wife’s oldest son struggles with alcoholism. He has lost one family because of it and may lose another. He has been in and out of sobriety and almost died. We love him and invite him to be part of our family activities. If he shows up after drinking, we take him home. He is not welcome to exercise his disease around us. We will help him get sober and stay sober, but not share life with him as a drunk. Another part of his family welcomes him back time after time and he naturally spends more time with them. They serve him alcohol. Which of us loves him more?
          Forgiveness and reconciliation do not equate. I would like to think that the Father in the parable lavished the material goods and attention on the young son so that he could see that he was truly loved and how rewarding a healthy family relationship could be. Hopefully the father was ready to leave him on the outside if he did not have a change of heart about his own responsibilities. Perhaps hitting the bottom before would affect his thinking?

          • peteenns

            I agree, Loren. Related to that, we need to be careful not to apply parables to situations they are not addressing and also be careful not to think that each and every element in a parable has some one-to-one correspondence to concrete reality. Parables paint pictures.

          • Larry

            Loren, I wish there was a way to get your message preached from every pulpit of every religion: forgiveness and reconciliation do not equate. This is Amy-Jill Levine’s reading of the parable: it is about reconciliation. We have a wayward younger son who maybe has been scared straight, an older son whose been doing all the right things but has become way too self-righteous, and a father who seems clueless when it comes to both of them. Levine’s point is this: the first thing you do is reconcile the family. You get everyone living under the same roof. True forgiveness may need to come later, when the wounds of the family conflict are healed. (Levine ties this into a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is moving beyond description.)

            But you’re right to point out that sometimes there needs to be forgiveness without reconciliation. In an abusive marriage, perhaps the abused spouse can forgive his/her partner as he/she ends the marriage.

            Jesus was an itinerant preacher. Very likely his audience was made up of people who’d never heard him before and would never hear him again. I like to think that Jesus told difficult stories to his audiences, stories that people would discuss over and over, in which new meanings could be discovered years after the story was told. I can imagine first century Jews sitting around the campfire, asking whether the father did the right thing by giving the robe/ring/sandals/BBQ to the returned younger son. The answer is not clear, and I think that’s a big part of the point.

      • peteenns

        For the record, Loren, I agree. This parable is not a model for parenting techniques. It, like all the parables, is a word picture to stir the imagination to think differently about what “kingdom of God” means–which is why most parables begin, “the kingdom of God/heaven is like….”

        The problem you are referring to here is a real one and it is an unfortunate by-product of biblical literalism and thinking of the Bibel as an owner’s manual. Don’t get me started….

        • Loren Haas

          I am leading a study of “Genesis for Normal People” at my church beginning today. I anticipate the “unfortunate by-product of biblical literalism and thinking of the Bibel as an owner’s manual. ” will be a major topic of discussion.

          • Larry

            Loren, I don’t know if this is helpful. But when my wife teaches Romans at the big University, she starts with an exercise: she assigns different students to read the greetings in Romans to each other. It’s a small step, but it seems to take students out of their comfort zone and enables them to see the epistle with fresh eyes. She calls this “Defamiliarization “.

            Genesis offers many defamiliarization possibilities. You could read text to them in Hebrew. You might try bringing a Torah scroll to your first study. Or if this is too hard to arrange (it’s not easy to get a synagogue to give up a Torah scroll), you could bring a print-out of a transliterated first line of Genesis: BRSHT BR_ _LHYM _T HSHMYM V_T H_RTZ. You can point out that you skipped the vowels, even though these Hebrew words were certainly pronounced with vowels, because the vowels don’t appear in the scrolls, and we’re not 100% sure we know what they were (the blanks I typed into the transliteration are for the letter aleph, which does nothing more than to silently carry one of these vowels).

            You might also point out a few divergent translations of this line, include one now familiar in Jewish circles: “When God began to create heaven and earth”, and ask if this means something different than the familiar “in the beginning”. If someone argues that the text must be referring to a beginning, you can point out that no one speaks first Temple Hebrew anymore, and that any translation of Genesis involves a degree of guessing.

            I’d be curious if any of this sounds helpful.

  • http://www.mycatholicblog.com/ Erin Pascal

    The story of the prodigal son is one of my ultimate favorite among Jesus’ parables. It is a timeless message about our Heavenly Father: He is always ready to welcome a returning child. Jesus wanted to let us all know that we have a compassionate, merciful and forgiving Father who rejoices over and honors every sinner who repents. But our all-knowing Father knows the content of our hearts and can tell a sincere repentance from a half-hearted apology.

  • http://patheos.com Jason

    @ Larry
    I suspect that you are a pretty uptight fellow. Grace is free . Forgiveness is free. Restorative grace is God’s intention toward all of his wayward children.
    Sad to see such a rant as yours.

  • Elizabeth

    I once heard a talk on this parable at a church in Oxford, England by Michael Ramsden (part of the Zacharias Trust) who was raised in Saudi Arabia. He said that in the Middle East, rather than being called “A Father and Two Sons” (which is what Jesus says it’s about) or “The Prodigal Son,” the story is called “The Running Father.” I definitely think we get the story backwards when we emphasize the son’s “conversion experience.”

    FWIW, he also says that “wild living” also doesn’t necessarily imply immoral living – it could well be just expensive tastes. And that the son’s “repentance speech” mirrors Pharaoh’s words in Exodus after each plague – i.e. not terribly sincere.

    If you search for “A Father and Two Sons” here you can listen to the talk: http://www.staldates.org.uk/BrowseByBiblePassage.asp?strPassage=Luke . The first part is an interview, but he starts his talk at about minute 13 and he starts talking about the parable around 18:30. His accent alone is worth listening to!

    • peteenns

      Very interesting. Thanks for the link.

  • Jim

    I feel bad for the older brother. Everyone talks about the younger son did this, the younger son said that ….. Goes to show that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. :)
    Thanks for your post.

    • Larry

      Jim, I think you’re supposed to feel bad for the older brother. The younger brother leaves the family farm for his deep dive into sinful living, the father spends his days searching the countryside for the younger son (which explains how father saw younger son while younger son was still a long way from home), and older son is left alone (admittedly with slaves and hired hands) to run the farm (or what’s left of the farm after the father sold a piece of it to pay the younger son). But at the end of the story it’s the younger son who sits at the seat of honor at the party … and if you read the parable carefully, you’ll see that the party is well underway before the older son learns (seemingly by accident) that his brother has returned. We are supposed to picture the older brother standing outside of the party, stunned at the realization that no one thought to invite him.

      Have you ever found yourself in a similar position, where you discovered something important from which you’d been excluded? And worse, your DISCOVERY is itself discovered by those who excluded you? Then you have to decide, what’s more humiliating: joining the party and pretending you’d been invited in the first place, or storming off in a self-righteous huff? The answer is, of course the right thing to do is to join the party … but it isn’t easy.

      Once you catch the literal position of the older son in the parable, Jesus’ allegorical statement about older brothers becomes that much more powerful.

      • peteenns

        In context, I would argue that the older brother parallels those spoken of in the parable of the workers who work all day but get paid the same as those who only work the last hour. In both cases, they seem to represent the religious leaders against whom Jesus so persistently contended (granted, the portrait provided by the Gospel writers). The point of the parables seems to be the “offensive” graciousness of the father/land owner. Those who are granted mercy/love (the younger son or the last hired workers) are those who according to the Pharisaical “system” (again, as the Gospels portray it) would be on the outside of the kingdom looking in. Jesus tells these parables to turn upside down conventional notions of the kingdom of God. At least, that’s how I’ve been taught to think about this.

        • Larry

          Peter, I have no problem with your reading. It’s important to read this parable in context, and the context here is Jesus being asked by Pharisees why he eats with tax collectors and sinners. I think a close reading shows that Jesus truly gets what the Pharisees are feeling. The Pharisees are the sheep that didn’t stray, the coins that didn’t get lost, and the brother who did what he was supposed to do. One answer that Jesus provides to the Pharisees is this: no one is going to throw a party for you. That’s not how life works. You’re not even invited to this particular party, not at least in the same way the sinners and tax collectors have been invited. Maybe that’s not fair. Now, what are you going to do about it?

          Think about the final words of the parable, the words the father tells the older son: you are always with me, everything I have is yours, but we had to throw this party. On a literal level, all three statements are false: we’ve never seen the father and son together until now, the father is busy giving everything he has to the younger son, and no party is required upon the return of a lost son (see, for example, the lack of party when Joseph and Jacob are reunited). Yet we know that on a different level, the words of the father must be true, and everything Jesus has belongs to the older son, and thus to the Pharisees. But what could this be?

          The parable is smart enough to make us figure out the answer, or answers. But I think Jesus means for us to consider other Bible tales where there are two sons. For example, consider the story of how Jacob stole Isaac’s blessing. What, exactly, did Jacob receive? Whatever Jacob got, it wasn’t tangible — Esau ended up with 100% of Isaac’s estate, and Jacob ended up running for his life. Yet the entire story of the Bible, of the Jewish people, runs through Jacob and his family.

          I suggest that Jesus is telling the Pharisees that it’s within their grasp to be Jacob. I do not know all of what it means, and I will spend my life resisting any notion that I have this parable wrapped up in a neat package.

          • Marcelo

            Larry, I’m sorry you view the parable that way. I think you have grounds and enough evidence to see it in this light, however, I feel like you may be drawing an additional layer of meaning that was not intended.
            If the pharisees and teachers of the law were supposed to be the older brother, it’s clear from the discourses with Jesus that they had a sense of self-righteousness about their condition as God’s true people, much like the people in the OT who claimed in Jeremiah, “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”.
            Somehow, they thought that belonging to the family was enough to have warranted God’s praises, honor and riches. However, from Jesus’ own mouths come serious challenges to their beliefs and notions as God’s true chosen people and He basically tells them more than once, that they are dead wrong.
            Therefore, while I do see your point, I believe it’s adding something that perhaps isn’t there.
            The very words of the father in the parable to the older son explain the father’s heart toward him, “everything I have is yours.” However, the son felt like all his years of loyal servitude meant he had to be more respected than that. That’s, I argue, what the pharisees thought exactly.
            “Why would this rabbi with no schooling come into our town and completely undermine our authority and question our relationship with God, how dare him?”
            The younger son absolutely didn’t deserve what he got and all the father was doing was being extremely happy the younger son had come home.
            I must say though that your interpretation that no one came to invite him to the party or let him know about his brother’s party seems to be pretty harsh and cruel to him. I had never seen it that way before, but I can see how it can be interpreted that way.

          • Larry

            Marcelo, I admit that I am trying to interpret this parable within the context of Luke 15 only. There is a broader and more difficult issue of Jesus’ general relationship with the Pharisees. I’m happy to discuss the general relationship, but Peter’s post is about this parable, and for the moment that’s where I’m confining my focus.

            Yes, the older brother speaks with a certain self-righteousness. But it is interesting to think about what we would have had the older brother say, to show that the older brother is a good guy. He might have said, “Great! My younger brother is home! Who cares that no one bothered to tell me, that the party has been going on for a while and no one thought to invite me, that it’s my inheritance that’s being spent to pay for the party, that technically speaking my brother is wearing my robe, ring and sandals, and that my younger brother is offering me no apology or any of the respect that an older brother is entitled to receive in Jewish culture, because in spite of the fact that my younger brother forced the family farm to be sold and broke my father’s heart when he left and is (in Peter’s words) a jerk, I’m so gosh-darned happy to have him home!” Yes. Agreed. That’s what we want the older brother to say, in a less snarky form, but please let’s acknowledge that we’re asking for a lot here. In a similar position, are each of us sure we’d behave any better?

            Compare this older brother to other older brothers in similar stories, like Cain, or Esau, or Joseph’s older brothers. This older brother poses no threat to his younger sibling. By the way, if you ask yourself why this older brother was not invited to the party, consider what someone like Esau might have done at a similar party thrown for younger brother Jacob.

            I find condemnation of the older son to smack of its own particular brand of self-righteousness. Evidently, some read this parable as if the world would be better off without older brothers. Let’s remember that this older brother has kept the family farm in operation, while the younger brother did his prodigal thing and the Dad spent his days away from home searching for the younger son. The older son has worked alone (without Dad and little brother, in any event), and until the very end of the parable he did so without complaint. If the older brother asks for HIS share of the inheritance, then there’s no home for the younger brother to return to. If the older brother does not keep what’s left of the family farm in operation, then there’s no fatted calf, and no money to pay for a BBQ. The older son was obeying the 5th commandment — is that worth nothing? Is there no sense of wonder why the commandment-breaker gets a party and the commandment-keeper does not get so much as an invitation?

            Remember what Jesus says about the sheep that did not stray – “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” THINK about that statement! It’s HARSH. It’s also true. We know this from experience. And remember, these are 99 “righteous” people, not 99 “self-righteous” people. No one throws a party for the person who does not need to repent. Why not? That’s the lesson of the parable.

        • Matt Thornton

          Offensive graciousness. I love it!

          That’s pretty much the whole story from Tamar and Rahab on down

  • http://www.robbiemackenzie.com Robbie Mackenzie

    Thanks Peter for this. I have four young kids and this parable and your journey through it is helpful.

  • Huol

    As some of the comments above illustrate, the reason why so many people are wary of this parable is that they are afraid of carrying its implications to the fullest extent. Imagine! What if we lived by such grace in our own lives? Would there be anarchy? Chaos? Unruly men and women living licentiously?

    Yeah, there probably will be many. I’m sure the younger son at times relapsed into his past lifestyle, but the important thing is that he’s always running back to the Father regardless. As Luther notoriously wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”

  • Bev Mitchell

    Similar to Peter’s take but expanded into a ten page article is “The Parable of the Dancing God” by Baxter Kruger.

    Here it’s a story of freedom given and wasted, return with willingness to take the lowest place (repentance), a totally unexpected welcome by the father, the dancing God, total acceptance. And finally, a stay at home brother who, while he lived all the time with the father failed to understand how truly blessed he was (“My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours”) and, instead, resented his wandering sibling and especially the father’s welcome on his return. All very human – except for the amazing, redeeming love of the dancing God.

  • Randy

    Great article, Peter. One of the few times I don’t actually disagree with everything you wrote. No matter how many times we fail, God loves us and is willing to forgive us each time. He sees us coming “a great way off.”

    • peteenns

      You’ll come around eventually, Randy. Soon you will feel the power of the dark side of the force.

  • Wendy Blake

    I love it!!! His relentless, unconditional love!!!

  • Bryan

    Kenneth Bailey, in his book ‘Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes’ suggests that the title of the parable be labeled, The Parable of the Two Lost Sons.

    • Larry

      Amy-Jill Levine has also suggested, “The Parable of the Missing Mother”. MY personal favorite, YMMV.

  • Mike Sangrey

    I think Elizabeth above, and the link she points to, provides key insights into the parable.
    I also think most of Christianity has misunderstood when repentance occurs in this parable. To echo Elizabeth’s mentioning the insincerity of the young son’s speech, I’ll suggest that the phrase, “but having come to himself” has the meaning of “and so, looking out for number one.” The son rehearses a speech which sets up the expectation (to the original audience) of repetition of that speech. But, in response to the Father running (a shameful–sacrificial–action; see NT Wright), the young son is overwhelmed. It is at THIS point he repents. I agree with your insight, Peter, regarding the excited Father–note the short sentences which linguistically portray his excitement.
    Also, when applying this parable to parenting, I think we make the mistake of watering down true love. We cast the modern view into the ancient text. We attribute to love an overcooked, wet-spaghetti texture. To illustrate, let me tell a short story.
    At a small group meeting, a couple interrupted the time of sharing by expressing a rebuking conviction of theirs. They believed any overweight people were sinning and needed to repent of their fundamental lack of basic self-control. Basically, they said that fat people are always gluttons. They rebuked one of the ladies there (who actually has a substantial health issue). They prefaced their remarks by stating they were doing so in love.
    My point in reply was that if they believed that was true, then they were way out of line for thinking that such a retort met the requirements of Scripture. Love isn’t a wet spaghetti wimpish emotion. Nor is it a castrating of the impure. I said what love demands sacrifice. In other words, if you see a sinful problem here, then what exactly are you willing to put up in order to see that the problem is corrected? Where do you have skin in the game?
    The debt of sin is dealt with by the collaterallizing sacrifice by others. This is, IMO, exactly what the running Father did. And, I believe it’s exactly what the parable is all about.

    • Larry

      Mike, terrific comment, but I wonder why you think younger son repents at the sight of running Dad. All we know from the parable is that after seeing running Dad, younger son goes into his rehearsed speech without alteration, until Dad interrupts before younger son can apply for the job of hired hand. What are you seeing that I’m missing? If younger son had a change of heart, wouldn’t he also have had a change in speech?

      I’ll also note for the record that A.J. Levine sees nothing unusual or undignified about running Dad. I’ll have to dig out her talk at Chautauqua to remind myself why, but let it be understood that not all scholars find it shocking that Dad showed a little leg. I’m tempted to launch into a rendition of “Anything Goes”, but I’ll spare you.

      • Mike Sangrey

        I’m sorry I’ve not responded sooner.

        If one understands the “having come to himself” as a self-focused, “I’ve got to fix my problem”, selfish expression, then, I think it safe to say, repentance doesn’t happen there. The son hasn’t yet understood the real issue, and therefore he hasn’t reached the point of changing his thinking, changing his purpose and commitment, changing his direction.

        From my study of METANOIA, ‘repentance’ is more than just an “Ahhh! I’ll think differently about that in the future.” It’s a Nineveh event that redetermines the outcome of one’s history (Tyre and Sidon are similar). In an anthropomorphic sense, the sheep and coin both experienced this as a result of the “skin in the game” efforts of their owners. Obviously, repentance is a major point in the first two parables. So, the question naturally presents itself, “Where does repentance happen in this third parable?”

        Also, the previous two parables clearly present that the thing lost was FIRST pursued. Neither the sheep nor the coin cause the owner to find them. They don’t act first–the idea can’t even be entertained. The owner sought because the sheep and the coin were valuable to the owner. So, we–the audience to this story–should expect to see the same thing modeled in the third parable of the set. That’s the reader’s/hearer’s expectation.

        Now, with those two thoughts in mind, one doesn’t hear the father interrupting the son. One first hears a son, overwhelmed by the huge effort of the father (a figure of the Christ) to “find” his son. A father who put himself in his son’s place of shame. So, instead of fullfilling the expectation of a resitation of his planned speach, the son stops short. Basically saying, “I’m not worthy of such an action.” The original oral culture would have expected the repetition. So, the contrast between the hideous plan and the beautiful result is much like a bass drum, or a gong, being hit. The ugly expectation of his manipulating his father vanishes, and it is replaced by the complete acceptance of whatever the father deems fit.

    • Elizabeth

      I think that “Where do you have skin in the game?” is a really good question, Mike! It plays into the idea of “incarnational” mission (not the perfect name, perhaps, but a compelling idea). Instead of speaking from the outside into someone else’s problem, we’re called to dive in (in the example of Christ) and walk alongside people into the grace of God. A lot of times, that takes care of both the “wet spaghetti” problem as well as the “castrating the impure” extreme. When you have something to lose, it’s a little easier to see the path between the two.

  • http://www.mariuslombaard.net Marius Lombaard


    I value your insights, but I must question your interpretation here. This parable isn’t entirely prescriptive of how the parent should respond when the child returns home. The essence of it may well be the grace the parent extends (that God extends), but taking it as entirely prescriptive seems unreasonable and implausible to me. A parable, like a metaphor, is meant to convey a specific idea – which we will miss if we read more into it than is warranted.

    Your thoughts?


    • peteenns

      I agree with you, Marius. What on my post leads you to say that I take it as prescriptive of parenthood? I used human parenting as a contrast to God’s love.

      • http://www.mariuslombaard.net Marius Lombaard

        i guess i misunderstood you then. i based my comment on this:

        “If you’re a like most parents I’ve met (including me), you’re relieved but you also want to make a point. So you play it cool, stand at the door, and give you son or daughter that “I told you so, c’mon, admit it, admit it, you were wrong and I was right” look.

        And this is where the parable hits me between the eyes.

        When the son was still a far way off, rather than going back into his tent to play it cool (“Oh…You’re back. I hadn’t noticed. How have you been?”), rather than doing what normal fathers do, he was filled with compassion and ran out to meet him.”

        i guess i understood your use of “what normal fathers do” to mean grace + reproof. did you mean most fathers don’t extend grace at all?

  • Dean

    The pastor at our church touched on this parable somewhat this past Sunday and he noted that this parable is not about repentance at all. My immediate reaction was that this was kind of a bold statement. I bring this up here because I would be interested in what some of you think about what the Luke 15 parables mean with respect to soteriology. If memory serves me right, the parables seem to worry Tim Killer somewhat at the end of The Prodigal God precisely because repentance seemingly doesn’t really come up at all (the sheep and coin certainly don’t repent and as some of you mentioned here, neither really does the younger brother). Keller is quick to point out that you shouldn’t read too much into the parable because it isn’t meant to describe in complete detail everything there is to say on the matter, only to bring one or two points home in a dramatic fashion, he says something like that (which automatically brings to my mind the rich man and Lazarus, which some evangelicals love to read as “everything you wanted to know about hell, but are too afraid to ask”). On the other hand, Rob Bell picks up on this in Love Wins and really runs with it in his typical provocative fashion. He asks, isn’t the “act” of repentance technically a “work”? What does it mean to be saved by grace if repentance is a prerequisite? What does it mean for grace to be “free” if you have to do something to earn it (namely repent)? Any thoughts?

    • Mike Sangrey

      Dean, See the comment I just posted above.
      I think the “timing” of repentance and salvation as expressed by how this parable is usually understood is wrong simply because they get the “Having come to himself” expression wrong. That expression doesn’t mean the “light bulb finally turned on.” It’s much more like “looking out for number one” Bailey comes close to saying just that. And, in my opinion, the parable flows MUCH more smoothly if one understands the expression in this self-centered way. It also straightens out (if I may say so) the theological conundrum you’ve expressed. Before I read Bailey, I had the same head-scratching questions.

      • Larry

        Mike, I’ll reply here so that Dean can easily participate if he likes.

        I’m not sure about how you translate Luke 15:17. The phrase that is usually translated “having come to himself” or “having come to his senses” seems to indicate a break from what came before. For example, one reading is that the younger son was deranged, but now he’s seeing things clearly. If your reading is that now the younger son is looking out for number one … then exactly who was the younger son looking out for BEFORE he came to himself? I mean, could he have been any more selfish?

        I’ve read your comment above, and I still don’t see how a sheep or a coin can repent. Not even allegorically. Agreed that in the first two parables, the thing lost is pursued, but in significant ways the pursuit is foolish. The shepherd’s search for the one lost sheep imperils the safety of the other 99, and the woman’s search for a lost coin at night could have been conducted more efficiently and at less expense the next morning. Neither search was a level-headed endeavor to regain lost value, because in each case what follows the search is a celebration — one where the shepherd is probably serving barbecued sheep, and the woman has probably is serving at least a coin’s worth of food and drink. (By the way, I have shamelessly appropriated these thoughts from A. J. Levine.) There are rules of hospitality in the Middle East!

        I’m also not seeing the son stop his speech short. The text does not indicate any such thing. Moreover, once the son gives the first two lines of his speech, exactly as rehearsed, the text reads “But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” The use of the word “but” seems to indicate that the father’s words followed quickly after the words of his son (indeed, a number of interpretations have the father’s instructions begin with “Quick!” or “Hurry!”). Consider it the other way: imagine that the son spoke, then cut his speech short. Then ten seconds pass, and the father speaks. Would you introduce the father’s speech with the word “But”? It wouldn’t make any sense. The word “But” signals a shift in what is going on. The son is giving a speech, “but” the father will have none of it, and he interrupts. If instead the story was that the son was giving his rehearsed speech “but” he stopped, then you wouldn’t use the word “but” to introduce the father’s speech.

        I’m not objecting to your interpretation, but I think you’re reading things into the text that aren’t there. The son is “overwhelmed” by the huge effort of the father? What does the son say or do to show that he’s overwhelmed? It’s the father who runs to the son, embraces him and kisses him. The son is not said to embrace or kiss back. Nor does the son cry (compare Jacob and Esau when they are reunited, or Joseph when he is reunited with his brothers). Similarly, you remark positively on the son’s “complete acceptance of whatever the father deems fit”, but so long as what the father deems fit are expensive gifts and a party in the son’s honor, it doesn’t take much for the son to accede to the father’s plan!

        I’ll grant you this: if the younger son has changed for the better in this story, then you’ve identified the most likely point where this change occurred. We can imagine that the younger son was surprised by his father’s greeting, and by being accepted unconditionally back into the family. The text doesn’t SAY that the younger son is surprised … but he probably was. His plan to eat like a hired hand appears to be going better than expected! So we might hope that Dad’s unexpected generosity will bear fruit. This fruit may not amount to an apology, but one can hope. However, and I hate to be a killjoy, but this is at least the second time in the younger son’s life when his father has been unexpectedly generous, and the last time this happened the younger son fled home to sin for as long as his money would allow. So we have cause to at least wonder whether the younger son is undergoing a positive transformation.

  • Jon

    He came home through faith and repentance… don’t forget to mention that tiny little detail. His heart was softened, his conscience awakened, that is part of the beauty here.

    • peteenns

      Jon, that is one possible interpretation. Mine is more in line with those who don’t see the son as repentant and of a soft heart.

  • AJ

    I’m involved in Al Anon as I work on dealing with a close family member who is an alcoholic and pill abuser. I have two paradigms that I wrestle with back and forth – 1) The Al Anon paradigm of boundaries and not saving people and not let others determine my happiness and being careful not to waste resources that could be used to enable. And 2) The Prodigal God model. I genuinely wrestle with the models. What does it look like to love like this for an addict who will come back remorseful but then use again soon afterwards. I’m not sure, but I loved your post. Thanks.

    • AJ

      That should read “not saving people,” and I suppose the dad modeled that well in this story. He didn’t follow his son to save him.

    • peteenns

      AJ, that is a great point to make. My point of view is that the parable is not applicable to these sorts of situations. I think maintaining boundaries is vital to emotional health, and tough love with children is important. But this parable isn’t about raising children or handling addictions. It is a picture of God’s love.

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  • rumitoid

    Wow, what a totally wonderful and thoroughly absorbing thread. Great comments by all. Everytime this parable happened to be read or mentioned when I was younger, I cried. No one would give me such an exuberant welcome, was my thinking; I was just too unloveable. My upbringing was very conditional, with a hefty dose of alcoholic dysfunction, which led me to take the “unworthy servant” the Catholic Church spoke of as meaning I was not worth a plug nickle. How such profound shame became central to my being is difficult to assess now. There are some indicators, yet nothing I can firmly say was a factor. But that was the case.

    And I drank to prove my case against me for nearly twenty-five years. I was about three years sober when I had a dream about this parable. But the running figure was me running to me. The look on the prodigal me was terrified shock. It wanted to run away, to hide, to disappear. To be in the eyes of such wild and crazy love, knowing how truly rooten and undeserving it was, was unbearable. Then the running me threw its arms around the prodigal me, kissing me all over my face. The relief was enormous. When the alarm woke me, the dream not ye remembered, I felt really weird. There were no voices haunting me with me with critiques about the previous days performance or judgments on my thoughts. No fears or concerns about the coming day. There was, what is it? Ah, peace. I had crossed a threshold. Where before I had been running away from the pain and drink, I was now running toward life.

    Without this experience, I might be in the more practical crowd, such as following the Al Anon code of dealing. The uncondtitional (and to many, irresponsible) love the father showed can be transformative, which does not necessarily make it a rule for all actions in this situation. Discernment is in the moment, and it means opening to and trusting in direction from God.

    Just recently someone sort of apologized for “mistakenly” taking something of mine that caused me a great deal of difficulty. They were a bit too blase about it. As the words were on the way to my mouth to call him on his story, I was stopped; somehow I knew this lame confession was taking a tremendous amount of courage. I said, “Thank you, I had been looking for this.” A few days later, he openly admitted he had stolen it and profusely expressed sincere regret. I may think I have to do particular things to properly address a certain sitaution (and it suits my vanity to believe I am so blessed), such as “tough love” or a sour pout, but I don’t.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for posting on your experience, rumitoid. I know others will benefit.

      • rumitoid

        I feel that your take is accurate, and I have ample experience to back that claim. The logical and wise comments on this parable can only miss the point. Such views are lacking in both discernment and depth. They appear fear-based from top to bottom.

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  • Doc Mike


    There is much with which I agree in your treatment of Lk 15.11-24. But, rather than enumerate those appreciations, let me rather get to my point.

    As you noted, Jesus told this parable for the sake of the Jews of his day; it was and is a family lesson. But while he was surrounded by tax collectors and irreligious Jews, the target audience for the parable was the Pharisees and scribes who had complained about his efforts to reach those who were not following God.

    If the parable is about a “jerk” son or a (falsely-accused “dysfunctional”) father, then it should have ended at v 24. But it doesn’t. The point or focus of the parable is found in 15.25-32 when Jesus introduces and reveals the character of the older brother. It is this later-appearing brother who represents the Pharisees and scribes, even as the younger brother depicted the tax collectors and the irreligious. In addition to their failure to rejoice in the restoration of their fellow believers, the religious leaders, too, were wasteful in their enjoyment of the love and goodness of God.

    The older brother complains about the unfairness of his father, pointing out that he (the older brother) had faithfully obeyed but had never been allowed to have a party with his own friends. The father’s reply is telling: “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.’”

    It seems to me that the singular point of all three of the “lost” parables is to call the Pharisees and scribes to rejoice in the interest of sinners to Jesus’ message of the Kingdom. The final parable adds the prodigality of the religious leaders as well as the sinners, thus putting all parties into the same categories.

    Or so it seems to me.

    • peteenns

      I must not be communicating well, because along with some others commenting here, you seem to think I am taking this parable as a father/son moment. I don’t remotely see it as that. I only brought up the modern issue of parenting to drive home the contrast to the love of God in the parable. Jesus uses the familiar (family) to make a counterintuitive point about God’s love (more than you bargained for) and sense of entitlement of the elder brother, whom I take as representing the religious establishment. The thing is, he wasn’t in the wrong to expect the kind of “justice” he thought the father should bestow. But the father surprised him. For Christians reading the parable today, Jesus becomes the elder brother who races doen the street with the father and cheers his little brother home.

      I appreciate the comment, though. I need to be clearer, perhaps.

    • Doc Mike

      Here’s the problem, at least from my perspective (and I think I would have the same problem with the title of Keller’s book – although probably not with the content): there is a mixing of terms, i.e., the word “prodigal.”

      While prodigal can mean “lavishly abundant; profuse; giving or yielding profusely; lavish,” the meaning of the word as applied to either of the sons is the more common one: “wastefully or recklessly extravagant; prodigal with money; a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance; spendthrift.”

      To use the word to apply to God after using it to describe the brothers is confusing because it involves a profoundly different denotation. I have great difficulty in seeing God as “wasteful” or “reckless.”

      Which is odd, perhaps, given that I’m not a five-point, limited-atonement Calvinist!

  • John

    Tim Keller calls this parable, the parable of “The Prodigal God”, and entitled a book that way.


    • peteenns

      Good title.

  • Doc Mike

    BTW, Peter, I thought the post was clear. It was the discussion in the comments that muddied the waters for me.

  • Andy

    I think the main problem with any interpretation, and the main reason disagreements are bound to occur, is that we all like to parcel ourselves off into baskets of prodigal and not prodigal (but not self righteous!). The reality is we all have a sin nature and we naturally run from our Father. There is no spectrum of sin, no ranking of prodigality (is that even a word?). We all sin therefore we are all prodigals.

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