The Dysfunctional Family of Man

The names by which we know Christ’s parables are often our own invention; they usually cannot be found in the scriptures. While these labels provide a convenient way to refer to a given story, they sometimes distort and obscure its message. A good example of this phenomenon is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. After studying this text more carefully, I believe it would be more accurate to call it: “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family of Man.”

Jesus recounted this parable as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. And Luke makes it clear that his audiences, like us, were large and diverse, consisting of disciples, detractors (e.g., scribes and Pharisees), sinners, tax collectors, and curiosity seekers.

Those he taught, however, differed from us in two important respects: (1) they were well-versed in the Old Testament, and (2) their religious culture placed great emphasis on critical thinking, on the importance of continually reexamining every proposition. These folks would never hesitate to question and challenge even the most esteemed teacher. With this in mind, we turn to the parable (Luke 15:11-32, David Bentley Hart translation):

11 And a certain man had two sons. 

It would be hard to come up with a better opening line to capture the attention of a first-century audience in Palestine.  A certain man had two sons…. Cain and Abel; Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Jacob; Manasseh and Ephraim. This Old Testament literary conceit, however, invariably casts the junior sibling in the more favorable light. Here, Jesus’s biblically literate audience was in for a big surprise: the younger son in this story will turn out to be a self-absorbed, irresponsible and manipulative child.

12 And the younger of them said to the father, “Father, give me the share of the property falling to me.” And he divided his living between them.

The son’s request would have struck Christ’s audience as unusual and probably impertinent, though it was not unprecedented. But what would have genuinely shocked them was the father’s acquiescence. A prudent patriarch refrained from passing on his property during his lifetime. As the Jewish scribe and sage, Ben Sirach (second century B.C.), wisely counseled: “While you are still alive … do not let anyone take your place. * * * * [I]n the hour of your death, distribute your inheritance.”[1]

The father is not just breaking with convention when he grants the boy’s request; he accedes without even ascertaining his son’s future plans. Further, he didn’t simply divide his property between his sons; he divided his living or life (bios). As noted by the biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, in ironic anticipation of the son’s spendthrift behavior, the father himself has been careless: he has blithely given half of all that he has.[2]

Junior then departs into a “far country” where he rapidly squanders his inheritance through excessive living. To compound his misery, a famine occurs and he is reduced to seeking employment as a pig farmer. He finds himself in the perfect storm and is ultimately reduced to coveting the food given to the swine in his care. But then, in his darkest hour, he has an idea:

17 And coming to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired men are overflowing with bread, but I am here perishing from famine. 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “I have sinned against heaven and before you, 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

We have been conditioned to read this passage as evidence that, having seen the error of his ways, the son is prepared to repent. But is he?

The Greek for “coming to himself” can mean, “starting to think straight, logically.”[3] And the boy bases his thinking, as he always has, on self-centered considerations. He is coming to himself, not to God. Thus, first-century listeners likely would have heard connivance, not contrition. 

Skepticism is often warranted when adverse circumstances are the apparent reason for a person’s sudden remorse and outward transformation. And those doubts are reinforced when the first words out of the young man’s mouth, upon returning to his father, are a perfect repetition of what he previously rehearsed. And note that he begins with the word “Father,” not “Sir” or “Lord” or “Master.” By this he arguably seeks to reinstate himself as a son, not a hired worker or slave. In sum, junior’s genuine repentance remains only a possibility, rather than a certainty. Both his words and his actions are, at best, morally ambiguous.[4]

Nevertheless, the father “was inwardly moved with pity” and “fell upon his neck and kissed him fervently” (v. 20). The father’s actions remind us of the Good Samaritan who saw a wounded man and reacted with compassion. And this is how Jesus responded when he saw the funeral procession of the only son of a widow—he wept with the mother and then restored the boy’s spirit to his body. (Luke 7:13-15). In all of these stories there is recognition that one who once was thought to be dead can be brought back to life (v. 24).

So consumed with joy is the father at his son’s return that he promptly orders a celebration: a banquet is prepared, musicians are enlisted, and friends and neighbors are summoned. Someone, however, forgot to invite the oldest sibling:

25 But his older son was in the field; and as he came and drew near the house he heard music and dancing, 26 And calling one of the servants over he asked what all this might be. 27 And he told him that “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has got him back in good health.” 

Big brother is indignant and declines to join the festivities. And, in fairness, he sort of has a right to be miffed. An over-the-top celebration is one thing, but to completely forget to include your most faithful child! Really?

The father, informed of the situation, “came out and pleaded with him” (v. 28). Though this translation is technically correct, it misses the nuance of the Greek, which conveys both a sense of urging and comforting. But the son is not moved; he feels that his faithful service has never received any recognition—not even a scrawny ol’ goat for a barbeque with his friends (v. 29)—while his ne’er-do-well brother is rewarded with a feast!  

His mistake stems from his failure to understand the reason for the celebration, as explained to him by the servant. As astutely noted by New Testament Scholar Kenneth E. Bailey, the “celebration is for the father, not for the prodigal.”[5] His joy lies in the youngest son’s return to the family, in having found what was once believed to have been lost. 

But then the story abruptly ends, and Christ’s audience is left hanging: Does the wayward son ever truly repent or does he succeed in duping dad a second time? Does the oldest boy apologize to his father for his disrespectful behavior and join the party?  Does the father forgive both of his children and do the two of them ever make amends? For crying out loud, why doesn’t Jesus finish the story?!?

The answer is simple: he can’t. The final chapter is yet to be written. And its authors will be those to whom he is speaking—then and now. 

For Christ’s audience, the youngest son represents the sinners, tax collectors and many others, including the disciples, whose company Christ actively sought. The eldest brother, by contrast, personifies the scribes and Pharisees, those who believe that their devotion to the law is not receiving the credit it deserves and, as a result, may decline to participate in the gospel celebration hosted by the Savior. 

As they contemplate how their story will end, Jesus makes three things very clear to both sides: (1) each is unrighteous in their own way, (2) he cares about both groups deeply, and—this is the big one—(3) they need to reconcile because neither can be made whole without the other.

Christ’s audience would have thought the father had abased himself when he let slide the reckless behavior of his youngest and did not take offense at the elder sibling’s impertinence.[6] His behavior was a radical departure from ancient tradition and custom, and inappropriate for someone of his position and stature. A patriarch in such circumstances would have been fully within his rights—indeed, would have been expected—to shun, beat or otherwise punish each adult child.[7]

But here the father chooses to overlook these egregious slights and misdeeds—even though neither of his children apologized—because he wanted to keep the family together. He took the first step towards reconciliation even though he was the innocent party. “Look and behold his condescension!”[8]

A father had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. If either is sacrificed then both are. Today, as noted by Amy-Jill Levine, many of the descendants of these two men are at odds—even at war—in certain parts of the world. These sons ultimately reunited at Abraham’s death and together buried the great patriarch. Can their descendants do the same?[9]

How will we write our ending to Christ’s unfinished parable? The stories of the Old Testament give us hope. They show that reconciliation between individuals, religions, nations, diverse groups of people, and societies is possible. Further, they prompt us to contemplate who is currently missing that belongs in our life. Who is lost that we need to find? Am I willing to take the first step even though I am the victim? And finally, do I need to allow myself to be found, to acknowledge my wrongs, to seek forgiveness, and thereby be made whole?

[1] Beale, G. K. and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 2007, p. 342.

[2] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, Harper One, 2014, p. 48.

[3] Barton, John and John Muddiman, editors, The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 947.

[4] Short Stories by Jesus, p. 53.

[5] Bailey, Kenneth E., Jacob & and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story, InterVarsity Press, 2003, p. 180.

[6] Arnold, Clinton E., Editor, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, p. 447.

[7] Wright, N.T., Luke for Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004p. 187; Jacob & the Prodigal, p. 115.

[8] 1 Nephi 11:26 (“Look and behold the condescension of God!”).

[9] Short Stories by Jesus, p. 70.

5 thoughts on “The Dysfunctional Family of Man”

  1. Thanks, Eric. I often enjoy “discovering” stories in the scriptures that I’ve not carefully considered, to extract their meaning for my life. But I enjoy even more taking a story which which I’m totally familiar and viewing it with a new perspective. Always enjoy your insights.

  2. Hey Eric,
    Thank you for sharing this. I’m pondering on the third point—that we (brothers and sisters, children of God, and the lot of us sinners) need each other and that the Father’s goal is to keep His family together. I’m struck by the agency the father gave the younger son and that he didn’t intervene, he didn’t send servants to track the boy down and bring him home. He kept watch. He waited and hoped. In the second instance, he pleads with the older sibling to come to the party. He invites and loves and comforts. I don’t know why at times He waits and other times He pleads. But it’s clear to me the the Father always loves. Despite our choices, He always loves and He always wants us to come home and be part of His joy and celebration.
    I hope I can make it to the party and I’m glad the invitation is always there. That He pleads for me and He waits and hopes for me to come to myself and come to Him, no matter how imperfectly.

  3. Dick & Chris, thank you both for your kind words. As I have often observed, if we do not experience some discomfort or provocation when we read one of Christ’s parables, teachings, or an account of an event in his life, such as a miracle, then we have probably missed something.

    My thoughts on this parable are hardly the last word on the subject. And that’s the beauty of the scriptures. There is no limit to the number of ideas and mysteries they can reveal.

  4. Aaron, I share your sentiments completely. It’s nice to know that God’s door always remains open and that he has the wisdom to know when to give us a nudge and when to sit back and patiently wait.

    But one thing that might please him even more than seeing our smiling faces at his party would be if we could find a way to reconcile our differences with our siblings (i.e., our fellow man) on our own. Recently, we’ve made a hash of things in that regard.

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