For the younger son to ask for his share of the inheritance is almost unthinkable: it is the functional equivalent of saying to his father, ‘I wish you were dead.’ The father should have beaten him, or thrown him out. Instead, he agrees. The son ends up doing the job beyond which it was impossible, in Jewish eyes, to sink: feeding pigs for a gentile master. He then does a further unthinkable thing: he returns home, threatening to disgrace the whole family in the eyes of the village. The father runs to meet him; senior members of families never do anything so undignified at the best of times, let alone in order to greet someone who should have remained in self-imposed ignominy. The party is for the whole village, like a big family wedding; a fatted calf would be far too much for a single household. The elder brother, meanwhile, also shames his father, by quarrelling with him in public, and in his turn suggesting that he wished the father dead so that he could at last enjoy his share of the property; but again the father is astonishingly, unbelievably, gentle. The story ends, within its cultural context, too soon: it demands a last scene, preferably a reconciliation.
Most commentators have focused on the welcome home as the great sign of the father’s love. Helmut Thielicke, famously, wrote a book called The Waiting Father. But the thrust of the story, the emphasis on the prodigal love of the father, is felt much sooner, and sustained much longer. Exile, as some of the greatest prophets had seen, was itself part of the strange covenant purposes of Israel’s father-god. Israel could be allowed to sin, to follow pagan idolatry, even to end up feeding the pigs for a pagan master, but Israel could not fall out of the covenant purposes of her god. She could say to her god ‘I wish you were dead’, but this god would not respond in kind. When, therefore, Israel comes to her senses, and returns with all her heart, there is an astonishing, prodigal, lavish welcome waiting for her. Equally, the same generous love is still extended to those who, hurt and upset, cannot at the moment understand how it can possibly be right to welcome the prodigal home.
Each of these levels of meaning resonates appropriately when we envisage Jesus telling the story—and telling it in pretty much the setting Luke has given it (Luke 15:1–2). Jesus is acting, as an increasingly large number of scholars admit, as if he is simply bypassing the Temple system altogether. He is claiming to admit all and sundry into the renewed people of Israel’s god. In telling this story, he is explaining and vindicating his own practice of eating with sinners: his celebratory meals are the equivalent, in real life, of the homecoming party in the story. They are the celebration of the return from exile. What is more, Jesus is claiming that, when he does all this, Israel’s god is doing it, welcoming sinners no matter whether they have passed all the normal tests for membership, as long as they will accept the welcome of Jesus. What, is Israel’s holy god likely to behave in such a way? Yes, replies the parable, just as the prophets foretold: just like a father who … For Israel’s god to act in this way is not an innovation; it is consistent with his character as revealed throughout Israel’s long and chequered history. This is who he is, who he will be.
Despite the elder brother. The parable does not ‘teach’, in the sense of teaching abstract or timeless truth; it acts. It creates a new world. Those who object to what Jesus is doing are warned of the role they are in fact playing in this new world, in the great climactic drama of Israel’s history. Resurrection, the return from exile, is happening, and they cannot see it. The battle-lines are drawn. It is not a matter (as has often been imagined, and now quite often refuted) of Jesus offending some petty scruples here or there, or of an abstract challenge offered by one timeless religious system to another. Jesus is claiming to be ushering in Israel’s long-awaited new world; and he is doing it, apparently, in all the wrong ways. Jesus is enacting the great healing, the great restoration, of Israel. And he interprets his own actions in terms of the fulfilment, not of a few prophetic proof-texts taken atomistically, but of the entire story-line which Israel had told herself, in a variety of forms, over and over again. His opponents find themselves standing under a new sort of spotlight. If this is the new exodus, those who are objecting to it are cast as Pharaoh. If it is the real return from exile, the objectors are the Samaritans. If Jesus is in some sense building the real Temple, the objectors—ironically, since their own worldview focuses so strongly on the Temple in Jerusalem—are cast as those who resolutely opposed its rebuilding. They, in their turn, are saying to Israel’s covenant god that they wish he were dead. This, however, merely underlines the wish that the elder brother be reconciled. In Luke’s gospel the Samaritans are given a new hope, a new possibility. The elder brother in the story is, implicitly, condemned, in order then to be offered a new chance. The parable creates a new situation, in which the hearers are confronted with a choice, a warning, and an invitation.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2), London, SPCK 1992.