Friday, June 15, 2012

The Prodigal Guilt Trip

Jesus is having a discussion with His Disciples, which started with Him explaining how they needed to humble themselves like children if they wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. According to Matthew and Mark, He then discussed how serious sin was, and what extreme measures you should take to avoid it, because you do not want to be cast into Hell. Matthew continues the conversation further, which is paralleled by Luke in another location. Following Luke leads to a famous parable.

The Prodigal Guild Trip
If you are studying the Gospels with an eye for construction, it becomes fairly obvious that Mark, in one form or another, was a primary source for material in Matthew's and Luke's Gospels. However, when you encounter material which is not contained in Mark, the origin becomes more mysterious. Of course, believers would say that this material comes from actual eye-witness accounts. If so, if the same material is covered in Matthew and Luke, we would expect some divergence owing to the imperfection of memory and perception. Details would change. Tone may be altered. Yet the underlying emphasis should be the same, but is it?

Matthew 18:10 continues a conversation where Jesus had used a little child as a living metaphor for how humble they should be, and how cautious they should be about causing such humble people to sin, because then you would be thrown into Hell. So Matthew 18:10 is another warning not to mistreat these humble "children" of God.

Then, depending on which version you are reading, in Matthew 18:11 you find:
"For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost." KJV
This has been removed from new versions because it was not included in the oldest copies of Matthew. Instead, this is an insertion from a later transcriber, probably based on Luke 19:10.

Following that, we get to the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 18:12-14:
If a man had 100 sheep, and one of them had wondered off, the man would leave the 99 to find the one. If he were to find that one errant sheep, he would be happier about that one than about the other 99. God is like that; not wanting to lose any of these "children." (My paraphrase)
Of course, there are a couple of difficulties with this parable. God represents the man who owns the sheep, and He already owns the full 100, yet according to Hebrews 6:4-8, if you are Saved, and then you wander away, it is impossible for you to rejoin the flock. Even more significant is the fact that the man, God, anxiously and diligently searches for the lost sheep. How then it is possible for the sheep not to be recovered? How is it possible for God to fail in His effort? The saving of the sheep is not reliant on the sheep in any way.

Luke 15:1-7 also has the Parable of the Sheep, but in a completely different setting. There, Jesus had been teaching the crowds, and Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were upset because of the type of people He was teaching. The parable itself also takes on a different focus:
A man loses one of his 100 sheep, and so he eaves the 99 to find the lost one. When he finds it, he throws a party. Similarly, there is more rejoicing in Heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 righteous people who do not need to repent. (My paraphrase)
In Luke's version, the man is not a stand-in for God, except for his similar expression of joy at recovering his lost sheep.

(Luke's version has its own slight problem, in that due to the relatively close proximity of mention of Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, the mention of the 99 "righteous persons who do not need to repent" appears like it refers to them, but it does not.)

Luke 15:8-10 continues this party theme in the subsequent Parable of the Lost Coin:
A woman loses one of her ten silver coins, and then, after a fruitful search for her missing coin, she celebrates with her friends. Similarly, there is rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents. (My paraphrase)
Then, as if the third time was the charm, Luke 15:11-24 continued that same party theme yet again with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but with a little twist:
One of two sons of a wealthy man asked for his inheritance early. Then that son left and squandered his share of wealth on prostitutes and other luxuries in a foreign country. When the money ran out, he became a pig-feeding servant. He realized what he had lost, and decided to return humbly to his father at the level of a servant, not of a son. However, upon seeing the son return, the father rushed out to embrace and kiss his son, and then threw an extravagant party for him. (My paraphrase)
So far, this parable maintains the theme of joyous recovery, and goes further to provide an explicit example of a sinner and the caliber of repentance which is worthy of celebration. This again confirms Luke's emphasis of this series of parables; that of the joy in a sinner coming to repentance.

However, this parable drops the owner-search aspect. The father does not go out looking for the lost son. Rather the lost son "came to his senses" all by himself. In contrast to Matthew's Parable of the Lost Sheep , this speaks of personal responsibility in your own recovery/repentance instead of God coming out to find you.

I promised a twist, and here it is, as we continue the Parable of Prodigal Son in Luke 15:25-32:
The other son, who had stayed with his father the entire time, became angry with his father for throwing the extravagant party for his brother, because his father had never made any gesture of reward for his own loyalty and obedience. The father answered him that all the father owned belonged to him, but the celebration was right for his brother, who was once dead but now lives. (My paraphrase)
This twist ending is exceedingly odd. Story-wise, there is nothing wrong with it. We can easily understand the loyal son's indignation, even if we cannot imagine ourselves acting that way. But this is not just a story. This is a parable. While not every single facet of a parable needs to have a corresponding meaning, this final section accounts for well over one third of the total parable. Its prominence implies significance. So what does it mean?

Due to the Pharisees and the Teacher's of the Law being present, it would be tempting to say that they represent the indignant son who is already entitled to the father's possessions, especially given that this series of parables was kicked off by their own indignation. However, this part of the parable is not likely to be targeted at them, given the condemnation of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law in Luke 11:39-52.

So who was the target? This falls squarely into speculation, but my theory is that this was actually aimed at existing believers. When exactly Luke wrote his Gospel is questionable, but it was clearly after Mark's Gospel had been written, and it was likely multiple decades after the death of Jesus. This means that the early adapters to Christianity had already been "harvested." New converts for any given region would have been trickling in; one here, one there. Meanwhile, much of the body of the church had been laboring for Christ for years upon years.

Perhaps this parable is actually an analog to the emergent customs of those times. Perhaps there were feasts or parties held for the newer converts, and some of the older converts had started to grumble against the fuss made about the new converts while no reward or honor had been given to them, despite their loyal service.

If this is close to the actual history, then Luke's political intentions become obvious; snuff out the fire of indignation by turning these new-convert-parties into something implicitly ordained by Jesus.


  1. I must admit that the story of the prodigal son and the lost sheep and coins had a much stronger affect on me as a believer and guilt it was. As a 'lost son', it only makes me sad for the father and brother left behind.

  2. I am right there with you, prairienymph. The imagery is/was very enticing back on the side of belief. Now I wish I could drag more people with me to explore the real world. :-)

    1. And what, TWF, to you, is the real world?

    2. You know, Anonymous, the one where there's no statistically significant difference between the outcomes of prayer, hope, and chance. ;-)