This week’s readings (in agreement with the lectionary) are Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-31. For reasons I’ll talk about here, I think we’re going to use the NIV translation of the Luke passage. The Psalm might be cut for the sake of time, which would be too bad; the Psalms are great.

Where are we?

The selection repeats the first three verses of last week’s reading, because all of chapter 15 is one big retort to the religious elites’ complaint in verse 2. The first two parables, which were read last week, are about a lost sheep and a lost coin.

What’s going on here?

All kinds of great words, that’s what’s going on here. I try not to geek out too often on Greek roots and particular translation choices, but this passage seems to call for a little nitpicking. Behold the nits:

  • v. 11, “divided his property.” While the younger son had asked for his share of “the stuff” (NIV ‘the estate’), his father διεῖλεν αὐτοῖς τὸν βίον, ‘cut up [his] life.’ As Jean-Luc Marion reads it, the younger son effectively says, “I want you dead,” and the father complies.
  • v. 15, “he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country.” The word is κολλάω, which literally means ‘to join.’ It’s used in the New Testament to talk about dust sticking to sweaty feet, joining a group of people (i.e. the church), and marital/sexual union (as in Jesus’ citation of Genesis in Matthew 19:5). He doesn’t just hire on, he changes his identity.
  • v. 17, “When he came to his senses.” The NRSV translates this literally, ‘when he came to himself.” As if this has been an out-of-body experience, or more correctly an out-of-identity experience.
  • v. 20, the father “was filled with compassion.” This is maybe the best word in all of NT Greek: σπλαγχνίζομαι. It means to feel something in your bowels, which of course is exactly what this parental “compassion” feels like (the OT Hebrew equivalent is the word for ‘womb’). So ‘compassion’ is the right idiomatic translation, but something far stronger than the mushy way many of us hear that word.
  • v. 29, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” This is the word that leads me to use the NIV (our usual GNT and the NRSV both say ‘worked like a slave’). My contention is that this word betrays not that the elder brother had a sense of entitlement as if he were the “true” son, but that he had denied his identity as a son just as much as the younger brother did.
  • The dialogue throughout makes this a great story. Notice all the ways people are identified to indicate relationship, or the denial thereof: “my share of the estate;” “joined” (v. 15); “no longer worthy to be called your son;” “this son of mine;” “your brother;” “this son of yours;” “my son;” “this brother of yours.” This is a story about relationships, which is the core of identity.

Speaking of identity, notice that the son’s job is to feed the pigs. Caring for ritually unclean animals (who eat better than you do) would be a particularly repugnant scenario for Jesus’ Jewish hearers to contemplate.

When we read verses 1-2 last week, the word ‘sinners’ was replaced by ‘outcasts’ in the GNT. Even if we had been in that translation this week, the story of the lost son doesn’t allow us to forget that this is about sin: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

Notice that the elder brother won’t go into the house during the party. Jesus’ stories in Luke often have themes of parties, with questions about who chooses to attend and who stands outside. One could also read ‘house’ in the sense of the father’s ‘household.’

Arland Hultgren questions whether the younger son’s planned expression of contrition reflects real remorse or just manipulation of the old man. However, he points out that the father’s extravagant welcome overshadows any intentions on the son’s part.

So what?

This is of course an outstanding parable. It seems childishly easy to figure out what Jesus is getting at, if you read the story as if it were an Aesop’s fable. At the same time, the story itself is so compelling that you come back to it again and again to find more meaning. (Theologian Karl Barth developed a reading of this story as an allegory of Jesus’ ministry: that he is the son who left home, traveled to a far-off country, and came back after having been dead. Just in case you needed to have your mind blown.)

There’s a sort of interpersonal triangle: the younger son acts as if he doesn’t realize how much his actions hurt his father; the father seems not to get why the older son is so offended; the older son can’t see how the father could still love the younger. The resolution is hinted at but not made explicit.

Part of the resolution, as I’m seeing it this year, is that both the brothers forget that their identity derives from their relationship with their father. The younger son denied his dependence and starved himself to death, and the elder son denied the joy of being a son and worked himself into being a slave instead. Perhaps Jesus wants to call both sons – the religious insiders and the outcast sinners – to come home again.