The Prodigal Son Story, part 2.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 June 2023

Luke 15.20B-24.

I split up the Prodigal Son Story, Jesus’s parable about a son who squanders his wealth and returns, tail between his legs, to a forgiving father. Whoops, spoiled the ending. Oh well; you had the past 20 centuries to hear of it.

Part 1 dealt with the popular Christian myth that asking for one’s inheritance before your dad died was a grave insult; it was an acceptable practice first-century Jewish sons did when they moved to other parts of the Roman Empire for whatever reason. I also brought up the evil, underhanded attitudes people project upon the prodigal son, when Jesus tells of no such things. He did lose his inheritance on excessive living, but let’s not leap to the conclusion he’s irredeemable.

I borrowed some names from a really lousy movie about the parable, so the son is Micah, his dad is Eli, and his brother is Joram. Hope the names don’t confuse you.

So we’re at the part where Micah realizes he’s starving unnecessarily, ’cause he could go back home and beg a job off his dad. And that’s what he does.

Luke 15.20-25 KWL
20 “And getting up, he goes to his father.
“While he’s still far away, his father sees him coming,
and feels sympathetic.
Running to him, the father throws his arms round his neck,
and kisses him.
21 The son tells him, ‘Father, I sinned against heaven and before you.
I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 The father tells his servants,
‘Quick, bring out the best robe and clothe him.
Put a signet ring on his hand,
and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring out the well-fed calf. Kill it.
We who feast on it should celebrate!
24 For this, my son, is dead and alive again!
Had been lost, and is found!’
And they begin to celebrate.”

Part 3 is obviously about the other son. Jesus didn’t leave him out. There’s a lot to say to Christians about him and his attitude. But meanwhile let’s look at the father and his attitude. It’s meant to reflect God’s attitude, obviously. It should likewise reflect our attitude when the lost are found.

Sympathy. Not satisfaction.

The way popular Christian culture loves to tell the Prodigal Son Story, Micah was absolutely, offensively in the wrong for going to Eli and asking for his inheritance prematurely. Eli, they say, should’ve been devastated. “My son’s leaving me! He’s taking his inheritance and going away, as if I had died already; I’m never going to see him again. And because he’s doing something so profoundly wrong in our culture, I shouldn’t be at all surprised if he goes off to the big city and spends all his inheritance on opium and whores.”

That’s kinda what people read into Eli’s statement in verse 24: “For this, my son, is dead and alive again!” Since Micah treated Eli as if he were dead to him, it makes sense that Eli would have reciprocal feelings towards Micah: “My son took his inheritance and left. He’s dead to me.” Rotten attitudes all the way around.

Would this’ve been what a first-century father woulda thought? Would this’ve been what first-century listeners to this story woulda thought? No and no. As I said in part 1, sometimes Israelis left Israel. The Assyrians and Babylonians had scattered Israelis all over their empires, but when they fell, sometimes the Israelis opted to stay—they’d made a success of things where they were, so why go back to the homeland?—and now there was a diaspora of Jewish enclaves throughout southern Europe, north Africa, and western Asia. When Jesus’s family fled to Egypt to escape Herod, they weren’t just refugees surrounded by strangers; there were other Jews there. Likely Joseph knew some of them already, which is why the angel sent ’em to Egypt. Mt 2.13

So if Israelis decided to leave, to make their fortune in other parts of the Roman Empire, custom was for sons to prematurely ask for their inheritance. First-century wealth consisted of land and livestock, so this stuff had to be converted to silver, and that was given to the son—who went to another province, settled down, made a success of things (or not), and didn’t have to return to Israel to receive his inheritance when his father later died. He already had it.

Now once you left, you were gone. True, it’s not impossible to send letters or travel; Paul and the apostles certainly did. But it was extremely unlikely. Your average person back then never, ever left their homeland. Wouldn’t have even thought to. Running a farm wasn’t something you could just take vacations from!—certainly not like today, where we can travel to the other side of the planet in less than a day. Nope; odds were, Eli would never see Micah again, and knew he’d never see him again. Nor would anyone else in the family. It was as if he had literally died.

I’ve heard a few interpreters claim Eli did expect his son to return; that he knew Micah was going to fail, and went out every day to wait for his boy to return. Or that he’d got word of Micah’s failure, and was just waiting for Micah to “come to his senses” Lk 15.17 and come home. Helmut Thielicke’s sermons on this parable, in his book The Waiting Father, include this idea—but Thielicke was reading an awful lot of modern culture into this story, and too much confounding God with the father in the parable. Yes, God, who knows all, would know we’re gonna repent, and will patiently wait for us to do so. But a human father, who knows no such thing—well, it’s kinda pathetic to imagine him sitting on the roof, year after year, waiting for his son to return, with no idea (but a lot of wishful thinking) about whether he even would.

When the father saw the son, Jesus says, “he feels sympathetic.” Literally he ἐσπλαγχνίσθη/esplanknísthi, “feels his guts churn.” The medievals believed your emotions came out of your heart, but the ancients believed the emotions were in the guts—in the liver and bowels; in the pit of our stomachs. So whenever the scriptures describe someone as “feeling their guts churn,” it means they feel for someone. They have pity and compassion; they’re “moved” and want to do for them. Eli saw his son—and could see from a distance his son was in rough shape—and immediately wanted to help him.

Some preachers like to say Eli was feeling a bit raw towards his son—“How dare he take his inheritance and abandon his family”—and I remind you Jesus never says any such thing; this is all projection on their part. If their kids had taken a few thousand bucks from them and moved to a state far away, they’d be bitter about it. We have no idea what Eli felt, but we do know when Eli saw his boy, he only “feels his guts churn”—feels nothing but compassion. Whatever he felt before: Gone. As you do when you actually love your kid, but see him hurting.

I’ve heard various preachers claim Eli abandoned all dignity to run to his son; he was wearing those long robes like you see in bible movies, and they aren’t practical for running in, so Eli had to pull up his robes and tuck ’em into his belt and then run—or he held them up, which is an awkward way to run as well. But we have no idea what Eli was wearing. Maybe he was wearing long robes—but if he was a working farmer and rancher, it’s entirely reasonable to assume he was wearing the knee-length tunic of a working man. You don’t have to hike up anything to run in that. But regardless of what Eli was wearing, he didn’t care about dignity. He had a son to hug.

I still maintain when Eli later said, “For this, my son, is dead and alive again”—no he’s not referring to Micah as “dead to me because he abandoned me.” Nor, ungraciously, “dead to me because he’s off sinning himself silly.” If that was his attitude, why would he immediately embrace Micah, kiss him, and demand a celebration because his son was home? Eli didn’t care what Micah had been up to. Didn’t bother to find out whether Micah was ritually clean before he hugged him. Didn’t bother to worry about decorum. Eli’s son was back, and that’s all he cared about. It’s time to party!

Didn’t even let Micah say his little speech. Micah got 14 words out, and didn’t even make it to the part about asking for a job. Lk 15.19 Some pessimistic preachers think that was intentional on Micah’s part; that once he saw how welcoming his dad was, he decided to let this play out, and maybe he wouldn’t have to ask for a job. Their bad attitudes permeate their interpretation of this story, so the less said about them the better.

The prodigal restored.

The words weren’t even out of Micah’s mouth before his dad immediately gave instructions to his δούλους/dúlus, a word which ordinarily means “slaves” but Micah called them μισθίων/misthíon, “employees” in verse 19, so they probably weren’t slaves. Dúlus can potentially mean “servants.” Anyway, Eli told ’em this:

Luke 15.22-25 KWL
22B “ ‘Quick, bring out the best robe and clothe him.
Put a signet ring on his hand,
and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring out the well-fed calf. Kill it.
We who feast on it should celebrate!
24A For this, my son, is dead and alive again!
Had been lost, and is found!’ ”

“The best robe” was the father’s best robe; it’s not like Eli was keeping some of Micah’s clothes around. Joachim Jeremias believes the robe was a ceremonial one, kept around for guests of honor, Parables of Jesus 130 but that’s something kings did, and this father isn’t a king. (Or is he? Well still.)

The ring Eli ordered for his hand wasn’t just any ring; he wasn’t just dolling up his son with nice jewelry. This was a signet ring. To the Romans—and first-century Jews had adopted this mindset—the family ran the house, and not just the father like we see in a patriarchy. It’s why Romans had the habit of giving the sons the same name as the father; they wanted it obvious the sons were equal to their father. Some scholars are pretty sure this can’t be a signet ring, ’cause what father would be dumb enough to empower his ne’er-do-well son with the ability to order the household servants around, and tap the family’s money? But they’re still thinking like independent westerners, and not communal Romans nor middle easterners: This was not a unilateral power to do as he pleased with these resources. Micah still had to submit to his father and brother’s wishes, and run his own ideas past them before barking out any orders. Same as our situation when God grants us his kingdom: He’s certainly not gonna let us run it into the ground! Jesus is still king of his kingdom, and the Holy Spirit still dispenses its gifts. God can still always tell us no when we wanna take those resources too far.

You know how people in the Roman Empire could tell the difference between slaves and freemen? Shoes. Freemen wore sandals. The poor might wear really lousy shoes, but they’d wear something on their feet—because only slaves went barefoot, and were forbidden shoes. I don’t know whether Micah had crummy shoes on, or had deliberately gone barefoot in humility, but either way Eli demanded sandals for his feet: His son was no slave.

Lastly the well-fed calf, or “fatted calf” as the KJV puts it: This was a one-year-old bull they were taking particular care of. Sometimes because they were gonna ritually sacrifice it for one of their thrice-yearly trips to temple (which means they couldn’t castrate it, so yes it’s a bull, not a steer); sometimes for one of the other holidays throughout the year. Sometimes just because they might want to throw a party and wanted good meat. Commentators like to point out the Jews didn’t eat meat all that often; I should point out this only means they didn’t eat meat daily, like many of us westerners do. More like weekly.

I remember one preacher who said, “And then they threw all these things on the boy, and didn’t even give him a chance to clean up from his travels; they just started partying.” Jesus doesn’t say he never got a chance to clean up first… but who knows?—maybe he didn’t. Either way, it was time to celebrate, for what was dead is alive; what was lost is found. The prodigal son had returned. Our heavenly Father likewise rejoices when we repent and return, as Jesus made clear in his Lost Sheep Story, and his Lost Sheep and Lost Coin Story—and I remind you the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin Story is part of this very same chapter, ’cause Luke is bunching together parables with a common theme.

Jesus then deals with the older brother next. I’ll get to that later.