Is the Father the Father? Rethinking the Parable of the Prodigal Son

November 2, 2012

I would like to propose that we rethink how to interpret one aspect of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, better named the Parable of the Lost Sons (Luke 15:11-32).  Ironically, the one aspect I have in mind is the point at which there is the least controversy.  Though some debate has surrounded the identity of the two sons and the significance of the feast items (i.e., the robe, the ring, the fatted calf), one particular facet of the parable has enjoyed nearly universal agreement in interpretation.  I’m speaking of the father of the two sons.

Since the time of Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, the father in the parable has been understood to be God, as in God the Father, the first person of the Trinity.  God the Father is he who runs to the prodigal son; God the Father is he who entreats the elder brother.  Modern evangelical scholarship concurs with this ancient interpretation, as does popular evangelical preaching.  Of course the father is the Father!  How could it be otherwise?

I think this interpretation is wrong.  Slightly.  It needs a tweak.

Here’s the question that needs to be asked: Is the father the Father, or could the father be the Son?  I believe the latter is the case.  God the Father isn’t the referent of the father in the parable, God the Son is.  I have no desire to be novel in suggesting this interpretation, only faithful to what Jesus seems to intend in telling the story.  In showing us a compassionate father, Jesus means for us to understand Jesus better.

Where do I get this idea?  What are the objections to this idea?  How does the parable change as a result of this idea?  Excellent questions, all around.  Let me briefly answer each one.

To begin with, the idea comes from Luke.  Luke places the parable in a highly specific context.  Sinners are flocking to Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees are chapped about it.  “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” they grumble (15:1-2).  How does Jesus handle such consternation?  He tells the religious leaders three parables, each of which is calculated to reveal his heart for the lost.  Jesus gives them a rationale for his ministry to sinners.

You know the string of stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons.  In the first parable, Jesus is like the shepherd who searches for the stray sheep until it is found (15:3-7).  In the second parable, Jesus is like a woman who sweeps her entire house in order to find one lost coin (15:8-10).  And in the third parable, Jesus is like a father who shows compassion for his repentant son; and further, in an extraordinary appeal to the religious leaders themselves, he is like a father who would entreat even a self-righteous son to join the party (15:11-32).

With these parables Jesus is giving an apologetic for his ministry.  Each parable is designed to say to the religious establishment, “This is who I am.  This is what I do.  I have come to seek and to save the lost” (cf. 19:10).  Why does Jesus receive sinners?  Because that’s exactly the kind of thing a pursuing shepherd, a careful woman, or a compassionate father would do.

I can imagine a couple of objections to this interpretation.  One objection might be why Jesus would use the imagery of a father to depict himself.  Doesn’t he know how confusing this is for us to think of the Son as a father rather than the Father as a father?  My answer is, simply, that Jesus knows what he’s doing.  If we can understand a comparison between Jesus and a woman, as in the previous parable, then we should be intellectually savvy enough to handle a comparison between Jesus and a father.

A second objection is more serious; namely, that this interpretation removes the heavenly Father from view altogether.  There is a fine line, I agree, between saying that the parable is about the Son rather than the Father and implying that the parable isn’t about the Father at all.  Yet there is no need for us to cross that line.  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus would say elsewhere (John 14:9).  In other words, to see Jesus’ fatherly love is to see the Father’s love.  And how better for Jesus to show us what the Father is like than to liken himself to a father.

How does the parable change as a result of interpreting the father to be the Son rather than the father being the Father?  The obvious change is a Trinitarian shift in focus.  Whereas the traditional interpretation focuses our attention primarily on God the Father rather than God the Son, God the Son now steps into the foreground of the parable.  In marveling over the father’s love for his two sons, we are meant to marvel over Jesus’ love for prodigals and prigs alike.  The parable is a showcase for Jesus’ compassion toward sinners.

Consequently, the parable changes in a gospel-oriented way too.  No longer does the preacher have to “fit Jesus into” the parable by quoting extraneous texts, or by allegorizing the feast, or (most creatively) by suggesting that the bad elder brother is a foil to make us long for a good elder brother, who is Jesus.  No, Jesus is right there, front and center, the main character to be seen and admired.

So that’s the proposal—a tweak that needs to be considered.  In the Parable of the Lost Sons, the father isn’t the Father, the father is the Son.  To see the father’s compassion for his boys is to understand how Jesus loves and pursues sinners like us.

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