- Joshua 5:9-12 & Psalm 32
- 2Corinthians 5:16-21
- Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
A Man had Two Sons
While the parable of the Prodigal Son is found only in Luke, it may be part of a wider tradition that played with the domestic triangle of a father and two sons. If one were inclined—as an ancient Jewish or Christian might well be—to seek biblical roots for such a device, the Genesis stories offer more than one example:
- Cain and Abel (Gen 4) would perhaps qualify as the original pair of unequal sons even though their father, Adam, seems to vanish from the story once they are conceived.
- Abraham and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac (Gen 16-21), comprise another archetypal triangle; this time with competing mothers.
- Isaac himself would have to deal with two very different sons, Esau and Jacob (Gen 25-27).
- Finally, within the Genesis series, Joseph would have two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48). They are blessed by their dying grandfather, Jacob, but not in the order that Joseph had intended.
A related theme, that it will suffice simply to note, concerns the blessing be given to the younger son, whether the chosen youngster has one or several elder siblings. Examples include:
- Isaac (younger sibling to Ishmael)
- Jacob (Esau)
- Joseph (several older brothers born of “senior” wives)
- Ephraim (Manasseh)
- David, the youngest son of Jesse.
In traditional wisdom lore, the aged sage offers advice and instruction to his son, as in these two representative samples:
Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
and do not reject your mother’s teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
and pendants for your neck.
My child, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us wantonly ambush the innocent;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive
like those who go down to the Pit.
We shall find all kinds of costly things;
we shall fill our houses with booty.
Throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”–
my child, do not walk in their way,
keep your foot from their paths;
My child, when you come to serve the Lord,
prepare yourself for testing.
Set your heart right and be steadfast,
and do not be impetuous in time of calamity.
Cling to him and do not depart,
so that your last days may be prosperous.
Jesus seems to have played with this same tradition in his sayings about fathers with two sons:
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25″Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'” [Luke 15:11-32]
Man with Two Sons
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.
In his Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, Samuel Lachs offers this tantalising possibilty about a Jewish version of this parable:
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Two Sons, most likely goes back to Jewish sources, but no exact parallel survives. Some parallel phrases have been traced to Ahikar and some of the ideas to Philo. More cogent proof is the fact that in a Genizah fragment the Gason R. Aha quotes Sanh. 99a, not extant in toto in our texts, in which R. Abbahu cites a parable of “a king with two sons, one who went in the proper way, the other who went out to ‘evil culture.” Abrahams comments. “This looks like a reminiscence of Luke’s Parable, and it may have been removed from the Talmud text by scribes more cognizant than Abbahu was of the source of the story.” Ginzberg comments, “The source for the Parable … is not known to me. Obviously R. Aha must have had it in his text of the Talmud … In any event, it is the short, original form of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son.”
Lachs also cites the following saying attested from Palestinian Rabbis:
When a son [abroad] goes barefoot [through poverty]
he remembers the comfort of his father’s house.
[Lam. R. I.7]
We can see that the underlying social and domestic issue was clearly known to Jews in the Hellenistic period, as Sirach offers this advice to those who find themselves in the situation of the father in this parable:
20To son or wife, to brother or friend,
do not give power over yourself, as long as you live;
and do not give your property to another,
in case you change your mind and must ask for it.
21While you are still alive and have breath in you,
do not let anyone take your place.
22For it is better that your children should ask from you
than that you should look to the hand of your children.
23Excel in all that you do;
bring no stain upon your honor.
24At the time when you end the days of your life,
in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.
The Parable of Rabbi Meir
Finally, we note the following rabbinic passage which provides at least a partial parallel to this story:
Rabbi Meir was famous for his parables (‘When R. Meir died there were no more makers of parables’ [Sota 9.15]), and this one is to be compared with the Prodigal Son. It is quite probably older than R. Meir himself (second century AD), having been attributed to him because of his reputation for parables:
A King’s son went out into evil courses, and the King sent his guardian (paidagogos) after him. ‘Return, my son,’ said he. But the son sent him back, saying to his father: ‘How can I return, I am ashamed.’ His father sent again saying: ‘My son, art thou indeed ashamed to return? Is it not to thy father that thou returnest?’ (Deut. R. 2.24 quoted from I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels: First Series [Cambridge: University Press, 1917], p. 142.) Here we have the characteristic Jewish hope: the Lord God of Heaven and Earth is their father; he will accept his penitent son.
[This extract is from Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (ch 2: The Kingdom of God), and is available at Religion-Online as part of their extensive collection of online texts.]
The following extract from Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (1998:104-107) may also be of interest:
Though the parable of the lost son is much more detailed, the climax of its first half is the same as the two parables above [the lost sheep, and the lost coin]. The son was genuinely prodigal: emigrating to a “far country,” a Gentile land, he wasted his assets in loose living, ignoring the moral claim which his father still had on his property. When he had exhausted his resources, instead of seeking charity at a Diaspora synagogue, he worked for a Gentile, rendering impossible the observance of such Jewish ordinances as the sabbath. Not only did he become a despised herdsman, but a swineherd. He lived in gross impurity and had become, according to the standards of the quest for holiness, a non-Jew, and his father’s statement, “This my son was dead,” was correct in an important sense: his son had ceased to be a Jew. Nevertheless, when the son returned, what did the father do? Like the shepherd and the woman, he celebrated his return and, significantly, arranged for a festive banquet.
As responses to the protests of his opponents, these parables were both a defense of Jesus’ behavior and an invitation to his opponents to join in the celebration. Jesus defended his table fellowship as festive celebrations of the return of the outcasts (who were also children of Abraham). The defense, however, was also an invitation to his opponents, as suggested by the parabolic form.
Unlike a straightforward defense or indictment, the parables of Jesus frequently functioned to lead people to see things differently by inviting them to make a judgment about an everyday situation and then to transfer that judgment to the situation at hand. The parables sought to bridge the gap between speaker and hearer, frequently accomplishing this by being cast in the form of a question, explicitly or implicitly: what will a shepherd do when he finds a lost sheep? Will he not celebrate? By appealing to the normal reactions of ordinary human beings when they recover something of value (whether a sheep, a coin, or a child), Jesus implicitly asks his hearers, “Do you not see that it makes sense to celebrate?” The invitation became explicit in the second half of the parable. Just as the lost son in the first half of the parable has a historical equivalent (the outcasts who had become as non-Jews), so the elder son in the second half has his equivalent: he represents the protesters. Like them, he has been dutiful, consistently obeying his father’s commands; like them, he was outraged by the acceptance of the wastrel.
The words spoken to the elder son were implicitly directed to Jesus’ opponents. They repeat, gently and imploringly, the justification for the festive celebration: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.” As the climax to a spoken parable in a setting of actual controversy over table fellowship, the final words hang in the air trailing an unexpressed question. Will the elder son join the festivity? Or will he let his own standard of proper behavior prevent him from joining the celebration? Will the protesters’ commitment to the quest for holiness make them adamant that outcasts such as these cannot be part of the people of God? For them to have accepted the invitation would have required a seismic change in their understanding of what the people of God were intended to be, a radical reorientation of both their perception and their animating vision, one that would fundamentally transform their social world.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.