Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Sermon Notes on Prodigal Son

These are some further notes on the parable of the prodigal son, pasted straight from my phone’s Notes app, from which I delivered the sermon earlier this year. There is doubtless some overlap with this earlier post from six years ago. See also my response to Kenneth Bailey

  • Context in Luke 15: Pharisees appalled that Jesus is eating with sinners: “This man received sinners and eats with them.” For that’s the issue: what is the attitude of the Pharisees toward those who are joining Jesus’ movement?
  • Pharisees were actually not far from the kingdom of God. Doctrinally, they were orthodox. The scribe in Mark 12 was a Pharisee; Jesus tells him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” In Matthew 23:2, Jesus says that the Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat and tells his disciples to obey their interpretations of the Torah. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead; when Paul is on trial in Acts 23, he says, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” (Acts 23:6)
  • — No, the problem with Pharisees was not that they had the wrong beliefs, so much as that they had the wrong attitude. Their agenda was to bring about the kingdom of God by heightened and ostentatious purity and Torah-observance. That is why they regard those who did not comply with this agenda as “sinners”. And this term needs to be understood very precisely. In the Pharisees’ usage, it did not denote merely anyone who ever sinned; the Pharisees would have included themselves in that class of people. 
  • No, “sinners” has eschatological reference: “sinners” are people whose actions are preventing God from restoring the kingdom to Israel. Prostitutes who sat loose to laws of sexual morality; tax collectors who colluded with the occupying Roman imperial authorities to suppress Israel in the most offensive way; and anyone who by failure to wash hands up to the elbow, violating the Sabbath, or fraternizing with Gentiles and other unclean groups showed that he was not helping out with the Pharisees’ agenda, but hindering it. Jesus is in this category. 
  •  The Pharisees have a heart problem. They have mostly correct beliefs, but their affections are not loving what they ought to love. And heart problems are best addressed by stories. Consider David and Nathan. No one knew better than David what he had done. Nathan’s parable isn’t designed to impart that information, but to change David’s affections, his attitude toward what he had done. Jesus tells other stories designed to illustrate this heart problem: the parable of the Good Samaritan is one such. It shows someone whom the Pharisees would have despised actually loving his neighbor, while the priest and Levite, concerned with Pharisee-style purity, fail to love and pass by on the other side. 
  • It’s to address this Pharisaic heart problem that Jesus also tells the other parables of Luke 15. Two other parables were skipped over in our gospel reading: lost sheep and lost coin. They are about finding and recovering – to seek and to save – the lost. In these two parables there is a key word used that also occurs in the parable of the Prodigal Son: namely, συγχαίρω, the verb that means to rejoice together.
  • Rejoicing is central to what Jesus was all about. The Pharisees and disciples of John fasted a lot, but Jesus’ disciples did not fast (Mt 9:14): “And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Thus, Jesus’ movement resembled a perpetual party, feasting and dining with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus celebrated with His followers: He celebrated what His coming meant for Israel.
  • Understanding what the issue was between Jesus and the Pharisees, we are in a position to see how he addressed their heart problem by the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
  • Parable begins with “a certain man had two sons”. Straight away, we know that the father is Israel’s God; and we expect, rightly, that the two sons will have divergent fates, like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Ephraim and Manasseh, and nearly all the other pairs of sons. And these two sons represent two groups of people within Israel:
  • Both start out in the household of the Father. Thus, neither represebts Gentiles. 
  • The experience of the younger son involves losing the presence of the Father; he goes “to a far country” and suffers in a severe famine. These are the experiences of Israel: of Jacob’s family going down to Egypt; of Elimelech and Naomi fleeing famine in Bethlehem to sojourn in Moab. These are not stereotypical Gentile experiences, but experiences of Israel. 
  • The younger son’s degradation reaches its deepest pitch in his job herding swine – a job especially calculated to be repugnant to Jews. Thus Jesus focalizes the experience of exile for His Jewish audience: they share in the younger son’s humiliation, are privy to his inner thoughts and desires (read verses 16-18). Because of these ways of telling the story, the audience sees the situation through his eyes; and thus they identify with him. But that means he cannot be a symbol of Gentiles. Rather, his narrative and his emotional situation is that of sinful Israel, Israel suffering continued exile.

The story presupposes certain Jewish social norms and practices:

  • Dividing inheritance before the death of the father. Kenneth Bailey says this is offensive and implies a wish that the father were dead. But while that might be true of the modern Middle East, it is not accurate for Israel in the Second Temple period. It says in 15:12 that the Father “divided his livelihood to them.” Plural: so both sons received their inheritance. Nor does anything in the story suggest that the father saw the younger son’s request as a horrible wish that the father were dead; if that had been the implication of it, surely the older son would have mentioned it in his complaint against the father’s welcoming of the younger. But he does not, restricting his grounds of complaint to the younger’s “squandering your livelihood with harlots”.
  • The problem with the request is rather that it breaks up a family’s shared livelihood and life together, an arrangement called CONSORTIUM. Psalm 133 celebrates this: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity…” We see consortium is the arrangement in Genesis 29:14 when Jacob is part of Laban’s family (“surely you are my bone and my flesh”), and shares in the family livestock and wealth; this lasts for one month later, Laban demotes him to a hired hand: “Are you my relative? And should you serve me for nothing?” Implication: you are not my relative and you should receive wages. This ultimately ends with Jacob taking his own flocks and leaving from Laban’s land. Again, in Genesis 13, Abraham and Lot’s possessions were so great that “they could not dwell together”; they therefore go their separate ways.
  • To return after breaking consortium is this an affront to the older brother, to whom the remainder of the estate belongs. He is the one offended. 
  • Confession: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” That is, against God and against you. It is as full and contrite a confession as can well be imagined. 
  • The father runs to embrace the younger son. He commands that a robe be brought, a sign of a father’s favor, as Jacob gave to Joseph; that a ring be put on his finger, as a symbol of the authority that he shares as the son of the father — no slave, but a son. And he commands that the prize animal, the fatted calf, be butchered for him: because his lost son has been found, there will be feasting, rejoicing together, sugchairo, even though with a different verb. “It was necessary for us to rejoice”. 
  • Notice how the parable cleverly shifts its point of view. We see the return of the younger son from the perspective of the father: ““And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke‬ ‭15:20‬) Thus our response to the younger son’s return is conditioned by the father’s response. We are being trained in what we ought to feel; our heart is coached by the parable to have the right sort of response. Remember that this parable is told along with the lost coin and the lost sheep, to a room full of Pharisees who were failing to respond rightly. 
  • This is the standard type scene of reconciliation: In Genesis 33, when Esau and Jacob meet again after a long estrangement and hostility, ““But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Or again, when Joseph finally sees Jacob again, who thought he was dead: “So Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet his father Israel; and he presented himself to him, and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while.” (Genesis‬ ‭46:29‬)
  • But the next shift of perspective, the next focalization, is that of the older son: ““Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.” ‭‭(Luke‬ ‭15:25-26‬) We hear from his perspective, see with his eyes, and are privy to his emotions — because the parable is designed for Pharisees who would share these emotions, and Jesus intends to challenge these emotions. He intends to do a Nathan to the Pharisees’ David. 
  • And it is telling that the return of the younger son, the end of his exile in a far country, the restoration to the presence and favor of his father, is described using the language of resurrection: “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (15:24)
  • Remember that Jesus is telling this parable to Pharisees. The older son “was angry and would not go in”; he cut himself off from the banquet, from the rejoicing together, from the Father’s love. The father, for his part, loves the older brother too. He longs for him no less than for the younger; he goes out and pleads with him, and he assures him, in words that I have rarely heard any preacher explain, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
  • Let us give the older son his due. Let’s not shortchange him the way people shortchanged Martha of Bethany. The older son did better than the younger by not leaving his father’s house; he loved him and stayed with him. He obeyed him: “I never transgressed your commandment at any time” – and so the younger son’s faithlessness appalls him. But by his failure to understand and welcome the younger son’s repentance, by his anger, he cuts himself off from the father. Jesus was not against obeying the Torah; He affirmed that His Jewish disciples had to obey it. When the rich young ruler responded to Jesus that “all these commandments I have kept from my youth”, Jesus’ response was not to rebuke him and tell him that “all your righteousness is filthy rags.” No, obedience to God is pleasing to God. Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” But it is not ultimately what marks out who will be with the father. That is determined by whether the older son has a heart like the father, or if his affections are at odds with the affections of the father. True faith, true loyalty, has love as its unfailing mark. And the relationship of love with the father is not earned by obedience; nor can past disobedience prevent its restoration. 
  • A parallel parable, Luke 7:36-50, gives us a similar rebuke of a Pharisee’s failure to love and failure to rejoice at the salvation of Israel being extended to sinners.
  • That, ultimately, is what the parable is for: Jesus would perform heart surgery on his Pharisee listeners: to change their affections, their loves. He wants to bend their pride and kindle love for the lost. And now, 2000 years later, the story works upon us as well. 
  • We Anglicans, in our Book of Common Prayer, pray for the impenitent: “O Merciful God, who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live, and hast revealed thyself as pardoning iniquity through thine only Son; We beseech thee to have mercy upon the impenitent and unbelieving, especially upon such as may be here present. Awaken in them by thy Holy Spirit, a deep sense of their sinfulness and peril. Take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word. Make them to know and feel that there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby they must be saved, but only the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so fetch them home (I love this phrase!)and number them among thy children, that they may be thine for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.”
  • We are called to have hearts that rejoice at repentance. We dare not see the father’s generosity as an affront to our own poor faithfulness. We pray “have mercy on us, miserable sinners.” We are called to rejoice together in the kingdom of God, because we have been forgiven much, so that we may love much. And that rejoicing together is best done at a feast, to which we now turn.


  1. This is really excellent. I read so few sermons on the Gospels that really integrate Jesus’ Jewish context fully into the interpretation. You make Jesus seem a bit like a Lubavitcher, but thanks for this, particularly the correct definition of “sin” in this context.

  2. […] this method. I have found it fruitful for explaining how stories work on us (for instance, in the parable of the prodigal son). It is a method that novelists use all the time, and it is all the more effective because it […]

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