This is short, and I was not allowed to consult commentaries. One thousand words for the win.
The story of the prodigal son is a staple in my evangelical story. People referenced it constantly when I returned to the faith, and I read it that way for a long time: until now. Reading this text within its canonical context and co-text has pushed me to reflect on the nature of the overall narrative in relation to the first-century readers.
Within the larger context of ch14-15, our text sits comfortably after 15:1-7 and 15:8-10, and both sections refer to lost items (coin, sheep). Both pieces are significant as they are parables, but the subject of the younger son in the third unit (v.11-32) indicates that we’ve progressed beyond items into personhood. 14:1 tells us that Jesus “was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath.” It seems that the entirety of 15:11-32 can be aspectivally located within 14:1. All of these stories are being told over a meal, where social privilege is evident (14:7) and situated within that specific residence. Jesus’ address to his host (14:12) indicates that there were no poor at this event (14:13-14), thus indicating a social hierarchy. Crowds, having followed Jesus (14:25), are outside. The meal within the dwelling of the Pharisee illustrates that some were open to Jesus.
15:1-2 indicate that the tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes were all near Jesus, placing implicit mixed social, political and religious pressure. Themes of eschatological reversal play quite heavily here as Jesus emphasizes the ones who would be discarded (15:3-7), and the one who seeks them out. Each parable has an audience of the haves and the have-nots, with the focus on reversal and repentance. Now, Jesus can launch into the parable of the prodigal son, which concerns each listener at this meal.
The story begins (v.11) with a father and his two sons. The younger demands his share of the father’s property. Is it implied that the older son is given his dowry as well (“… he divided his property between them”, v.12)? After leaving for a distant land, the younger son lost everything; the adverb ἀσώτως is used here and only here in the New Testament to describe his life (which is the present active participle ζῶν). BDAG 148 defines ἀσώτως as “wastefully, prodigally.”
The younger son goes to a foreign land (v.14). Perhaps this is rhetorical irony by Jesus, as the one with excess is caught in a land that is now barren; the younger son (Joseph from Genesis 37-50) is not in Kansas anymore. In v.15-16, the younger son’s duty is to feed the owner’s pigs, which are seen as “unclean” animals in Leviticus 11:7-8. There is nothing there for the younger son to “fill himself”; the verb “γεμίζω” indicates a perverse reversal of being “filled.”
V.17-19 tells of the plot point concerning the younger son’s return to his father. He remembers his former status as a well-fed younger son. The people outside the Pharisees’ house identify with this son at this point, as they are perhaps hungry outsiders. The younger son remembers his father’s wealth and how even hired workers had enough bread to eat (v.17). Staple foods like bread are gold in light of starvation. Simply, the younger son wants nothing more than to be a hired hand, a keeping of his current status.
In v.20, the father sees him from far off, indicating that he was looking for him, and knew where he would come from. The father was filled with compassion, and he runs out to him and weeps. A possible intertext for this passage may be Gen. 45:14, where Joseph weeps with his brothers after a long time apart because of horrific actions on the part of his brothers. Here, the roles are reversed: the older embraces the younger this time.
Despite this display, the son blurts out his failures. How often do we still feel the need to remind those who forgive us that we still sinned? The father ignores this and has the slaves (δούλους, not μισθίων); this change may emphasize the status of the slaves in the younger son’s stead. The father does not have his son’s body washed, and instead places rings and robes on him (v.22); a father’s happiness covers a multitude of customs. V.23-24 utilizes the fatted calf, showing us that a grand feast is to commence (a reference to Lev. 9:3 as a “burnt offering?”). What makes this interesting is that the imagery of fresh meat is not lost upon those who are outside and hungry during the telling of this parable. When the older son hears this celebration one can imagine his annoyance at not being invited. Indicating the possible shift of social status regarding “δούλους” and “μισθίων” in v.22, here in v.26 the older son asks the “παίδων” (child, servant) about the celebration.
We are not told the father’s words when he emerges from the celebration, but the response from the older son reveals that he views himself as a “δουλεύω” (one who slaves) to his father, thus viewing himself lower than the “παίδων.” The father is shocked, as he believes “all” (πάντα) that he has belongs to his older son. This reveals the selfishness of the older son: his status was never under dispute, and was never at odds with the father’s character and love for his younger son. Thus, when someone lost repents (v.32), we celebrate and rejoice.
The fact that the older brother—now likely representing a Pharisee who is already a part of the kingdom—reacts negatively when the dirty and repentant return to the family of God reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom. This is all over a meal, an intimate setting. Pharisees are already included in God’s kingdom, but to some of their chagrin, so are the outsiders who repent and return.