Luke 15: 1-3; 11b-32 The Eternal Return of the Son


Luke 15 is special Lucan material. Perhaps he found it in a source already existing. I wonder if Matthew knew of this source and did not choose to use it. I would like to think that this is not a source, that Matthew did not have access to it because Luke himself constructed this narrative for his own purpose. I believe that Luke intended chapter 15 to be read continuously as a whole. He would not have anticipated a time when the chapter would be read by sections for preaching purposes because he was writing history not scripture.  He wanted people to read his writings as contemporary history. Neither could the Evangelist have anticipated that his history would be read 2,000 years later. If we read this as a continuous narrative we shall not fail to see that a shepherd risks the lives of 99 sheep to save one, while later a farmer kills his fatted calf. We shall not fail to see that there are many sheep, many coins, but only two sons. We shall not fail go see that there is a difference between the treatment of property (sheep), wealth (coin) and people (sons). We shall not fail to see that Luke had made his point by verse 24. One sheep, one coin, one son: end of narrative. But he adds 25-32 the denouement. That needs to be explored further for what it brings to the narrative and the light it sheds upon Luke’s purpose. Keep in mind my view that Luke-Acts is a presentation of Exile and Restoration, the context in which the Evangelist presents the Gospel.

The Lectionary lets us deal with only a part of Luke’s story, 15: 1-3; 11b-32.

In Luke 15:2, “the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘this man receives sinners and eats with them.’” This accusation was the occasion for the three parables. However, so far Jesus has not answered his accusers.  The first two parables do not address the charge of the scribes and the Pharisees:  (a) Jesus receives sinners; (b) Jesus eats with them. The first two parables demonstrated that the Divine sought after what was lost. Finding is reclaiming, and reclaiming lies at the heart of absolution. The reclaimed is transported into the grace of God. I will explore these ideas in what follows.

The younger son requests his portion of inheritance. The request is unusual. Inheritance is given out only after the death of the parent. The father divides his property and gives his son the inheritance that would have gone to him. This is not just a formal legal procedure. For this to happen the son must act as if the father is dead, and the father must acknowledge that the son no longer has a place in that home. He is also considered dead. “He was dead and is alive again” the father later says. There is an existential rupturing of relationships here. When the son leaves he not only leaves something behind, he is going literally “away from his own people.” From the time of Cain we have known that to leave home is to be “away from the ground,” and be hidden “from thy face,” and henceforth “shall be a fugitive and wanderer upon the earth.” We have known to be on the “ground” and on the “earth” are not the same; that ground is origin and definition of who we are. Genesis 4:14.

What he leaves home he abandons the ground, the foundation that defines his family relationships. To separate himself from his foundation that guaranteed him freedom in the home means that the son experiences a freedom without restraint to explore a world of his own choosing. That means also that the son is living on the basis of his own will. He “wills” the world ahead of him, and enters it willingly. To leave the foundation behind is to become estranged, a stranger to what lies behind. When the son arrives in the “far country” away from his own people, he finds himself in Gentile territory. He is an alien there, and a stranger at home. He is now homeless. (See some interesting ideas based on the same verbal stem: II Cor. 5: 6f.; I Peter 1:1; 2:11). The existential alienation deepens, but is not yet complete. The son is no longer the man who left home. He is someone he does not know. He becomes a hired servant, working for a foreign pig farmer. To do that, he has to surrender his Jewish self-definition. Because of the severe famine he begins to eat with the pigs. From son to hired servant to one of the herd, that is the process of his transformation, his alienation now is complete. Not to be among his people means not to be among the living. The existential alienation, the estrangement is now complete. The son who left home no longer exists. He is now dead.

The son “comes to himself” while he is among the pigs. The situation in which he lives reveals something to him. He is a hired servant who is starving, while the hired servants of his father have more than enough. He is thinking of himself as a hired servant. He is separating himself from the herd. He is starting to humanize himself again. He is able to think the “I.” He can say, “I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” This is an important moment of self-recognition. But he is also able to say “my father” and “Father I have sinned.” He is able to recognize the other. By coming to himself he discovers the world of the others.

While he is perishing with hunger, that is, while he is in the realm of the dead, he says “I will arise” and go. The verb is anastas. The imagery of anastasis, resurrection comes to mind. The son is brought back from the dead. The imagery is even stronger when he says, “I will arise and go to my father.” The early Hellenistic Church that read this would have understood the motive of the Evangelist in using these words. He comes before the father with a confession, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” We recognize that “against heaven” is the Hebrew way of avoiding use of the name of God. I have sinned before God and humankind. That is, my sin pervades heaven and earth. My sin is complete. I am fully a sinner. Hence, “I am not worthy.” Only the sinner can say this. Only the sinner knows the sense of worth, and worth is something that the sinner totally lacks. What is the sin that the son confesses? The Evangelist does not tell us this. The insight he gives us is that sin is always “sin against.” Sin speaks to something that opposes. Sin speaks to standing alone and standing against. In other words, sin speaks to living out of my own will, living by my own will.

The son who returns to himself and to his home recognizes that other wills prevail in a shared world. But he is not allowed to say, “Treat me as one of your hired servants.”  If he is to be absolved, to receive absolution, his own will cannot be allowed to prevail. His father interrupts him, turning to the servants and addressing them instead. The son must surrender his will to that of his father. Only in this way can he be absolved. Only the Absolute can absolve. This is the whole meaning of forgiveness. Forgiveness restores the son. He is given clothing, a ring, shoes, and a feast in his honor. Salvation is often spoken of as a banquet. The father makes this clear.  He says “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Important to ponder here is the fact the father did not go in search of his son, as did the shepherd in search of the lost sheep, and the business woman in search of her coin. Let it be noted that the son did not die; instead, the father sacrificed a fatted calf. There may be echoes here of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22: 12-13. He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

Notice that the Evangelist does not end this parable as the two former with a statement about the joy of angels in heaven over the sinner that repents. I believe that this is on purpose, and is part of the motive of the Evangelist in continuing the narrative. Luke intends something totally different for this parable.

Let us take a look at the father in the narrative. He was described simply. “There was a man who had two sons.” (See also Mt. 22:28 for another story about a father and two sons). He willingly divides his property between his sons. Nothing more is heard of him until in the son’s soliloquy, we learn that the father’s hired servants did not suffer want. He provided well for his servants. Later, upon the son’s return, the father saw him in the distance, “and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Was the father expecting his son to return, and so was looking out for him? That would be anticipation, perhaps hope. This would tell us that there is a place of emptiness in the life of the father that can be filled only by the son’s return. But there is no evidence in the text to warrant such a supposition.

He had compassion for his son. Compassion describes an inner upheaval of overwhelming passion that overtakes someone, reaching out in a forward motion of embrace of another. The father was overwhelmed at the sight of his returning son. Compassion here is an unconditional welcome, expressed by the verbs, ran, embraced and kissed. This is the father’s moment. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry.” The father is in command. He restores his son to his former status. “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” When the son confesses his sin the father does not respond with a word of forgiveness. His actions indicate that his forgiveness has already taken place and is no longer an issue. I think it is important the father offers up the life of a calf for the life of his son, a life for a life. He will not deprive the Divine of its offering. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Ps.51:12. A father’s broken spirit and a son’s broken and contrite will be acceptable to the Lord.

I will repeat what I have said earlier. In Luke 15:2, “the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” This accusation was the occasion for the three parables. However, so far Jesus has not answered his accusers.  The first two parables do not address the charge of the scribes and the Pharisees:  (a) Jesus receives sinners; (b) Jesus eats with them. The first two parables demonstrated that the Divine sought after what was lost. Finding is reclaiming, and reclaiming lies at the heart of absolution. The reclaimed is transported into the grace of God.

The Evangelist wants to lay bare a more crucial teaching. That’s why the third parable is very different. The father welcomes the sinning son and eats with him. This is the substance of moral behavior in the Bible. It is the essential meaning of hospitality. Not to welcome strangers and provide them food is the same as condemning them to death. The scribes and the Pharisees who should know about and practice hospitality are precisely the ones who are failing in their religious and moral obligation.  Jesus is abiding by the law of hospitality. Luke intends to push this point further.

The Evangelist continues his narrative with his denouement. Only when the Evangelist introduces the elder son do we begin to see where the story is going. The elder son is in the field when he hears the music and rejoicing. He is also away from home. He is away from his ground even though he is in the field. He does not know that he is lost. When he discovers what is taking place, anger overtakes him as earlier compassion had overtaken the father. The father now goes out to bring in the elder son. The elder son rejects the hospitality that the father offers him. He refuses to go in. Remember, father went out to welcome his younger son.  The younger son came in willingly. The father pleads with the elder son to come home. He fails. Like the shepherd in the first parable and the business woman in the second, the father goes in search of the elder son. The Evangelist is making the point that the father does not find his son!

The elder son is not respectful; he does not say “father” as the younger son did. Instead, the elder son defends his behavior: I have served you many years. I have never disobeyed your command. You never gave me a kid to rejoice with my friends. The point he is making is valid. What is valid has values, and values speak to moral consciousness. He has done everything right. He has done all that was expected of him. He was responsible and obedient. Yet he was never rewarded. He compares himself with the younger son. (The Pharisee and the tax collector come to mind, Luke 18: 9-14). He is making a moral judgment. He, too, is acting on the basis of his own will. He believes he deserves a reward because of his moral stature; that his worth has been established by his moral behavior. The failure of the elder son is that he claims moral standing before the Divine. The elder son does not understand the danger he faces. Morality, when it moralizes exists always on the precipice of a yawning abyss whose function is to devour moral claims and moral claimants. Morality is not a solution waiting a problem. The essential nature of morality is dormancy; it abides as dormant until it is awakened by a specific threat to existence. Morality has the proper function of moving existence forward. Since existence (ex-sistere) is transcendental presence, morality shelters existence moment to moment by being ahead of it. For this reason, I hold that the proper foundation of morality is hope, in contrast for example to Kant for whom it is respect.

The father speaks, purposefully addressing the elder brother in this way. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The elder son does not understand the plenitude of grace revealed in his father’s words. “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The elder son does not know that rejoicing is a mark of forgiveness and hospitality.

This is where the Jesus answers his accusers. The Evangelist is pointing out that the elder son stands with the scribes and Pharisees: faithful, loyal, obedient to what is demanded of them by the law. The younger son stands with sinners, depending on grace.

The Evangelist is revealing something crucial here. These two sons represent two different perspectives on the Divine-human encounter. This is a deep teaching on Law and Grace!

The younger son sees the world as an open space that beckons him to experience it. What lies “out there” away from home is not known, not yet defined, and awaits his arrival so that it can be known. He sees the open world as something he must first know before he can know himself. He wants to discover who he is and what his place is in this world. He can do this only by leaving home.

Upon his departure, he discovers that to embrace the world around him is to accept the uncertainties, risks and dangers that come with this encounter. The world awaiting him offers him endless possibilities that will require decision. He will discover that he can come to himself only after he has alienated himself. Alienation as the objectification of self and world exposes him to himself and reveals that there is indeed a self to which he can return. He will discover that he can return home only after he has abandoned his ground. In his return he will discover the meaning of hospitality in the act of confession and absolution. Because he is a sinner he knows sin, and because he is himself sin he can accept the grace of forgiveness of sins. Only the sinner who has been forgiven knows the feeling and the meaning of grace.

Just as earlier the Fig tree that is unproductive simply uses up ground, so also this son uses up his inheritance. What he has is what he is, and when that is “devoured” his world is emptied out, just as he is, and this prepares the exile for his return. Only as an exile can the son heed the call of grace to return to his ground. “Dust you are and to dust you will return.”

The elder son has a different view of the world. He experiences his world as closed and complete. It has been given to him as it is. He does not have to define it or let it define him. His world is circumscribed by the farm, the fields, and the place where he is located. His world does not reach beyond here and now. It has taught him everything he needs to know. It has shown him everything he needs to do. What he knows and does is given to him.

The prosperity of the farm testifies to his stature. For him this is a sign of God’s favor and blessing. The meaning of sin and the need for forgiveness enter his thinking only regarding “the others.”  He does not understand what it is to be forgiven as a sinner. He does not see himself as a sinner. He thinks he is worthy because he is loyal and obedient, for like the scribes and Pharisees, he thinks sinners are “others” whom Jesus received and with whom he ate. This is why he sees the younger son as unclean, “devouring his father’s life” with harlots. He does not know that he, too, because he has already received the divided inheritance, is already “devouring his father’s life.” He is completely unaware that he, too, is lost; that he, too, is not “at home.” Without leaving home, the elder son is the complete exile. Having never left, he can never return. This is the outer darkness from which one does not return. He can never experience the joy of return. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remember Zion….How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Psalm 137. Thus he cannot recognize the joy that sends the father in search of him to bring him into the realm of rejoicing. Hence, the elder son remains in exile.

The point that the Evangelist presents in this third parable is the Eternal Return of the Son. It is the foundational exile narrative. It is hope reaching out, not judgment reaching down. The father and his two sons do not represent Jesus or God. They are figures that stand in the foreground of a narrative of exilic history that is breaking in through the eschatology of return. History never survives as history. The historic cannot redeem the historical for the simple reason that the historic cannot return to itself without vanishing. On the other hand eschatology is at home in existence, lives beyond the reach of history and thereby evades its own demise through the eternal renewal of the now. Eschatology, eschatos, “what lies ahead”; logos, “what announces.” Eschatology is not simply a doctrine or a concept. It is proclamation. What it says is “what lies ahead announces the coming forth of what has gone before.” Eschatology announces the homecoming of the human, the return to its beginning. I think I read somewhere, “The end is the beginning returning to itself.”  But the human arrives in a space that has been cleared for its arrival by the Divine. Thus, the eschatology of return is also a celebration of the arrival of the Divine in a new theophany that, upon touching the earth, renders it holy and sets in motion the new creation.

Jesus as the narrator of this exilic history does not point to himself. He remains hidden on the outermost boundary of light that falls lightly upon our eyes granting momentary sight of an unyielding grace in the embrace of the Eternal Return of the Son.

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