Repentance and Conflict in the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)

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I. INTRODUCTION

The theme of the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin continue in the parable of the Lost Son, though now we have a longer, more personal story with three main characters. In this parable, the younger of two sons becomes unsettled with life on the family estate and requests his share of the inheritance, only to squander it recklessly in a foreign land. Upon his return home he is welcomed and received by his father, who then orders a communal feast. This arouses the indignation of the elder brother, who resents such treatment of one so undeserving. The parable ends with the matter of the elder son's attitude unresolved.

Although commentators have been divided as to whether the father, the younger son or the elder son is the pivotal player in the story, all three characters play a crucial role and contribute to the overall interpretation of the parable.l There also continues to be disagreement over the interpretation of the parable, particularly as to whether the first section deals with the theme of repentance or not, and whether in the second part the elder son acts as a referent for the Jewish religious leaders. The aim of this paper is to analyze the story bearing these two issues in mind.

As stated above, the parable falls logically into two parts. Verses 11-24 deal with the father and the younger son, while verses 25-32 focus on the father and the elder son. Although most regard the parable as authentic, J. T. Sanders has argued that part two is a Lukan adaptation aimed against the Pharisees and constructed to form a link with chapter 16.2 On the other hand, Drury and Schottroff, while defending the unity of the parable, regard it as a Lukan creation in its entirety.3 More recently, Heininger has proposed that the original parable consist only of verses 11-17, 20, 22-23, 24c.4

While Jeremias, O'Rourke and Carlston have conclusively ruled out on linguistic grounds the possibility that Luke created any portion of the parable, its authenticity is further supported by the following.5 First, the elder son is mentioned at the outset (vv. 11-12); this is redundant if he plays no further part in the story. Second, the parable builds up an inner tension, with the law of end-stress suggesting a final climax.6Third, if Luke created verses 25-32 as an attack on the Pharisees, we would have expected a far harsher portrayal of the father's relationship to the elder son, and it is extremely unlikely that the parable would have been left open-ended.7 Fourth, in an illuminating study, Aus has argued that our parable draws on a Semitic/Jewish folk tale and thus clearly does not owe its origins to Hellenist Luke.8 Fifth, Tolbert has demonstrated the unity of both halves of the parable on the basis of structural parallels.9 Sixth, Pohlmann has shown how the protest of the hearer is reflected in the protest of the elder son. This protest is crucial to the story, for by it the hearer is confronted with a new view of oikog, that of the kingdom of God.lo Seventh, it must be stressed that Lukan themes are not necessarily Lukan creations.ll Finally, the orientation of the parable parallels the general teaching of Jesus elsewhere. 12

On the whole, therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the parable as a whole is an authentic creation of Jesus.

Numerous suggestions have been proposed for a suitable background for the parable of the Lost Son. But while there are a number of parallels in ancient Near Eastern literature and the papyri, they lack the moving force of this story. 13

Aus has investigated the correlation between Luke 15:11-32 and the rabbinic parable of the rise to fame of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. The clear differences between the stories (Eliezer's father accepts him on the basis of him becoming a great rabbinic scholar) indicate that neither one is dependent upon the other. …