Baker Academic

Monday, July 27, 2015

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

“One example is the familiar parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), which in some ways might be better called the parable of the elder brother. For the point of the parable as a whole - a point frequently overlooked by Christian interpreters, in their eagerness to stress the uniqueness and particularity of the church as the prodigal younger son who has been restored to the father's favor - is in the closing words of the father to the elder brother, who stands for the people of Israel: '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.' The historic covenant between God and Israel was permanent, and it was into this covenant that other peoples too, were now being introduced. This parable of Jesus affirmed both the tradition of God's continuing relation with Israel and the innovation of God's new relation with the church - a twofold covenant.”

                                   ~Jaroslav Pelikan


  1. Theology tries here to waffle through an embarrassing question: if so many things were promised to loyal Jews only for following strict OT laws, how suddenly are those OK who follow a less strict NT regimen?

  2. The last words of this parable have always troubled me, because on a literal basis, the father is not telling the truth. "You are always with me?" This is the first time we've seen the father and the older son together. The older son wasn't even invited to the party. "Everything I have is yours?" This can't be, or else the father has appropriated the fatted calf and the remainder of the considerable resources it would have taken to throw this party. Even if the older son has already noticed that his father's best robe and sandals (which, by the logic of the father's statement at the end of this parable, are really the older son's property) has been given to the younger son, the father has failed to mention that "what's mine is yours" no longer includes the ring and the authority the ring confers.

    Not only is the father not telling the literal truth, the father is also not telling the whole truth. It's obvious from the parable that until the older son discovered the ongoing party, he had no knowledge of his younger brother's return. At best, the father failed to inform the older brother of the return of the younger sibling; but as the father has apparently invited just about everyone else to this feast, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the father concealed the younger brother's return from the older brother. Once the older brother stumbles across the party, the father confirms what the older brother has learned for himself, that the prodigal is back. But the father continues to conceal what is obvious to Peliken but would in no way have been apparent to the older brother, namely that the younger son has been fully restored to the father's favor. This means in all likelihood that even more of what the father has will soon belong to the younger brother.

    Ultimately, I think it's key to understanding this parable that we understand the father to be speaking the truth to his older son. Somehow, the father is "always with" the older son, even when the father appears to be hidden from the older son. Somehow, everything that is "mine" to the father does belong to the older son, even when so much of the father's worldly goods end up in the hands of the younger son. Part of the genius of this parable is that Jesus leaves it up to us to figure out how the father is telling the truth when he appears to be lying. So, I very much like Pelikan's suggestion that what the older son still has (fully and always) is covenant status.

    But Pelikan (at least in this quote) fails to complete the thought. The older brother is about to pay a terrible cost for the father's restoration of the younger son to the family of God. Part of this cost is that the younger brother will fail to recognize the elder as part of the family. And under the circumstances of the story, we can hardly blame the younger brother for failing to recognize the meaning of the words spoken in private by the father to the older son, words obscured to all but father and older son by the public celebration of the return (dare I say, the triumph?) of the younger son.