I recently got to discuss this passage with the students in the “introduction to theology” class that I’m teaching. Terrence Tilley, the author, explains how parables are stories that “upset worlds.” According to Tilley, the parable of the prodigal son is doing just this, and perhaps in more ways than we might expect.
Jesus calls God abba. We translate this Aramaic word as “father,” although it suggests the intimacy of “papa” or “dad.” Although Jesus not unique in addressing God this way, it is surely a distinctive and central piece of Jesus’ prayer.
The question becomes what sort of “father” is God?
[This] parable is often taken by critics as being a response of Jesus to those who criticize him for consorting with the wicked. Yet that doesn’t seem to get to the point of the story. Others treat it as exemplifying the forgiveness of sins or as a typical “reversing-our-expectations” parable. Yet this is the only parable in the New Testament in which the chief protagonist is the father. Although we have called it by another title, consider this story of a father who had two sons. Read the parable here.
This longest and richest of Jesus’ parables is surely open to many interpretations. Not only do we hear many ideas in it, but the first hearers likely did, too. I think that it is indubitable that this parable makes allusions not only to the people whom Jesus consorted with, but also to the free forgiveness of sins. It also reverses one’s expectations in that the father freely forgives the son who was lost and bestows on him gifts to celebrate with joy his return. But let’s look at what the father does.
First, he split up the property with his younger son. Since Jewish law provided for inheritanec rights only to the older son, this was not an unexpected procedure. Apparently many families did this to provide the younger son with some capital. Nothing exceptional here.
Second, he saw his prodigal son returning and was moved to tears. This father has a heart. But, then, that is not unusual. Most fathers would rejoice at the return of a son who had wandered. Most fathers would see him coming down the road, be overjoyed with the return, and sit and wait for the son to apologize and then forgive the one who has asked forgiveness.
It is the third action that is unexpected here and was likely unexpected then. Instead of sitting and waiting, the father ran to him, embraced him and received him before he said anything. Then, when the son tries to recite his prepared apologetic request, the father interrupts him and gets ready to throw a party! . . .
The final thing the father does is also crucial. The elder brother is outside, complaining and moaning as the story notes (imagine a hard-working brother getting home from the graveyard shift about five in the morning doing the same thing). Again the father gets up and goes out to him. He does not leave him in the cold. He does not demand that the elder brother enter. He not only doesn’t issue commands from his chair, but also goes out and pleads with him, too, explains the situation, and tries to draw him in. The father also performs an unexpected gracious action for the elder brother as well. Again an unexpected action.
It would be allegorization — reading the parable as if it were an allegory — to say that the father in this story stands for the Father of All. Yet this is the only parable of Jesus which presents a father interacting with his children. Jesus’ disciples may have heard this parable as revealing the actions of Jesus’ Father. If this sort of hearing reveals the distinctiveness of the parable and fits the parable as well as other interpretations, then it is one legitimate way to hear it. And then, may a Christian at least hope that this is the way a heavenly Father will act, too?