This scene is difficult because it is too easy.
Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumble. The fact that the tax collectors were collaborating with a brutal enemy (Rome) only leads interpreters to claim this as an instance of radical grace. And at the end, the scene becomes a simple contest between law and gospel, a contest gospel always wins.
And perhaps the customary readings of this scene are exactly what is needed.
One could do worse.
But the scene is stranger than its customary interpretation, and I am convinced that strangeness provokes productve reading.
- The storyteller does not begin by saying that the son repented, but only that he “came to himself .” That could imply that he experienced a deep, life-changing realization that remade him completely. Maybe. But it could also merely imply that he did the math and realized that, on his current trajectory, he would crash and burn in a short time.
- The translators of this scene have papered over a clue to the son’s moral state. They tell us that the son says that his father’s hired servants have “bread enough and to spare,” this in the face of his own starvation. That is a workable translation of the Greek, but a much more natural reading would catch a very different note. The son says that the hired servants not only have enough bread, they have too much. That difference matters. He contrasts himself with mere hired servants, and judges that it is not right that they should have more than he, as a beloved son, has.
- If he had made a contrast with his brother, the flavor would be different. In that case the contrast would be between his location and his brother’s, between his choices and his brother’s, and one might expect him to return home and try to live more like a son and less like a leech. The fact that he contrasts his situation with that of servants (who should be glad just to have a job) suggests that he believes his status entitles him to more food. Does this sound like life-changing repentance?
- Though the son’s rehearsed speech could seem to imply that he has learned his lesson, and that he is, in fact, ready to surrender his status and sense of entitlement, I am strongly inclined to read it as revealing the opposite. Years ago, Donald Juel suggested a reading of this scene that recognized what older siblings have sometimes learned about younger siblings: they have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. I find that reading persuasive. I think the son knows that the father, who gladly agreed to go along with the legal fiction that he was dead so that the son could inherit the death benefit, would melt at the suggestion that he treat him now as a servant. The father’s soft point (as the young son knows) is that he is far too willing to treat him as a beloved son, even when the outcomes are decidedly negative.
- Notice that it is only when the son plans what he will say to his father that he evinces a willingness to surrender his status. When he speaks to himself, he notes that the servants have more food than they should rightly have, given their status. Internal monologue reveals the heart, and this revelation is disturbing.
- If the young son is finally a selfish manipulator, what will he do in the future? The storyteller leaves this crucial question without an answer.
What if these oddities are the key to the story?
- If the oddities are the interpretive key, then this well-loved scene is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.
- It even raises the question of whether grace is such a good idea after all. Deep in the heart of my theological marrow I have a commitment to the notion that grace is a radical, creative force that remakes even the deepest corruption. I have found that notion comforting, and preachable, many times. But this strange little scene requires me to stop and wonder, requires me to notice that the father, who says that his dead son is now alive, has been wrong before.
- We do not know how the story turns out, and the storyteller must have intended it that way. Is the son re-made, or just re-shoed, restored, and rested for his next caper? How do things turn out next week? We do not know. And we have to ask.
- If the oddities are the key, then I find myself thinking, not about the amazingly successful resolution to this scene, but about the risk with which it ends. Perhaps only grace could redeem the young son. Perhaps so. But it is also clear that we do not know that he is redeemed. As I said, the father, ever overly optimistic, has been wrong before.
- Perhaps this strange scene shines its brightest light, not on the beauty of a gracious (but abstract) theology, but on the unrepentantly real risks of life together. Welcoming the stranger into the home sometimes ends with a knife between the ribs. It just does.
- If you pretend that such things never happen, people who prefer fear and anger as motivators will win the argument every time, and faithfulness will be left looking like a sentimental artifact of a charming childhood.
- Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love. And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love might indeed re-create the world.
But perhaps one ought tremble when reading this scene.