Amy-Jill Levine, in her excellent book Short Stories by Jesus, offers an examination of Jesus’ parable of the two sons, traditionally known as the parable of the prodigal son. In her study she corrects a number of common misreadings of the parable, especially those that come from reading Jesus’ story as a comparison between “merciful” Christianity and “unforgiving” Judaism. Such interpretations veer into Marcionism, she argues, since the God of Jesus is thus presented as other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Levine focuses, therefore, on reading this parable in its Jewish setting, particularly in its presentation of family dynamics and the younger brother-elder brother theme, which runs all through the Old Testament.
She also wants to reject what she calls the allegorical reading of the parable, in which the father represents God and the elder son “those grumbling Jews.” But we can reject the view of the elder son as a negative representative of the Jews and still see this parable about the repentance that God desires of us and the forgiveness that God offers us by focusing on the family dynamic within the story.
Whether we read this parable as an allegory or not, we must be willing to see it as an analogy. The father in this parable is a model for God’s forgiveness, and the two sons represent personality types that we find among people then and now. In the human family, all of us have gone astray in our own ways, and all of us must begin the process of coming to understand our need for repentance. We need not see the sons as representative of gentiles and Jews, but both sons need to repent and to accept God’s forgiveness.
While Jesus naturally sets his story in a first-century Jewish family, even 21st-century Americans can relate to the behavior of the two Jewish brothers and the tensions between them. The brothers in Jesus’ parable reflect real family dynamics, replicating different personality types that grate on one another. Each of us is more like one brother or another, and each type has strengths and weaknesses, gifts and destructive tendencies.
Levine proposes that when the younger son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” he might simply be rehearsing lines to tell the father and has not genuinely repented. He has just tired of being hungry and living with pigs. And the elder son has not yet accepted his brother, whom he accuses of wasting his father’s property—literally “his life” (ton bion in Greek)—with prostitutes. The elder son has also not yet accepted his father’s love, though the father “pleads” with him. Indeed, the Greek verb translated “plead” is parakaleô, which can have the sense of “to comfort” or “to console.”
Both brothers have started the process of repentance by returning to the father and entering back into relationship with him. Repentance is not usually a one-time event but a process of restoring relationships. Repentance requires time, healing, understanding of oneself and the other and growth, but God always calls us to come home to console and to comfort us.
Jesus’ parable offers hope. The younger son has returned, perhaps with imperfect repentance and maybe still a sense of entitlement. The elder son needs to get his act together, work out his anger issues and become less self-righteous. But both of them now know clearly: they are loved by the father no matter who they are and no matter what they have done. They can always come home, and they will find forgiveness.
Repentance is a process of building and rebuilding relationships with God. Neither of these brothers is innocent or perfect, and a major flaw is indicated in how they have harbored faulty perceptions of their father’s love. Jesus’ parable tells us that however they, or we, have misperceived the love of God, it is there, waiting for us when we begin the process of repentance. God loves us and wants each member of the family to come home again.