Leonard Sweet on the Parable of the Prodigals:
It has become fashionable to see the elder brother as the true “prodigal.” Coming in from his field, he heard all the ruckus and demanded: “What’s all this music and dancing?” When told his younger brother had returned and their father had rolled out the red carpet and killed a calf (notice how many times “fatted calf” crops up in the elder brother’s conversation) for a mega-party, he went ballistic.
It was hurtful for the younger son to ask his father for his inheritance ahead of time, a request that some scholars have interpreted as amounting to wishing his father’s death (“Why don’t you hurry up and die?”). What actually was the younger brother’s sin? Not “loose living,” but nonliving in relationship with his father. He valued more highly what he could get from his father than friendship with his father. In fact, the Greek text never uses the words “riotous living” or “loose living.” In the words of Herbert McCabe, “English translators have been conned by the vindictive slanders of the elder brother later in the story. Here we are just told that he spent his money… ‘without hanging on to it’ as though there were no tomorrow. His sin does not lie in sensuality and harlots. His sin is much more serious. It is in the abandonment of his father’s house.”
Quoted from Leonard Sweet, Out of the Question… Into the Mystery, p.147. Bottom line, the prodigal’s sin (both sons are the same on this) is of the most serious variety, the sin of non-relationship to their father. Seems God is big into relationship, which is the point of the story. To not live in relationship is not living… it is nonliving.
I like what Sweet does with this parable. I think he’s on to something very profound.
I’d always thought that the parable was about Jesus reaching out to the “lost sheep”, and that Pharisees were the older brothers who were scandalized about who God was allowing back into fellowship with Him. Either way, Len Sweet’s input is valid.
I’m gonna have to get me a copy of that book! (Once I find employment and can justify spending money again, that is!)
So is it not then a sin to spend your money on prostitutes?
Well, it wasn’t a sin for Hosea to do so. ;^)
Seriously, you may be missing the point. It’s not that his sin started when he paid the prostitute, it started when he turned his heart away from is father. Put another way, his sin began with a relational break, not with checking off one of the items on the “no-no” list. Note that reducing it to the question of whether you did or didn’t do something is legalism; the view here is more relational. If you’re only concerned with “did you do the deed?” it’s in some ways akin to saying, “Sure, go ahead and turn your heart away from the father, ignore him (God) and show no concern for his ways… just don’t sin while you’re at it.” This view leads to the notion that you could enter Heaven without being in a relationship with God, as long as you didn’t do the “don’t’s.” It doesn’t work that way.
Moreover, one of the points made in the quote is that there’s no evidence that the younger brother spent any money at all on prostitutes… the text doesn’t tell us that, it’s just the elder brother’s accusatory characterization of his sibling.
Yeah, I think I see Sweet’s point, but I wonder if it’s a chicken-and-egg thing in real life: does sometimes the sin of commission lead to loss of communion with the Father or does sometimes the loss of communion with the Father lead to the sin of commission? Either way, I have never thought that Jesus only had one point in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s multi-faceted and brilliantly so. I’ve recently seen it as a parable of stewardship. The prodigal son was born into wealth, was a poor steward of that wealth, and his poor stewardship created problems in his family. But there are more lessons in it, hopefully some I have not seen yet.