7 – A Parable about a Father
Luke’s parable presents to us three very diverse characters. There is the son who leaves home, there is the son who stays home, and then there is the father of the two young men.
This parable has carried a title for years that has mislead both readers and hearers. Ever since a marginal note in the Latin Vulgate version of 1523 called the story, “Parabola de filio prodigo” the English have called it “The parable of the Prodigal Son”.
This error of judgment might have been made simply because it looks like the first story is about a lost sheep, the second about a lost coin, and so the third must be about a lost son. A 1551 Protestant translation of the New Testament titled the heading for chapter 15, “The Parables of the loste Shepe, of the Groat that was loste, and the Prodigall Sonne.” But of course those other two stories have been misnamed too. They are really stories about a shepherd who seeks a lost sheep, about a woman who seeks a lost coin, and so the third story is less about wayward sons, but instead is about a Father.
Read the story again, and notice the prominence of the word “father” and the pronouns used to refer to him.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
The Centrality of the Father
Some years ago Helmut Thielike asked us to rename this parable. He called it “The Parable of the Waiting Father.”[i] And he is somewhat correct. This is a story about a father and how he deals with the lostness of his two sons. It is the father who is cast center stage in this story. The central reason for Jesus in telling this story is to let his hearers know what God is really like.
Only four verses of this story are about the profligate son on his own. Only two verses are on the older son when he is alone. In every other verse the father is in the picture. The story begins with him and ends with him. The most dominating word in this story is the word “father”. It occurs 13 times. The entire Gospel of Luke gives focus to this word as well. In Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer, where Matthew has “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name,” he has the less formal and more intimate tone, “Father, hallowed be your name.”
Have you noticed yet who is included in the audience of this parable? Verse 2 reads, “And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured saying, this man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus hears this murmuring and knows what is behind it. These kinds of people love to hate. Their greatest joy was in envisioning the death of the wicked and the inevitable judgment that would over-take all sinners. When they thought about God, the image, “Here comes the Judge” was their normal way of perceiving Him. So Jesus, in gentle rage, to contradict that insidious intent, that terrible theology, tells three stories and all of them are underscoring one of the great truths about God. He does not love the death of the wicked, but like the shepherd, like the woman, like the father, he longs for all who are lost to come home.
It has always amazed me that when the ancient church wrote the Apostles’ Creed, it used such an economy of words when speaking about God. Twelve words in English. “I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
But what is equally surprising is the order of those few words. A more logical order would be “I believe in God the Creator of heaven and earth, who is the Almighty, whom we call Father.” But the Church, led by the Spirit of Wisdom, wanted the words arranged with the important word first. “I believe in God the Father almighty….” In the English language the adjective usually precedes the noun, “I believe in God the almighty father” but good theology demands that in this case the noun must precede the adjective, so we read, “I believe in God the Father almighty.” Someone has said the adjective is the enemy of the noun. Placing the adjective after the noun helps diminish its importance and makes it subservient to the more important reality. The creed, following its Lord, placed the fatherliness of God before any other act or attribute.
When Jesus asked his disciples to call God “Father” as they prayed, he was asking his followers to participate in a revolution. In the entire Old Testament God is called a father only 14 times. Usually the metaphor speaks of God as the father of a nation, the one who brought the nation of Israel into being. But turn to the New Testament and suffused across its pages is the new name of God. “When you pray” says Jesus, “say, Father.” Rabbinic Judaism would say “When you pray say Adonai.” That word means, “Lord.” God had given to Moses and Israel his name “YHWH.” There was such a fear of offending God, however, with the possible misuse of his name, that a title was substituted for the more personal name. Jesus wants to reverse that practice and so tells his disciples, “When you pray, say, Father.”
The word that Jesus uses is the Aramaic word, “Abba.” It is an interesting word. It is the word that children use when they first begin to speak. “Dadda.” It is a term of endearment. It uses the language of intimacy. It does not focus on the father as an authority figure, nor refer primarily to one who is the biological parent. On the lips of Jesus and his followers, it is a word of affection. Joachim Jeremias says to those of us who struggle with calling God “Dadda, Daddy, or Dad,” that “Dear Father” is probably an acceptable translation.[ii] St. Paul will remind us all that “God has sent forth His Spirit into our hearts crying ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4:6) It is the language of the newborn and the twice born.
Whatever other mental images of God we allow, I would suggest that none is to take primacy over the word “Abba” that Jesus has offered us.
1. In recent decades, however, there has grown significant concern with the use of a male figure as the central metaphor for God. Many women have such painful memories of their treatment by men, and in particular their own fathers, that the word elicits only pain. Leonard Cohen sings “On Father’s Day, everybody’s hurting.” Both sons and daughters may shudder when the image of their own father comes to mind.
Perhaps it is better that we abandon the metaphor altogether. Some have chosen that approach. Others ask instead that we allow the image of the fatherliness of God, that Jesus had in mind, to help us redefine what a father should be. So God is not “a father” but “The Father”, the prototype of what fathers were meant to be like. But the issue remains critical. (See chapter 10 on “The Missing Mom” for further discussion of this important matter.)
2. On another note, it is clear from what Jesus says in other places, patriarchal or monarchial titles should be shunned by the church as it goes about its work. According to Matthew, Jesus is suspicious about the name “father” being used for any of his followers. He is scathing towards the Pharisees who have assumed certain titles for themselves as they exercised their authority over others: “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi (great one!). But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one master, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called “teacher”, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you is to be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:6-9)
So in counsel to ourselves, we do need to be cautious about any affection for titles such as Father, Priest, Bishop, Superintendent, Reverend, Minister, Clergy, Professor, Doctor, etc. that may cause ourselves or others to presume that we stand in authority over them. Tough dilemma after 1900 plus years of usage! Attitude here is critical. The Franciscans decided to use the name Friar – brother. I think perhaps Jesus would agree!