Lent Reflection: The Father and his Sons

Generally speaking, I would describe myself much more as a systematic theologian. I study Christology and Trinitarian theology and like amalgamating everything together, connecting the dots and discovering something of the inner cohesion of theology which is grounded in the living reality of Jesus Christ.

One of my close friends, however, would describe themselves primarily as a biblical theologian. Rather than just looking at the big picture and connecting the dots, he’s studied Greek and Hebrew and is fascinated by the nitty gritty of exegesis and textual analysis.

I say primarily because we both do bits of the other, however having different areas we know more about means that when we talk and discuss things we can often teach one another things we didn’t know. Today’s blog post comes from a conversation we had where I told him that I was reflecting on the Prodigal Son throughout Lent. Immediately he started telling me about all these cool details he’d spotted in the story when writing a paper on it. Here’s one of the things I took away from that conversation which I think is pretty interesting!

He told me that first you have to look at the structure of the story of the prodigal son.

The first half is all about the prodigal son, and the second is all about the older brother.

Both halves have the father in common.

Now, let’s look at the half with the prodigal son.

The structure goes like this:

  • The Son Leaves (11-13)
  • The Son experiences poverty/no one gives him anything (14-16)
  • The Son decides to confess (17-19)
  • The Father comes to the Son (20-21)
  • The Son confesses (21)
  • The Son experiences riches/his Father gives lavishly to him (22-23)
  • The Son Returns  (24)

This half is basically build as three contrasting pairs of events with the central event sandwiched in the middle. The Son leaving is contrasted with his return, his poverty with wealth, his intention to confess with his confession. In this way of looking at it, the climax of the story, the literal central event is:

When he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

Isn’t that cool? The very structure of the story emphasises the moment of reconciliation between the father and the prodigal son.

Now lets look at the half with the older brother.

The structure goes like this:

  • Celebration (25)
  • What the Younger Brother has received – the fattened calf (26-27)
  • The Father comes to the Son (28)
  • What the Older Brother hasn’t received, and what he does have (29-31)
  • Celebration (32)

This half is built out of two contrasting halves with a central event sandwiched in the middle. The celebration opens and closes the scene, the Younger Son getting a fattened calf is contrasted with not even having a goat (though in reality, all his father had was his), and, again, the central event is:

[The Older Brother] became angry and refused to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.

Now, these two central events have similarities and dissimilarities.

What they have in common is that in both of them, the Father goes to where the son is.

The father greets the younger son while he was still far off, and he goes to the older brother while he refuses to go in.

More than this, the father is celebrating in both events and wants his sons to join him.

The difference between these is events, then, is the attitude of the sons. 

The younger son is dressed in the finest robes, with a ring placed upon his finger.

The older son stands outside, and refuses to go in.

Personally I’m  amazed at the way that when we look at the way in which Luke has recorded the parable, he has done so in such a way that the structure itself reinforces the rhetorical argument that Jesus is making. This is why it’s worth making sure that systematic and biblical theologians hang out!

It doesn’t get much clearer than this, really. The Father, representing God, comes to both sinners and Pharisee alike. He wants to celebrate with both. The difference is not the love of God towards the person, but the attitude of the person towards God.

When we apply this to ourselves, the uncomfortable truth is this. The first scene applies to convicts, homeless people, druggies and high school drop outs who encounter Jesus through the Alpha Course, through Youth Groups and Food banks. The second scene, too often, applies to Lay Readers, Priests, Church Elders and Wardens, or even those on the PCC.

As we reflect this week on Holy Week, we should reflect also on which of the two Brothers we are most like because this week is a particularly opportune week to seek God in Jesus as we remember his death on the Cross and his resurrection at Easter.


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