The Prodigal Son, New Life & Sacramental Imagery
“You’re Dead to Me”
Jesus begins by telling the story of a man who had two sons. The parable begins with the younger brother going to the father and asking for his inheritance.
Of course, an inheritance is usually bestowed upon offspring after the death of the one bequeathing it. Essentially, then, by demanding his inheritance while his father is still alive the younger brother basically says, “Dad, you’re dead to me.”
We might note how incredible it is that the father actually honors his request―the father gives his son of his own estate while he is still living. In effect, the father impoverishes himself. Notably, the son has not told his father what he is going to do with it. Ostensibly, one could think that the son was looking to simply take responsibility of the family’s goods he would one day receive. (Though, given the fact that son has basically declared the death of his father, his next actions are not at all surprising). Yet, instead of sticking around and managing the family estate he has been entrusted with, he takes off with it!
The Son’s Loose Living and His Eventual State of Destitution
Not only does he abandon the family, he squanders what he received from his father on debauchery―i.e., “loose living” (Luke 15:13) and harlots (Luke 15:30). It is interesting that here sexual immorality is linked with the lack of responsibility to family, but here we need to resist an interesting tangent.
Ultimately, the son finds himself without any money in a foreign land. To make matters, there’s a famine. He ends up with nothing. He joins himself to one of the citizens of the country he is in (Luke 15:15) and ends up feeding his swine (Luke 15:16)―which were of course known as unclean animals (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8; 1 Macc 1:47; b. B. Qam. 82b). Even the food of the pigs looks good to him (cf. Luke 15:16). The man has, in a sense, been reduced to the level of the swine―he is among them, one of the “unclean”. By working for a foreigner, who in all likelihood does not honor the Sabbath command given to Israel, he is essentially completely cut off from his God, his family and reduced to servitude.
It is important to point out that when the famine comes “no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16). In fact, the only person who ever gave him anything was his father―the very person he has rejected. The son opted for the people in this distant land over him, but now that he has run out of money, they have kicked him to the side of the road―or at least, to serve alongside the pigs.
Also worth noting is the word used to describe how the prodigal “joined” himself to a citizen in the country. The word in Greek, kollaomai, is used by Paul , who used the term to describe those who are “joined” to prostitutes (1 Cor 6:16). It is also used by Paul to describe how believers ought to “hold fast” to what is good (Rom 12:9) and be “joined” to the Lord (1 Cor 6:17). Of course, this man is not holding fast to God, but to some random citizen who ultimately does little for him.
At this point we hear that the man “comes to himself” (eis heauton erchosthai). Here Jesus uses an idiom that is found in non-biblical literature. The phrase here does not quite mean “repentance”. In sum, the man has simply “come to his senses” by realizing that his fathers’ servants are better treated than he is. He therefore comes up with a plan. He will go back and beg his father to take him back, not as a son but as one of his hired hands.
We should note this dichotomy between sonship and servanthood, because, as we shall see, it is key in the story. The son realizes that he has renounced his sonship. But even the servants of his father are better than he is in his present state.
You Can Go Home Again
He thus comes up with a good spiel, which he hopes will allow him to return to his father’s house. He plans to go to his father and say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:18–19). He sets off for home.
His father, however, sees his son “while he was yet at a distance” (Luke 15:20). It seems the father has been looking off into the horizon. The sense one gets is that he was looking, just waiting, to see his son return. One is reminded of the story in Tobit: “Now Anna sat looking intently down the road for her son. 6 And she caught sight of him coming, and said to his father, ‘Behold, your son is coming, and so is the man who went with him!’” (Tob 11:5–6).
His father’s joy at seeing his son returning is immediately apparent. His acceptance of his son precedes his son’s request for reconciliation―a reminder that we do not need to somehow impress our heavenly Father in order to turn his attention towards us. God is always waiting for us to return to him―He loves us far more than we could ever ask him to love us!
In fact, the son isn’t even able to complete the carefully rehearsed speech he has prepared for his father. He says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). Yet before he can finish the last lines of his prepared speech (i.e., “treat me as one of your hired servants”), his father exclaims, “‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (Luke 15:22–24).
The son is not welcomed back into the family because of his own clever speech―in fact, the father takes him back even before he can fully get through it. This is a reminder that salvation is a grace. As St. Paul says, “. . . no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).
The Older Son
Now we get to the older son. Upon hearing that his brother has returned, the elder son refuses to go into the feast and welcome his brother back. His speech to his father is revealing: “‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’” (Luke 15:29–30).
Notice that elder son describes his relationship with his father in terms of a servant—he, in effect, does not relate to him as a son but as a slave. He “serves”, and “obeys his father’s commandments”. Moreover, the reason for his service is not love but self-interest; he resents his father for not giving him anything. In a sense, the elder son, like the younger son, renounces his sonship for slavery. He even refuses to identify his brother as his brother (i.e., “this son of yours”)―he cuts himself off from the family. He does not want to feast with his family but with “my friends”.
The father however refuses to cut his son off― ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” Just as the father is eager to reconcile with the younger brother, so too he continues to reach out in love to his other son, reminding him of his place in his house. The elder son may cease to identify himself as a member of the family; the father, however, never ceases to call him “son”.
Resurrection Language and Baptism
We might highlight the fact that the son’s return is described in terms of resurrection. The son announces when he comes to himself in the foreign land, “I will arise and go to my father” (Luke 15:18). The Greek word used for “arise,” anistamai, is the same word used for “resurrection” elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 9:8; John 6:39; Mark 16:9; etc.). In fact, the father explains in no uncertain terms to the elder brother, “your brother was dead, and is alive” (Luke 15:32).
In turning to God from our sin we are, by his grace, “raised to new life”. St. Paul explains, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
In fact, as in the passage just cited from Romans, the New Testament also clearly links baptism to the believer’s acceptance of saving grace. A few passages here will suffice:
Acts 2:37–39: Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
1 Peter 3:21: Baptism, which corresponds to [the Flood of Noah], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. . .
Colossians 2:11–12: In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Not surprisingly then it is possible to see not only the message of reconciliation in the story of the prodigal son, but also baptismal imagery. Let me explain.
The “Robe” as Baptismal Imagery
The Fathers of the Church saw the father’s act of putting a robe (stolē) on the prodigal son as a reference to the baptismal practice of the early church. As mentioned above, for the early Christians, the grace one received in Christ was understood as coming through baptism. Yet, receiving God’s grace in Christ is also linked to the action of “putting on” Christ as in putting on a garment (cf. e.g. Eph 4:23-24; Col 3:9-10). This is explicitly linked with baptism in Galatians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).
Moreover, in the early church baptism was typically carried out by immersion. After baptism the person came out of the waters they were typically given a new garment. In fact, the garment, specifically the robe (stolē), is linked with the saints in other places in the New Testament (Rev 6:11; 7:9, 13, 14). In Revelation it is even linked with the image of washing: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev 22:14). This language is also linked with martyrdom (cf. Rev 3:4: “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy”), which, of course, was closely linked to baptismal theology (e.g., Mark 10:39: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized”).
Thus the baptismal significance of the robe is recognized by patristic writers. For example, Theophylact writes, “By the servants (or angels) you may understand administering spirits, or priests, who by baptism and the word of teaching clothe the soul with Christ himself” (cited in Thomas Aquinas, Cantena Aurea on Luke 15:22).
The Feast and Eschatological Banquet Traditions
Finally, we might say a few things about the feast which is celebrated. First, let us note that, as many scholars have noted, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus constantly links table-fellowship to his ministry to sinners. Scholars have noted that such actions are likely linked to the Jewish expectation of an eschatological banquet, to be celebrated in the future age in which God would send the Messiah and redeem his people. The tradition appears most explicitly in Isaiah 25:6–8:
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken” (Isa 25:6–8).
Jesus specifically links Israel’s restoration with meal imagery, evoking the hope of the eschatological banquet (e.g., Luke 22:30; cf. also Matt 8:11–12//Luke 13:28–29). Yet, it is not simply Jesus’ words that lead scholars to believe that this hope played a role in his ministry. Jesus’ very practice of table-fellowship with sinners in connection with his eschatological teaching would likely have been understood as evoking traditions relating to this future feast.
One especially important passage here is found in Luke 13 where Jesus speaks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God and then goes on to relate “banquet” imagery. In speaking to those who receive divine judgment on the last day, Jesus explains: “But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ 28 There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. 29 And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.”
What is implied in this is a feast at which the saints will be joined by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob―something Matthew makes more explicit: “ I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11).
At first glance it may seem that this imagery is irrelevant to the story of the prodigal son, which really only speaks of the father celebrating a banquet to welcome back his wayward boy. Yet one must look more closely at the way the story is situated.
The reference to eating in the Kingdom is found in Luke 13, but the imagery of eschatological dining does not end there.
Feasting Imagery in Luke 14
In chapter previous to the one in which the prodigal son story is narrated, Luke sets the context for this important story―attention to the details is required.
The context for the teachings in chapter 14 is a meal―Jesus has been invited to a Pharisee’s house to dine (cf. Luke 14:1). While at the feast, in 14:7–11, Jesus gives a parable about a marriage banquet. The parable is clearly an allegory for invitation to the kingdom. But note: the invitation to the kingdom is linked with a feast.
Jesus goes on to speak of banquet imagery some more, saying that in giving a feast one ought to invite those who cannot pay you back, e.g., the blind, the lame, etc. (Luke 14:12–14).
Upon hearing the teaching, someone at the feast, clearly evoking hopes for the eschatological banquet, exclaims: “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15).
Jesus responds to this by speaking―yet again―about a banquet. Specifically, Jesus tells the story of a man who gave a feast to which none of the people he invited came, all providing excuses (cf. Luke 14:15–20). The man then sent his servant to invite the outcasts to the feast in the place of those who did not accept the invitation (cf. Luke 14:21–23). He concludes, “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet’” (Luke 14:24). Again, Jesus speaks of salvation in terms of dining.
Luke 14 ends with Jesus applying the message of the parable―in order to be a disciple of Christ one must put aside everything. In effect, the disciple must not be like those in the preceding parable who made excuses for not coming to the banquet.
The Banquet and Rejoicing in Heaven
And so begins chapter 15: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1–2). Notice, once again, the imagery returns to the motif of dining.
Jesus, responding to the Jewish leaders’ expressed disdain for sinners, explains tells two stories which emphasize that he has come to seek the lost: (1) the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one sheep that has gone astray; and (2) the woman who rejoices over a lost coin.
Then comes a key saying: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Jesus links the return of the sinner to a heavenly celebration.
This is immediately followed by the story of the prodigal son, which recounts the return of the sinner which climaxes in a banquet. In a sense, the banquet of the father in the prodigal son story is, within the narrative of Luke, linked with the heavenly celebration of the reconciliation of the sinner to God.
The Eucharist as the Heavenly Feast
We have already mentioned that the fathers found baptismal imagery in the story of the Prodigal Son. Yet we might also note the Eucharistic imagery here tied to the feast.
In fact, the Last Supper appears as the climactic meal in Luke’s long narrative of Jesus’ table-fellowship. Indeed, scholars recognize eschatological banquet traditions in Luke’s account of the Last Supper. In particular, Jesus states at the Last Supper, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15). Jesus then goes on to eat the Passover, which seems to link the Last Supper to the eschatological banquet of the kingdom of God.
The Eucharistic tie-in to Jesus’ table-fellowship is most especially clear in the account of two other important banquets: (1) the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10–17) and (2) the meal at Emmaus (Luke 24:28–35). In both stories Jesus’ actions over the bread―“he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them”―evoke the Last Supper story.
In the Eucharistic feast we enter into that banquet at which we, repentant sinners, are brought into communion with God. It is not just a earthly meal―heaven rejoices with the earthly community and the sinner sits at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the presence of all the angels who rejoice over the salvation of the repentant believer.
 See especially John Priest, “On Note on the Messianic Banquet,” in The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (J. H. Charlesworth, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 222–38; Dennis E. Smith, “The Messianic Banquet Reconsidered,” in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (ed. B. A. Pearson; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 64–73. Aside from Isa 25:6–8 also see Isa 30:29; Ezek 39:17–20; Zech 8:18–29; 1Q28a (1QRule of the Congregation) II; 1 En. 62:14. In connection with this, the restoration is connected with the Lord feeding his people (cf. Isa 40:11; 49:10; 58:12–14; Jer 50:19; Ezek 34:13–16, 23; Mic 5:4; 7:14). In addition, this concept is also probably present in other texts where the restoration is linked to the Lord providing Israel with an abundance of grain and wine (cf. Isa 23:18; 62:8; Jer 31:10–14; Ezek 36:29; Joel 2:19; 2 Bar. 29:3–30:1). In Ezekiel and 1 Enoch those in the renewed Jerusalem are to eat fruit from trees evoking the tree of life in Eden (cf. Ezek 47:12; 48:18–19; 1 En. 25:4–5; cf. 4 Ezra 7:123). See Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 394. Dunn also explains, “The theme of a messianic/eschatological banquet was well known in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought. Although it is found in its developed form in only a surprisingly few texts, its pervasiveness is attested by allusions to it which can be given without explanation or comment” (237).
 Jesus also links the eschatological kingdom with the banquet imagery in Matthew 22:1–10//Luke 14:16–24//Gos. Thos. 64. Other passages such as Jesus’ beatitude about the hungry being filled (cf. Matt 5:6//Luke 6:21) have also been linked to the hope for the eschatological feast. See, e.g., Smith, “The Messianic Banquet Reconsidered,” 68; Bryan, Jesus and Israel’s Traditions of Judgement and Restoration, 76–81; Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 103.
 See, e.g., Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:966: “[Jesus’] offer of table fellowship to all, including social and religious ‘lowlifes’ like toll collectors and ‘sinners,’ was meant to foreshadow the final eschatological banquet and to give a foretaste of that banquet even during his public ministry (cf. Matt 8:11–12//Luke 13:28–29; Mark 14:25 parr.).” Likewise, Robert L. Brawley (“Table Fellowship: Bane and Blessing of the Historical Jesus,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 22 : 19), explains, “. . . Jesus transforms ordinary meals into celebrations of participating in God’s eschatological promises.” Still also see Bryan (Jesus and Israel’s Traditions of Judgement and Restoration, 80), who states, “By engaging in table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus implied that those who were regarded as certainly among those to be judged with the enemies of Israel in conjunction with the eschatological feast would in fact be the ones who enjoyed the feast. Viewed against this background, Jesus’ table fellowship may be regarded as an enacted parable whose meaning is captured in the parable of the great banquet. Jesus’ parable implies that the eschatological banquet will not be enjoyed by those widely regarded as the elect in celebration of God’s destruction of their enemies. Rather, the banquet will be enjoyed by outsiders while those thought to be the elect are excluded as the objects of God’s anger.” Numerous other scholars could also be mentioned here. See, e.g., Becker, Jesus of Nazaret, 194–211; Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 208–9; Trautmann, Zeichenhafte Handlungen Jesu, 160–64.