Perhaps the greatest — certainly, along with the story of the Good Samaritan, the most well-known — of Jesus' parables is that of the Prodigal Son, recorded in Luke 15:11-32. Indeed, of all Jesus' parables, it is the Prodigal Son that has captured the imagination of Western artists, authors, and musicians. One thinks, for instance, of Rembrandt's profound The Return of the Prodigal Son (ca. 1661-69; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg); of his intensely personal self portrait, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel (ca. 1637; Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden); of Shakespeare, who used the prodigal son motif in his portrayals of Henry V in both Henry IV and Henry V; and of Sergei Prokofiev's score for Ballanchine's Le Fils prodigue (1928-29).
Less well known, at least to academically-trained observers, is a somewhat obscure country blues number based on the story by the Reverend Robert Wilkins (1896-1987), who had originally recorded the song's music in 1929 as a blues entitled, "That's No Way to Get Along." After he converted to Christianity, he rewrote the lyrics and entitled the song "The Prodigal Son," which he recorded live at Newport in the summer of 1964. It is this version that the Rolling Stones covered exquisitely in their 1968 classic, Beggar's Banquet. The truncated lyrics, as sung by Mick Jagger, read thus:
Well a poor boy took his father's bread and started down the road
Started down the road
Took all he had and started down the road
Going out in this world, where God only knows
And that'll be the way to get along
Well poor boy spent all he had, famine come in the land
Famine come in the land
Spent all he had and famine come in the land
Said, "I believe I'll go and hire me to some man"
And that'll be the way I'll get along
Well, man said, "I'll give you a job for to feed my swine
For to feed my swine
I'll give you a job for to feed my swine"
Boy stood there and hung his head and cried
`Cause that is no way to get along
Said, "I believe I'll ride, believe I'll go back home
Believe I'll go back home
Believe I'll ride, believe I'll go back home
Or down the road as far as I can go"
And that'll be the way to get along
Well, father said, "See my son coming after me
Coming home to me"
Father ran and fell down on his knees
Said, "Sing and praise, Lord have mercy on me"
Oh poor boy stood there, hung his head and cried
Hung his head and cried
Poor boy stood and hung his head and cried
Said, "Father will you look on me as a child?"
Well father said, "Eldest son, kill the fatted calf,
Call the family round
Kill that calf and call the family round
My son was lost but now he is found
'Cause that's the way for us to get along"
If one takes Luke's setting seriously, the meaning of the story is fairly straightforward. In Luke 15:1-2 we read:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."No doubt it is true, as N. T. Wright suggests (Jesus and the Victory of God, 124-31), that the parable portrays the story of Israel in miniature: the story of exile and return, with the implication that he is the one in and through whom Israel's god was restoring his people (with Jimmy Dunn [Jesus Remembered, 476], however, I am confident that Wright's equation of the older brother in the story with the Samaritans and others who desired to hinder this return, is ill-founded). But the sting of the story lies in Jesus' subversive message regarding which Jews were in fact becoming the beneficiaries of this return from exile and experiencing the exhilarating release from debts provided by the eschatological Jubilee. Indeed, the purpose of the story, as Klyne Snodgrass has recently argued (Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 139-41), is three-fold:
- To emphasize the compassion and love of God, illustrated by the eagerness of the father to restore and forgive his erstwhile prodigal son.
- To invite Jesus' listeners (and followers today) to celebrate the repentance of sinners.
- To enjoin Jesus' listeners (and followers today) to take the same attitude toward sinners as the father displayed toward the prodigal.
The parable of the Prodigal Son fairly screams in its invitation to theological reflection. Especially those of us who are Gentiles by birth need to realize that the Prodigal Son, by working in the Gentile pig sty, had, like Israel in exile and the "sinners" of Jesus' day, constituted themselves spiritual Gentiles — people who, as the Apostle Paul said, were "separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). As such they (we!) "were dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph 2:1). Make no mistake: all of us are prodigals, and those of us who are "in Christ" have only the compassionate love of God to account for our new status. And this has necessary implications for how we both view and treat those who still remain spiritually "in the far country."
In a sense, I think most Christians give lip service to this truth, and in moments of their deepest spiritual reflection actually believe it. More often than not, however, the impulse to self-righteousness rears its ugly head, and they unwittingly assume the persona of the older brother. To invoke another parable, having uttered the repentant words of the toll collector, "God be merciful to me a sinner," they find themselves uttering — at least in their public persona — the proud words of the Pharisee, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector."
I ask two questions. First, Do we translate our own acceptance by the all-compassionate God into a missional life in which we actively become God's agents in seeking and saving sinners? Second, Do we celebrate the repentance of "sinners," or do we — at least sometimes — long for God to exercise vengeance against them? Are there people, in other words, whom we consider to be outside the possibility of reclamation, people like Hitler, for instance, who have forfeited any "right" to be the object of God's saving grace? My fervent hope is that you answer the first question "Yes" and the second "No." Too often, however, I witness "Christians" rejoicing less in the salvation of the lost than in the comeuppance and "justice" meted out to criminals and other sinners. Remember one thing, however: the only contribution any person makes to her salvation is the sin from which she is saved. A grateful acknowledgement of that nasty fact should lead each of us to a fresh appreciation for the merciful love of the Father in heaven who has rescued us from our fatal plight.
In closing I leave you with two recordings of the Reverend Robert Wilkins, his original recording of "That's No Way to Get Along" from 1929 and his 1964 performance of "Prodigal Son" from Newport.