Sunday, March 20, 2022

Prelude to a Parable

The gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent (year C) is Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. 
If you are looking for a translation and commentary on Luke 15:1-10, click here. 

The parable of the Prodigal Son is well known and it is not clear to me that a translation of it is the best approach to understanding it, particularly with reference to preaching it. So, instead, I offer a translation to the prelude of the parable, verses 1-3, and below that a presentation of Karl Barth's powerful interpretation of this story. 

Luke 15:1-3
1 ησαν δὲ αὐτῷ ἐγγίζοντες πάντες οἱ τελῶναι καὶ οἱ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἀκούειν 
Then the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him to hear him.
ησαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐγγίζοντες : PAPart npm, ἐγγίζω, 1) to bring near, to join one thing to another  2) to draw or come near to, to approach
ἀκούειν: PAInf, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
1. I don’t know Greek grammar well enough to know if the verb “to be” plays the role of a linking verb, “were ... drawing near,” making the present participle, in effect, part of the past tense verb, or not. That is how most translations interpret the verb ησαν and its relation to the participle ἐγγίζοντες , so who am I to argue? However, if I were the one to argue, I might make this more like, “Then there were, drawing near to him, tax collectors and sinners, to hear him.” But that’s kind of lumpy, so I’ll go with the experts on this one.
2. The point, I think, is that these folks were coming to Jesus and so Jesus has a choice whether to welcome them or to tell them to turn around and clean up or to despise them. Hmm... how will Jesus react to the errant, the lost, the undeserving?

2καὶ διεγόγγυζον οἵ τε Φαρισαῖοι καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς λέγοντες ὅτι Οὗτος 
ἁμαρτωλοὺς προσδέχεται καὶ συνεσθίει αὐτοῖς.
And the Pharisees and also the scribes were murmuring having said “This one welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
διεγόγγυζον: IAI 3pl, διαγογγύζω, 1) to murmur  1a) either of a whole crowd, or among one another  1b) always used of many indignantly complaining 
προσδέχεται: PMI 3s, προσδέχομαι, 1) to receive to one's self, to admit, to give access to one's self
συνεσθίει: PAI 3s, συνεσθίω, 1) to eat with, take food together with 
1. Note that the complaint is not that Jesus has been rousing the rabble or saying the kinds of things that draw this wrong crowd, but that when this crowd draws near to him Jesus welcomes them and eats with them. I suppose they expect him, instead, to excuse himself. I’m remembering Peter’s expressed discomfort when entering the gentile Cornelius’ house in Acts 10. The first thing he says is, “I’m not supposed to be here, you know” as if distancing his personal sanctity from what the vision he had experienced was telling him to do. Perhaps that is what the Pharisees and scribes expected of good, law-abiding Jews – to distance themselves somehow from these errant, lost, undeserving folk. Far from distancing himself, Jesus welcomes and eats with this wrong crowd.

 3 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην λέγων,
But he said to them this parable, saying,
1. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, Luke uses “δὲ” a lot. Each time the translator has the joy of interpreting the nuance of it. “But he said to them ...” “Then he said to them ...” “And he said to them ...” are all perfectly legitimate.
2. However we interpret the “δὲ”, it is the connective tissue between the murmuring of the Pharisees against Jesus for welcoming sinners and the parables that follow. Significantly, v.11 introduces the Parable of the Lost Son/Elder Brother with the same word.
3. It becomes important, then, to remember these three verses when interpreting the parable. The occasion is the Pharisee’s refusal to rejoice in the fact that tax collectors and sinners are gathering to listen to the preaching and are finding welcome. 

                  Karl Barth's Exegesis of the Prodigal Son
                  D. Mark Davis 1/16/2010

Karl Barth was one of the most significant Protestant theologians of the 20th century.  His most influential works, Church Dogmatics, measures about 6 feet long on the bookshelf and is a strongly written, massively detailed explanation of Christian theology that is thoroughly grounded and centered on the God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ. 

Pages 20-154 of Karl Barth’s second part on reconciliation are entitled, “The Homecoming of the Son of Man.”  Already in that title we get a sense that Barth is speaking of the Doctrine of Reconciliation with the language of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).  But, of course, to make this parable a story of the homecoming of the “Son of Man” is almost completely contrary to how we often read it- an issue that Barth acknowledges quite freely.  So, for my presentation today, I want to explore four different ways that Barth reads this Parable, with particular attention to the interpretive strategy behind his 4th, Christological reading of it. 

Prior to this section on “The Homecoming,” Barth has been summarizing his first chapter on reconciliation and has already employed other phrases that he borrows from the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

 For example, he describes the doctrine of atonement as God’s free turning, “the [human] who had turned away from Him and was therefore lost.”    In that sense, Barth is using the Parable’s language in a fairly traditional way, as describing humanity’s waywardness and need of redemption. 
But, then he says, “We recognized the true Godhead of Jesus Christ in the humility of the obedience in which He, the eternal Son of the eternal Father, humbled Himself in the omnipotence of His mercy, and went into the far country, and was made flesh, and took our place as a servant in our cause …”(p.4, emphasis mine.)  These two uses of the language of the Parable to describe, first, humanity’s turning away from God and, second, Jesus’ act of reconciliation are keys to what follows, as Barth recognizes the primacy of the traditional interpretation, but also works toward interpreting it Christologically.

The section entitled “The Homecoming of the Son of Man” is part of Barth’s explanation of the reconciliation that Jesus brings between us and God.  Having begun this section with obvious reference to the Parable of the Prodigal Son –by using the language of family and geographical from that parable – Barth turns to that small-print annotation commentary of his to address the parable directly.  In doing so, he gives four different meanings of the parable, using the term ‘exegesis,’ which is one of our guild terms for ‘the interpretation of texts.’ 

The first exegesis of the parable is what Barth calls a ‘direct’ exegesis.  It takes into account the fact that this parable is the third of three parables addressing lost things, preceded by the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep.  Within this context, the direct meaning of the parable is that it speaks of the sin of humanity and the mortal threat which comes to us in consequence, of our repentance and return to God, and of the overwhelming grace with which we are received back by the God whom we spurned

Within this direct reading, the younger and elder sons take on roles, again determined by the context of the parable.  The younger son gives a view of the “publicans and sinners” (from vv. 1-2) who come to Jesus and hear Him and whom he receives, just as the father received back his lost son.  In contrast, the elder gives us a view of the “Scribes and Pharisees” who seem to shun Jesus for receiving sinners, and out of anger refuse to participate in the feast prepared by the father.  The “direct reading” of the story, then, talks about the turning away and turning back of sinful humanity to God, in which there is not only no lessening but indeed a heightening of the father’s attitude toward the wayward one.  And this is all that we can say “directly” according to Barth, based on exegesis of the text. 

Second, Barth turns from a direct exegesis of the text to an ‘indirect’ one.  He plainly notes that it is riskier to do this, but also that it is necessary to do so in order to show what is truly stated indirectly in the text.  Relying on an interpretation of the text that Augustine emphasized years ago, the ‘indirect exegesis’ of this text shows that the lost-then-found younger brother, as well as the publicans and sinners (to which he directly refers), can be interpreted to refer to the Gentile world as it turns to the Gospel.  Likewise, then, the elder brother, as well as the scribes and Pharisees to which (he directly refers), can be interpreted as Israel, which excludes itself from the Messianic feast. 

Barth frankly admits that “There is no explicit mention of the Gentiles in the text.”(p.22)  But, he argues that the theme is everywhere in the New Testament and especially in the mind of Luke, with his very pronounced universalistic interest.  So, while the relationship to the Gentiles is not in the text ‘directly,’ we actually fail to do full justice to the text if we leave out this relationship simply because it is not given directly in the exegesis of the text. 

So far we have a direct interpretation and an indirect one, both of which are important to hearing the text rightly.  Now, Barth refers to a 3rd reading of this parable, which he denounces.  It is the interpretation offered by Adolph von Harnack (in Essence of Christianity, Lecture 8), which points out that this parable is a story of redemption that is based simply on God’s overwhelming love, without reference to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Likewise, the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9f) and the parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31f) do not mention the person and work of Christ and yet are about redemption.  So, Harnack concludes, it is not the Son and the atonement that the Son accomplished, but God’s own goodness that unites the soul to God.  And, Harnack points out, this is precisely the reconciliation that Jesus himself preached, a reconciliation that is grounded in God’s love and not in Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection. 

Now we get to the 4th interpretation of this parable, the “Christological Exegesis” of it.  Now, if you know Barth’s theology, you would know that Harnack’s interpretation of this parable is precisely what Barth struggles against.  Harnack has argued that Christ is not necessarily a part of redemption because, as this parable shows, redemption is grounded in God’s good will, not Christ’s person and work.  Barth’s target, in his 4th interpretation of this parable, is not the traditional way of reading it, but Harnack’s reading of it.  But there is a problem here: Barth has to admit that in the plain and ‘direct’ exegesis of this text, the redemption of this story does indeed rely solely on the Father’s good will.  There is nothing ‘redemptive’ about the wayward son; rather, he is the one who needs redeeming.  Now we can see why it was important for Barth to demonstrate interpretation #2, the ‘indirect’ reading of the story, to show how an indirect reading has integrity and might even be necessary to bring out what is truly said ‘indirectly’ in a text.  This 4th reading of the story – the Christological reading – intends to be another indirect but valid reading of this parable. 

To understand this reading, we have to remember how seriously Barth took the words of the Council of Chalcedon that described Christ as “fully human and fully God.”
And here it goes: Barth begins his section on “The Homecoming of the Son of Man” with reference to John 1:14, “The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”  He said that if we focus on the word “flesh” in this text, then it is a statement about God: “We say – and in itself this constitutes the whole of what is said – that without ceasing to be true God, in the full possession and exercise of His true deity, God went into the far country by becoming [human] in His second person or mode of being as the Son – the far country not only of human creatureliness but also of human corruption and perdition.”(20)   In other words, it is Jesus, who is and remains fully God, who goes into a ‘far away country’ by becoming fully human. 

On the other hand, he says, if we focus on the word “Word,” we make it a statement about humanity.  We say that “without ceasing to be man, but assumed and accepted in his creatureliness and corruption by the Son of God, humanity – this one Son of Man – returned home to where He belonged, to His place as true man…”  In what Barth calls two elements of a single action, the atonement is that action where God in Christ “goes into a far country” and humanity in Christ “returns home” (p.21)   In other words, when Jesus is reconciled with God all of humanity is reconciled with God because to say that Jesus, as ‘fully human,’ is ‘true humanity.’ 

So, in this indirect but necessary Christological reading of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Barth sees the movement of ‘God with us’ in the son going out into a far away country; and the movement of us reconciled to God in the return and acceptance of the Son in his Father’s house. 

There is much more that can be said about Barth’s interpretation, but just one last word about his exegetical method: Barth acknowledges that his ‘indirect’ interpretation is open to criticism biblically and theologically.  It is ‘indirect’ and it is a ‘feeble representation of the doctrine of reconciliation.  But, he say, there are in fact some inescapable ‘direct’ references in this story that give us reason to look at it Christologically:


  1. Mark,
    This has always been my favorite 150 pages of Barth, and for the reasons you mentioned above. What I like about this "4th" reading is what it implies about the "far country." Notice, that in welcoming back the prodigal God tacitly--purposefully?--accepts the far country's effect on the prodigal's "new experiences." That is, the far country now becomes--thru the prodigal--part of the brothers' and the father's new/now relationships. I take this in a strictly trinitarian way in my work and say humanity is now incorporated into the divine triune being. Humanity is now part of the life and being of God. I owe a huge debt in my work to Barth for pointing me to this reality...who knew?

  2. Scott, what a great comment! In our Lenten series about transformation, the idea that the prodigal's experience of the far country is now part of the father's and brother's new/now relationships will definitely find its way into Sunday's sermon.
    It's kind of funny to say "my favorite 150 pages of Barth." "Favorite 150 pages" would summarize many writer's entire books. Not KB.

  3. "The human who turned away from God was There fore lost", Why this happens, as we all have brain, we see, we all are social animal, but why we move away from GOD? Why evil power exists in this world?

    1. It is a long and persistent question that you ask, Sanjeet. Why is evil in the world? Why does humanity spurn God's gifts and turn away from God?

      Others have asked a speculated on whether God is the one who created or allowed evil in the world - which opens up many more such questions that are hard to answer.

      I suspect that, rather than answering this question in with any finality, it is one of those persistent questions that begins with actual human experience and forces us to explore any number of ways that we can bring meaning to it.

      For example, if we go with this story of the Prodigal Son (or this story of a Father's Prodigal Love), we can explore the question of alienation and reunion via close, familial relationships that we all know.
      The "sin" of the son - what is it, exactly?

      Some writers argue that the son, in effect, declared his father dead to him by taking his inheritance as if the father were dead.
      Others argue that, within the honor-shame continuum of that culture, the son shamed his father, making the father's love and acceptance even greater.
      Others - looking through a much more modern lens - would see the son as going through a process of individualization. It would not necessarily be a bad thing, but rather a process of separating himself, realizing his need for his family/community, and reuniting. (It would be something like the familiar 'first naivete, complexity, second naivete' pattern that gets expressed in a number of ways.) What this view has to account for - I think - is the language of repentance that the son uses when he returns.

      I think all three of these ways of approaching the question of alienation and return are grounded in our ongoing experience of a kind of dislocation in our lives. I suspect that same experience gave rise to this parable in the first place, to be honest.

      So, in response to your question, I want to affirm the question and see it as faithfulness to explore that question from a variety of perspectives - God's enduring love, our need to individualize, our need for connection, and so forth.

      Anyway, your question has set me off on a speculative direction this morning and I thank you for it.


  4. well worth getting a hold of Kenneth Bailey middle-east perspective on this parable(The Cross and the Prodigal), where he shows that the father undergoes extreme suffering in this parable - he allows the some to take his living rather than discipline him, he runs to welcome him - something no self-respecting middle-eastern man would do, and he allows himself to be abused by the elder son - again without disciplining him (potentially even undergoing death at the elder son's hands)

    1. Hi Bruce,
      Yes, I've heard Bailey's perspective on this before. I think it is particularly powerful in demonstrating how painful forgiveness is to the forgiver, even if it can be liberating at times. KC Hanson also writes a lot about the honor/shame cultural continuum behind many of these stories. I find that helpful also.
      Thanks for your note,

  5. All,
    I hardly know where to begin. I just just Barth's Church Dogmatics Harbound copy from Hendrickson. I have been introduced to Barth via Thomas Torrance's work. Between the two of them, I'm like a kid in a candy shop. I have to slow down and nibble! I went immediatly to CD IV.1 and am nibbling. But I am thrust into the beauties of IV.2 p. 153 and 154 on the allusion to the Ascension. All of the fine work above can be hear (seen) in a Princeton Lecture on You Tube, the 2015 Annual Karl Barth Conference: Lecture, Daniel L. Migliore
    YOU WILL NEED TO WATCH IT ON SAFARI. Chrome or FIrefox seems to have problems with the video codex.

    The Head that once was crowned with thorns,
    Is crowned with glory now.
    A royal diadem adorns
    The mighty VIctor's brow. (Thomas Kelly)

  6. Picking up on the Barth idea and exploring it a bit more. In v 13, the son in the story 'squanders' his inherited money. Maybe the idea is more that he scatters it around in 'reckless' living (it like the anointing woman is reckless in the amount of money she spends).In contrast, his older brother (who has received 2/3 of the inheritance) can't bring himself to use his own inherited money to celebrate with his friends and is angry that his father doesn't use his own money to do it instead. And he's heavily critical of his younger brother for spending it on harlots (even tho that is not said earlier). One of the things that annoyed the scribes and Pharisees (and still annoys their ilk today) is that Jesus scatters G-d's welcome around almost indiscriminately. Like the younger son, Jesus ends up in a 'foreign land' and with the unclean (cross and grave) but G-d raises him up and restores him to the sonship that he has inherited etc etc. Is it by chance that the very next parable in ch 16 is about a servant who 'squanders' his master's money?

    1. Those are some very suggestive comments, Rick, especially the reference to the next parable. Thanks for that.

  7. I love all this - the parable and the discussion. Thanks Mark

  8. Pondering ἀπολέσῃ translated as 'lost.' Seems more like 'lost at sea' than 'wandered off,' 'lost child,' or even 'misplaced coin.' Has a pathos to it that the English doesn't reflect.


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