Robert Capon – Parable of the Lost (Younger) Son

This week we are reading through the Parable of the Lost Son/Prodigal Son/Loving Father found in Luke 15:11-32. (We have previously studied this parable in Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal.) Please read the second half of chapter 13 “The Party Parables” of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on the chapter is here (from which I have borrowed heavily).

The Context:

As we discussed last week, this parable is the conclusion of that section of Luke’s gospel (Luke 14-15) concerning festive dining which begins with Jesus attending a dinner at the home of a notable Pharisee, continues through Jesus’ teaching on humility in seating at a dinner, and ends with the series of the festive parables of the Great Banquet, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin. The conclusion of these events and teachings is the festival celebrating the return of the Prodigal Son. Please read the entirety of this section to get a sense of Jesus’ build-up to the Parable.

In our discussion of the Parable this week, we will focus on the two lost sons. The younger son is lost in the first part of the parable and returns to experience the unjustified grace of his Father. (vv.11-24). In the second part of the parable, the older son relies upon his own righteousness and is lost because he refuses to participate in the Father’s grace. (vv. 25-32).

As we have continuously looked at in Capon’s analysis of the Parables of Grace, grace comes only from the death of Jesus and only to the dead who have died to themselves so that they may be raised with him. Rom. 6:4. In this first part of the parable, Capon takes us through the first three deaths to occur.

The Parable:

A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to the father, “Father, give me the share of the property falling to me.” And he divided his living between them. And not many days later, the younger son, having collected everything, departed for a far country, and dissipated his property by living prodigally. When he had spent everything a severe famine spread throughout that country, and he began to be in need. And he went and attached himself to one of that country’s citizens, and he sent him into his fields to feed the pigs, and he longed to fill his stomach with the carob pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. And coming to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired men are overflowing with bread, but I am here perishing from famine. I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired ser­vants.’” And he rose and went to his own father. And while he was yet far away his father saw him and was inwardly moved with pity, and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him fervently. And his 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 the best robe and put it on him, and place a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us sit and have good cheer, Because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again, was lost and has been found.” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24)

Death of the Father:

The first death in the parable is the death of the father. At the very beginning of the parable, the younger son comes to the father and demands his share of the father’s estate ahead of time. As Capon puts it, he tells his father to put his will into effect, to drop legally dead right on the spot. p.294. And the father complies! The father, in effect, commits suicide and gives his younger son the entire portion of the estate that would belong to him only upon the father’s death. Thus, just two sentences into the parable, Jesus has set up the following dynamics: he has given the first son a fat living; he has made the brother, for all the purposes of the parable yet to come, the head of the household; and he has put the real paterfamilias out of business altogether. p.294. The younger son causes his father to legally die.

Death of the Younger Son:

The second death of the parable occurs when the younger son has squandered his inheritance and ends up living with the swine. The prodigal finally wakes up dead. Reduced to the indignity of slopping hogs for a local farmer, he comes to himself one dismal morning and realizes that whatever life he had is over. . . . Jesus proceeds to have the prodigal come face to face with it. He sits him down next to the hog trough and has him look at his life and finds … nothing. p.294.

The younger son cannot conceive of reconciliation with his father (“I am no longer worthy to be called your son”), and so he concocts a new plan for his future (“Treat me as one of your hired servants”). He will become a paid worker on his father’s estate. So he begins the journey home, intending to humiliate himself and enter into a contractual relationship with the man who raised him as his son and his heir.

The younger son, however, has not yet fully come to terms with his death. In seeking to become a hired hand, this son is still trying to cheat death and have a bookkeeping relationship with his father. But what he does not yet see is that, as far as his relationship with his father is concerned, his lost sonship is the only life he had: there is no way now for him to be anything but a dead son. p.295. He cannot be a hired hand. He can either be a son or he can be dead to his family.

The son finally realizes his dead state when he arrives home. Although Jesus does not tell us what he was thinking when he saw his father come rushing toward him in love and joy, we do see the result: the son deletes from his scripted confession his plea for employment. His father’s generous and gracious welcome has made the request impossible. As Capon writes: The father simply sees this corpse of a son coming down the road and, because raising dead sons to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite way of spending an afternoon, he proceeds straight to hugs, kisses, and resurrection. . . . In the clarity of his resurrection, the boy suddenly sees that he is a dead son, that he will always be a dead son, and that he cannot, by any efforts of his own or even by any gift of his father’s become a live anything else. And he understands too that if now, in his embrace, he is a dead son who is alive again, it is all because his father was himself willing to be dead in order to raise him up. (pp. 295-296)

Out of his own death, the father raises his dead son to life. The father came to the son prior to his confession to teach us that confession is not the cause of forgiveness. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness; it is the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have. . . .  We are not forgiven, therefore, because we made ourselves forgivable or even because we had faith; we are forgiven solely because there is a Forgiver. p.297.

Death of the Fatted Calf:

The father puts no intermediate steps between forgiveness and celebration. p.298. The son does not engage in any penance. The first words out of the father’s mouth are commands to his servants to clothe the son in the best robe, a ring, and shoes and to go and kill the fatted calf so that all may eat and make merry. vv.22-23. The fatted calf dies, thus fulfilling its very teleological purpose, in order to bring about the celebratory banquet. The slain fatted calf is the sign and symbol of the father’s restoration of the fallen son.

Indeed, as far as I am concerned, the fatted calf is actually the Christ-figure in this parable. Consider. What does a fatted calf do? It stands around in its stall with one purpose in life: to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. If that doesn’t sound like the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world—who dies in Jesus and in all our deaths and who comes finally to the Supper of the Lamb as the pièce de résistance of his own wedding party—I don’t know what does. The fatted calf proclaims that the party is what the father’s house is all about, just as Jesus the dead and risen Bridegroom proclaims that an eternal bash is what the universe is all about. p.298

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Bolognese. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

God’s love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no differ­ence to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns.

Rev. Herbert McCabe Faith Within Reason, p.157

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