Formations 03.19.2023: The Prodigal’s Brother

Julie Ribault, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 19th cent.

Luke 15:11-15, 20, 25-32

“Joseph,” I asked, addressing the Nigerian seminarian in the Parables of Jesus class I was teaching, “how would someone in your culture react to this parable? Someone who knew nothing about the Bible and grew up in a rural village in your country?”

He leaned back and thought hard. “Well, Brother Doctor Darrell,” he began. (I welcomed my students calling me by my first name, and Joseph was almost comfortable doing it.) “He would be surprised that the father forgave the son so easily.”

“Would a father ever welcome back a rebellious son like this?”

“Yes,” he said, but there was skepticism in his voice and in his expression. “It would be hard. First there would have to be a lot of begging.”

Joseph went on to teach his fellow students about how families work in an honor-and-shame society. The father holds absolute sway and is always held in highest esteem. He certainly must not be dishonored by a younger son who demands his inheritance early. The younger son is effectively saying he can’t wait for his father to die! But that is what he does. And soon after, he leaves home and promptly squanders his fortune.

Can the father’s humiliation get any greater? Actually, it can. When at last the younger son comes home, rather than rejecting him, the father welcomes him with open arms. He actually runs to meet him while he’s still a long way off.

The book of Sirach in the Apocrypha describes the importance of appearances in the ancient world:

People will be known by their appearances,
and sensible people will be known when first met face to face.
People’s attire and hearty laughter
and the way they walk proclaim things about them. (Sir 19:29-30)

In other words, honorable men don’t run! And they certainly don’t put up with any garbage from ungrateful sons who’ve already made a mockery of their authority.

Put it that way, and maybe we can understand the elder son’s anger with the attention his father has lavished on “this son of yours” (v. 30). The parable ends, though, with the father’s attempt to help the elder son see things from the father’s point of view. We had to celebrate, he says, because “this brother of yours” (v. 32) has been restored to us.

When prodigals come home, the appropriate response is not to judge or question motives but to celebrate. Anything else dishonors the Father.


• With whom do you most identify in this parable? The grateful prodigal who has found the way home? The grudging elder brother who thinks the father is being a pushover? The father who loves them both and yearns for them to be reconciled?
• What does this parable say about God’s priorities?
• What does it say about attitudes of superiority and privilege that we sometimes observe in the church?
• What does it say about how—or whether—we welcome sinners as God does?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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