Inverted sonship: Jesus as prodigal son

Food, sonship, & rebellion

The Jewish scriptures associate rebellion against parents with excessive eating and drinking. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is the seminal text in this regard. There, the “stubborn and rebellious son” is brought before the elders of the town where, prior to being stoned, he is accused of “drunkenness” (οἰνοφλυγέω) and revelrous “gluttony” (συνβολοκοπέω) (21:20, cf. Matthew 24:48-49). 

Proverbs 23:20-22 picks up this thread, condemning inordinate eating and drinking as forms of filial impiety: “Do not be among drunkards (οἰνοπότης), or among unrestrained gluttons of meat (ἐκτείνου συμβολαῗς κρεῶν); for the drunkard (μέθυσος) and the man who goes to a prostitute (πορνοκόπος) will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe them with rags. Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old.”

As another proverb sums up: “Companions of gluttons shame their parents” (Proverbs 28:7).

In contrast to this rambunctious and disobedient son, the obedient Jewish son was to strictly moderate his eating and drinking in order to preserve his father’s honor and wealth. For, as it were, a man’s behavior at the dinner table was indicative of the kind of son he was.

Jesus the prodigal son

When these religious and cultural norms are brought to bear on Jesus’ ministry, the gospel traditions leave little room for doubt: Jesus proudly maintained a prodigal reputation. Everywhere Jesus went extravagant feasting followed.

The evidence for this is substantial.

  • The religious classes condemned Jesus as a “glutton” and “drunkard” (Matthew 11:19/Luke 7:34) who regularly engaged in gratuitous consumption (cf. Luke 15:1-2).
  • John’s disciples were confounded by Jesus’ conspicuous departure from the Baptist’s ascetic lifestyle (cf. Mark 2:16-19).
  • Rather than deny his penchant for food and drink, Jesus justified it. According to Jesus, the peculiar occasion demanded indulgence. Since sinners were repenting of their wrongdoing on the heels of the kingdom’s arrival, unexpected contrition required celebration; angelic carnival in heaven made necessary human carnival in Israel (cf. Mark 2:16-19, Luke 15:6-7; 9-10; 22-25; 32).

Despite the stigma it engendered then, Jesus’ prodigal persona likely served his message. Since God’s kingdom was about to come upon Israel, righteous Israelites, true “sons of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), would soon enter into the messianic banquet (cf. Matthew 8:11, 22:2). The approach of this regal feast meant it was time for celebration, time to inaugurate the festivities. Strange as it may have seemed to most Jews of Antiquity, by over-eating and over-drinking Jesus believed he was engaged in prophetic and divinely-sanctioned action, not lawlessness.

For those who rejected the prophet’s message of this soon-to-appear kingdom, on the other hand, Jesus was the embodiment of folly, a ruinous lover of food and wine, and a destroyer of his father’s house. He was, in other words, a rebellious and prodigal son.

The prodigal son in Pharisaic perspective

With this context in place, I think we are better able to understand the rhetoric at work in Jesus’ famous parable, the prodigal son. We can begin to read the parable not from the perspective of the repentant sinners flocking to Jesus, but rather from the perspective of the skeptical Pharisees and scribes, those who viewed Jesus as the epitome of filial impiety. We can ask How would they have understood this parable?

The answer is, perhaps, obvious. For the Pharisee and the scribe, the profligate younger son who sins against his father and against God evokes Jesus and those who share his dinner table. Like the younger son, Jesus abandoned his father’s house and trade, “squanders his property in dissolute living” (Luke 15:13), associates with sinful women (Luke 15:30, cf. Luke 7:36-50, Matthew 21:31, Proverbs 29:3), and even encourages others to take similar actions (cf. Mark 10:21; 29, Matthew 10:34-35).

For those who rejected his announcement of the kingdom, Jesus and his party-going friends were the prodigal son of the parable; they were the rebellious sons who “devoured” (κατεσθίω) their fathers’ estates and reputations with eating, drinking, and (presumably) sex (Luke 15:30). These Pharisees and scribes could say, with the younger son, that Jesus and his compatriots were, by their carousing, sinning “against father and against heaven” (Luke 15:18).

prodigal swine swan

Yet in this self-incriminating portrayal of the younger son, Jesus has misled the Pharisees while at the same time securing their attention. He has lured his opponents into drawing the wrong conclusions about the story’s meaning and the story’s direction. Jesus has not, in fact, admitted to gluttonous filial disobedience. Though superficially similar, Jesus’ celebratory lifestyle has nothing in common with the licentious living of the prodigal son.

And so, after the younger son’s demise (Luke 15:11-16), the story continues.

A drunken and gluttonous obedience

By introducing the son’s repentance and the father’s banquet into the tale, Jesus re-contextualizes his table-fellowship with sinners in a more positive light, catching his listeners off guard. Jesus eats with sinners not as a friend of lawless runaway prodigals—so thought the Pharisees—but as an obedient son and relieved brother who celebrates in accordance with God’s command. He eats and drinks freely because his Israelite brothers, once doomed to destruction on account of sin, have averted their fate in these last days.

The festivities Jesus hosts are not then, in the end, symbolized by the dismal dissipation of the wayward son, but rather by the joyous dissipation of the merciful father. Jesus’ gluttonous behavior is not, after all, comparable to the wanton hedonism and rebellion of the younger son, but rather, unexpectedly, represents obedience to the father’s celebratory will.¹ It is God who throws Jesus’ parties, not sinners.

Thus, at this final hour of history, Israel’s father invites all his wayward sons—even those who returned just before the close of time (cf. Matthew 20:1-16)—to celebrate the arrival of the kingdom. In so doing, by feasting with Jesus in advance of the messianic banquet, once rebellious sons are proven to be obedient sons of God. Those who spurn the invitation, those who refuse to indulge in food and drink at this monumental moment, however, dishonor their heavenly father and ensure their own disownment.

 

1—The proverbial father conceivably represents God the father, father Abraham, or even Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

 

 

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