Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine
Jesus' parable of the father and two sons is a development of a storytelling tradition of Israel stories about a father and two sons. The first one is the story of Adam's two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain was offended at his brother because God favored him more. So he killed him. This parable has that same motif. The elder son is offended because his brother gets better treatment than he does. The possibility remains at the end of the parable that he may kill his younger brother.
The story of Jacob and Esau is also a classic story of a father with two sons. Once again the younger son tricks his elder brother, gets his birthright and then his blessing. The younger son must flee for his life. When he returns many years later there is a real possibility that Esau is going to kill him. Esau has mercy on his brother and forgives him.They are reconciled, though they apparently never see each other again after their meeting. At least we do not hear about it.
This parable is in that tradition and ends with that open question: what is the elder son going to do? Is he going to forgive his brother, or is he going to kill him? That is the motif that runs through the stories of fathers with two sons.
Now this parable has been read as a parable about the forgiveness of sinners. Its second part, about the elder son, often is not even told, so that the whole point of the parable is lost. We need to really work at telling the story in a way that will re-create as much of the dynamics of Jesus' original story as possible. I'm going to go through those dynamics in detail and call attention to the ways in which the parable needs to be told.
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