Jesus’s parable known as ‘The Prodigal Sonne’ (1560 Geneva Bible) is about a father and his two sons – the younger and elder son (Luke XV: 11-31). The younger son demands his inheritance from his father who is still alive. He then ‘toke his iorney into a farre countrey, and there he wasted his goods with riotous liuing’ (Luke XV:13). With no money and, as the gloss in the Geneva Bible’s margin points out, with ‘no man…pitie vpon him’, the younger son ends up in a pig sty. He is lost far from home, and eventually returns to his father expecting to be his servant. Instead, when the youngest son is nearing home, the father rushes out to give him a robe, sandals and a ring to wear. He then orders his servants to prepare a banquet to celebrate his youngest son’s return.
The elder son stays at home to labour in the field. He is obedient to his father and, to all appearances, is the model son. However, as Timothy Keller writes in his book The Prodigal God, for people like the elder son ‘The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment’ (Keller 50). I will add that elder sons also use their faultless life to boost a sense of moral superiority that allows them to judge people they consider inferior to themselves. The elder son’s response to his younger brother’s return reveals not only his envy, but his repressed anger and bitterness towards his father.
The parable is an allegory that enables Jesus to preach an important moral message about sin. It is important to understand what an allegory is in order to recognise Jesus’s complex use of this literary device, which also illuminates an understanding of Spenserian allegory. The literary critic J. A. Cuddon defines a basic allegory as:
a story in verse or prose with a double meaning: a primary or surface meaning; and a secondary or under-the-surface meaning. It is a story, therefore, that can be read, understood and interpreted at two levels (and in some cases three or four levels). (Cuddon 22)
Allegory, as J. A.Cuddon implies, substitutes characters and/or phrases from the primary meaning with related terms that reveal an underlying signification. There is only a thin veil separating the primary from the secondary meaning so that the allegory is self evident. Therefore, the father in the parable also represents God who is the father of the human race. Therefore, his home signifies Heaven. The younger and elder sons represent Jesus’s audience who are listening to his parable. The audience are divided by Luke into two groups: the sinners and tax collectors who become the younger son and the Pharisees and scribes, the Jewish religious leaders and teachers of the law, who represent the elder son. The allegory allows Jesus to address two types of sin that are appropriate to each group; the younger son’s obvious sin, and the elder son’s concealed sin. However, at the end of the parable, Jesus not only introduces a tertiary allegorical level but also inverts it so that the ‘under-the-surface’ meaning becomes the ‘primary or surface meaning’. The inversion allows Jesus to make allegorical interpretation itself part of the Pharisees’s and scribes’s sin.
The potential for allegorical interpretation to become a sin is Edmund Spenser’s primary concern about allegory. In his letter to Ralegh appending the 1590 publication The Faerie Queene, Spenser writes that his epic poem is ‘a continued allegory or darke conceit’ (Spenser ‘Letter’ 714). The adjective ‘darke’ can be taken literally in that the allegory is concealed in darkness because it is so disturbing. The First Book of The Faerie Queene Contayning The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse or Of Holinesse is basically Redcrosse’s quest for the one true religion (probably Protestantism, though Spenser never specifies) in a land of false interpretations. Spenser’s ‘darke conceit’ is illustrated in Book I’s first major episode – Redcrosse’s battle with the half woman/half serpent monstrosity called Errour.
Errour lives in a dark cave because ‘For light she hated as the deadly bale,/Ay wont in desert darknes to remaine,’ (I.16, lines 7 & 8). The phrase ‘desert darknes’ relates to being spiritually lost and blind like the Israelites who, because of their disobedience, were punished by God in the Boke of Nombers to ‘wander in the wildernes, fourtie yeres’ (Numbers 14: 33). They were destined to die from their continuous sinning that wasted away their fleshly and spiritual bodies. The only light in Errour’s cave is from Redcrosse’s ‘glistring armor’ (I.14, line 4) that enables him to see ‘the ugly monster plaine'(I. 14, line 6) or the personification of spiritual error. In the battle that follows, Redcrosse becomes trapped in Errour’s serpentine lower body. All looks lost until Una who, at this moment represents the voice of the Holy Spirit inside Redcrosse, cries out:
Now now Sir knight, shew what ye bee
Add faith unto your force, and be not faint:
Strangle her, els she sure will strangle thee. (I.19, lines 1-4)
Adding his Christian faith to his normal strength, Redcrosse is able to free his hand and squeeze Errour’s throat. The monster then vomits amongst other things ‘bookes and papers’ (I.20, line 6). Carol V. Kaske interprets the books and papers as ‘symbolizing…theological writings, in which error is difficult to avoid’ (Kaske 22). By considering Spenser’s concern about allegory as a ‘darke conceit’, the ‘bookes and papers’ become a warning of how dangerous an erroneous interpretation of ‘theological writings’ can be. Redcrosse himself needs God’s strength or his faith in the form of Una’s cries to defeat Errour.
Spiritual sin is the theme of ‘The Prodigal Son’. The message in the parable is directed at the Pharisees and scribes because they have complained about Jesus by saying, “He receiueth sinners, & eateth with them’ (Luke 15:2). The irony that everyone is a sinner escapes the Pharisees and scribes. So, in order to reveal their sin to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus presents them with their own monster to deal with in the form of the younger son.
The younger son’s sins are extreme as well as clear. He not only demands his inheritance from his father before he has died, but spends it all on alcohol and whores. Worse still, he ends up living in a pig sty, the most unclean place imaginable for Jews, before he begins to regret his high-living. Repentance for the younger son is relatively straightforward because he knows what he has done.
However, the elder son’s sins are not so obvious. He is blind to them himself so that, like the monstrous Errour, he is literally living in darkness. He thinks he does not need to repent, because he is already anticipating his heavenly reward. The implications of his sinful attitude are far more damaging than the popular sins of covetness, gambling, sexual immorality, thieving and drunkardness. Blinded by his own self-righteousness, the elder son thinks himself superior to sinners like the younger son.
The striking contrast between the younger and elder son is shown clearly in Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son (1668-69). Rembrandt takes liberties with the parable by having the father, his younger son and elder son all appearing together. When the younger son is repenting, the elder son is supposed to be out working in the field. Though, as Barbara Joan Haeger acutely observes, Rembrandt depicts ‘the spirit of the biblical text’ (Haeger cited in Nouwen 63). In the painting, the elder son is on the right towering high above the crumpled figures of the father with his repenting younger son. Henri J. M. Nouwen notes the powerful contrast where the younger son is bathed in ‘luminous warmth’ and the elder son ‘remains in the dark’ as a shadowy figure (Nouwen 69). From the painting, it is not difficult to discern how unimpressed the elder son is with the spectacle developing beneath him.
In the actual parable like Rembrandt’s painting, the elder son is in a literal and figurative darkness that reveals itself when he complains to his father:
Lo these manie yeres haue I done thee seruice, nether brake I at anie time thy cómádement, & yet thou neuer gauest me a kid [young goat] that I might make merie with my friéds. But whé this thy sonne was come, which haue deuoured thy goods with harlots, thou hast for his sake killed the fat calfe. (Luke 15: 29 & 30).
The elder son is angry with his father because he thinks he has earned his reward. However, the father gently corrects his elder son, ‘Sonne, thou art euer with me, and all that I haue, is thine.’ (Luke 15:31). The elder son does not realise he has already been rewarded with the stable comfortable life he has taken for granted, unlike the younger son who has experienced terrible highs and lows.
What is more crucial is the father’s reason for killing the ‘fat calfe’. He explains to his elder son in what is the parable’s last sentence, ‘It was mete that we shulde make mery, & be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is aliue againe: and he was lost, but he is founde’ (Luke 15:31). It cannot be overstated the importance of the last words ‘he was lost, but he is founde’. At the secondary allegorical level ‘lost’ refers to sinners and ‘founde’ means salvation. However, Jesus introduces a third allegorical level or the new primary meaning to the parable at the end. The younger son is the lost sinner who by repenting becomes ‘found’ or saved. What is interesting is that he is no longer the younger son but his father’s equal. John MacArthur points out that the father’s three gifts to his younger son verify this equality. The sandals and robe signified that the younger son was not to be treated as a hired servant but as a highly regarded son. The ring, MacArthur argues, is a signet ring that gave the younger son ‘a legal right known as usufruct’ , which gave him the freedom to use his father’s land and assets as though he owned them (MacArthur 119). In other words, the younger son receives far more than what he actually wasted. Therefore, the parable’s primary allegorical level is no longer the story of a father and his two sons. It is the process in which God saves sinners who receive far more in Heaven in terms of spiritual joy, compared to the fleshly pursuits of material goods and wealth in a fallen world. The good news is that all sinners, in other words all human beings, can be saved if they repent.
So where does this leave the elder son? The parable ends with him outside in the cold night, no doubt hungry after a long day of hard work. Before him is his father’s house all lit up, music is playing, people are singing and dancing in front of a roaring fire, a banquet is laid out, wine is on the tables. His father is waiting with him expectantly. So what’s stopping the elder son from going inside? The reason is that the elder son still sees his younger brother as a sinner rather an equal. More damaging is that the elder son thinks he should be the one celebrating for his lifetime of good works, while the younger son is outside banished to the cold dark. He is basically trapped in the allegory or what Spenser calls a ‘darke conceit’. The elder son interprets the allegory in order to inflate his ego with a feeling of superior wellbeing. He is doomed to spend eternity in darkness when he could easily be spending it bathed in the light of heavenly bliss.
All Bibilical quotes are from The Geneva Bible 1560 Edition.
Cuddon, J.A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd Ed.Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.
Kaske, Carol V. ‘Footnote’. The Faerie Queene: Book One. 1590. Ed. Carol V. Kaske. Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 2006.
Keller, Timothy. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of Christian Faith. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009
Haeger, Barbara Joan. The Religious Significance of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son: An Examination of the Picture in the Context of the Visual and Iconographic Tradition, cited in The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 1994.
MacArthur, John. The Prodigal Son: The Inside Story of a Father, His Sons, and a Shocking Murder. NashVille: Thomas Nelson, 2008.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 1994.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene: Book One. 1590. Ed. Carol V. Kaske. Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 2006.