11. The meaning of the banquet. The banquet in the parable has three interpretations. The first is offered by the father, the second by a little boy in the courtyard of the home, and the third by the older son. The first two are in harmony with each other. The third is in sharp contrast to the first two. Contemporary readers usually only recall the third. All three interpretations must be examined.
Once reconciliation is assured, the father orders a banquet. He says, “Let us eat and celebrate; for [now comes his reason] this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The father does not say, “He was lost and has come home.” Instead, we read, “He was lost and is found.” So who found him? The father did! Where did he find him? At the edge of the village! Thus, in the father’s perceptions, the Prodigal was still lost and dead at the edge of the village.
Even as the shepherd was obliged to go forth and pay a high price to find his sheep, and the good woman sought diligently to find her coin, even so the father went down and out in a costly demonstration of unexpected love to find and resurrect his son. The banquet is a celebration of the success of that finding and that resurrection.
Now for the little boy’s interpretation. The older son comes in from the field and on hearing the music calls to a pais. This Greek word can mean three things. The first is “son,” which does not fit this text. The second is “servant,” which also does not fit, because all the servants are busy in the house serving the huge banquet. The third option is “young boy.” Middle Eastern Syriac and Arabic versions have always chosen this third alternative.
As the older son approaches his family home in the center of the village, he naturally meets a crowd of young boys who are not old enough to recline with the elders at the banquet, but are outside the house dancing in tune to the music and enjoying the occasion in their own boisterous manner. The young lad assumes the role of the chorus in a Greek drama. (We now know that there was a large Greek theater in Sepphoris, four miles from Nazareth.)
The little boy tells the listener/reader the truth about what is happening in the story. The older son asks him what the party is all about and the lad says (as I would translate it), “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because (now comes the second interpretation) he (the father) received him (the Prodigal) with peace!” The word I translate here as “peace” is the Greek word hugaino. This means “in good health,” and from it we have the English word hygiene. But in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), this same Greek word appears 14 times, and without exception it translates the Hebrew word shalom or peace.
When a first-century Jew used the word hugaino, he or she mentally translated the Hebrew word shalom, which includes “good health” but means so very much more. I am confident that Jesus used the word shalom in the story.
The point is that the banquet is in celebration of the father’s successful efforts at creating reconciliation–shalom–and the community has come to participate in that celebration. Rather than a qetsatsah ceremony of rejection, they are participating in the joy of a restoration achieved by the father at great cost. Thus the young boy confirms the father’s interpretation. For both, the banquet is a celebration of the success of the father’s efforts at reconciling his son.
The language of the young boy, “He received him. . . .” (and plans to eat with him), reminds the listener of the Pharisees’ complaint, “This fellow [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The young boy’s speech confirms that the father has clearly evolved into a symbol for Jesus. Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. In this parable, the father does the same.