7. The self-serving plan. Perhaps the most theologically damaging traditional misunderstanding of this parable is in the popular perception of the phrase, “He came to himself.” This has long been interpreted as meaning “he repented.” This reading of the text dulls its cutting edge and breaks up the theological unity of the chapter.
The good shepherd must traverse the wilderness to find his sheep. He does not return to the village and wait for the sheep to wander home and bleat at the door of the sheepfold. The good woman lights a lamp and searches diligently to find the lost coin. She does not resume her chores expecting the coin to flip itself out of a crack in the floor and land on the kitchen table. The sheep and the coin must be rescued.
But if the Prodigal manages to make his way home by his own efforts, then the third story teaches that people are not impeded by original sin or depraved wills and can by their own effort, without divine grace, take steps toward salvation.
In the first story, the lost sheep is a symbol of repentance, and repentance is shown there as “acceptance of being found.” The second story confirms this definition. But if the Prodigal truly repents in the far country and struggles home on his own, then Jesus contradicts himself. As traditionally understood, the third story seems to affirm the opposite of the first two. But there is another alternative.
By telling the parable of the Good Shepherd, Jesus invokes Psalm 23, which also has a lost sheep and a good shepherd. The key phrase appears in verse 3, which is traditionally translated, “He restores my soul.” This statement has come to mean: I was downcast, and the Lord restored my spirits. That understanding is, no doubt, a part of the psalmist’s intention. But the Hebrew reads “yashubib nefshi,” which literally means, “He brings me back,” or “He causes me to repent.” Clearly, the psalmist is lost, and God, the good shepherd, brings him back to the paths of righteousness.
When the Prodigal’s speech is read in this light, a new meaning emerges. The psalmist believed God brought him back (to God) and caused him to repent. The Prodigal is going to solve his own problem–he came to himself. The verb for return does not appear! The long, rich history of Arabic versions contains a number of interesting translations of this key phrase. Some read, “He got smart.” Others translate, “He took an interest in himself” or “He thought to himself.” None of these translators saw the Prodigal in the far country as repentant. Ah–but what of his “confession”?
The prepared confession reads, “I have sinned against heaven and before you,” and this is (understandably) usually seen to indicate heartfelt repentance. Jesus’ audience, however, is composed of Pharisees who know the Scriptures well. They recognize that confession as a quotation from the pharaoh when he tries to manipulate Moses into lifting the plagues. After the ninth plague, Pharaoh finally agrees to meet Moses, and when Moses appears, Pharaoh gives this same speech. Everyone knows that Pharaoh is not repenting. He is simply trying to bend Moses to his will.
The Prodigal is best understood as attempting the same. Hoping to soften his father’s heart, the Prodigal plans to offer his solution to the problem of their estrangement: job training. He will work as a paid craftsman and be able to save money. He will not live at home for the present. But after the lost money is recovered, he can discuss reconciliation. Having failed to get a paying job in the far country, he will try to get his father’s backing to become gainfully employed near home. He will yet save himself through the law. No grace is necessary. He can manage–or so he thinks! But is the lost money the real problem?
In his soliloquy in the far country, the Prodigal opens his mind and spirit to the listener/reader. Wanting to eat, he says, “I am dying of hunger!” He thinks that if he can only recover the lost money, everything will eventually be solved. In the interim, he will be able to eat, and once the money is returned, the village will accept him back.
He does not consider the father’s broken heart and the agony of rejected love that his father has endured. While talking to himself in the far country he evidences no shame or remorse. If he is a servant standing before a master, his plan is somehow adequate. If he is a son dealing with a compassionate and loving father, his projected solution is inadequate.