Why Greek Matters (Part 9) – The Prodigal Son and the Resurrection of the Dead

Small details sometimes mean little – at other times they contribute significantly to the meaning of a passage. In the familiar story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, a verb occurs twice that often is translated  “get up” (NRSV, NASB) or “arise” (ESV, KJV). First in verse 18 when the son comes to his senses and says “I will arise and go to my father.” Then again in verse 20: “And arising, he went to his father.” This word in Greek (ἀνίστημι, anistēmi), is the common word for getting or standing up. However, it has a significant metaphorical usage for “getting up” or rising from the dead (Mk 8:31; 9:9f, 31; 10:34; 16:9; Lk 18:33; 24:7, 46; Jn 20:9; Ac 17:3; 1 Th 4:14). The name Anastasia comes from the Greek word for resurrection (ἀνάστασις, anastasis) which is derived from this verb.

This may seem like an incidental detail. However, when taken together with other features of this passage, a larger picture begins to emerge:

  • Twice the father says that the son was “dead and has come back to life” (Lk 15:24; 32).
  • Both of these statements from the Father come at the conclusion of the two major sections of the passage – the first concerning the younger son (vv. 11-24), the second the older (vv. 25-32)
  • The son describes himself as “perishing” or “dying” in v. 17 (ἀπόλλυμαι, apollumai)
  • The same verb is used in vv. 24 and 32 alongside the dead/alive contrast saying the son was perishing (“was lost”) but now is found.

Resurrection thus emerges as significant theme in this passage. The younger son is pictured as rising from the dead when he returns home, and the use of anistēmi underscores this, albeit in a subtle way. It is very possible that Jesus’ usage of the resurrection motif relates to Ezekiel 37, where the prophet Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones which come back to life. Ezekiel is told that this resurrection metaphorically depicts the restoration of the nation of Israel when they return from their exile and captivity. We can see numerous parallels between Israel’s story of exile, and the Prodigal Son’s story:

  • The son leaves home and lives in a foreign land, just as Israel was exiled in Babylon
  • The son’s departure was related to dissolute living, just as Israel’s exile was related to sin
  • The son’s occupation of feeding pigs, the stereotypical unclean animal, corresponds to Israel’s compromise with the manner of life characteristic of the Gentiles
  • The son’s return is associated with a confession of sin.
  • Israel is often depicted as God’s son (Ex 4:22; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1)

Taken together, Jesus seems to be telling a story, not simply about resurrection from the dead, but Israel’s resurrection from the dead – of their restoration to God and as God’s people. So what does all this mean? Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son in response to the Pharisees and Scribes grumbling about him eating with tax collectors and sinners (Lk 15:1-2), as eating with unclean social outcasts was a moral issue for them. This mention of eating is no small detail as the previous chapter has three parables about dining. Verse 15 makes explicit that these parables are about the Kingdom of God. The third parable (14:17-24), describes people who participate in a feast and others who do not, much like the older brother’s refusal to celebrate the return of the younger son, despite the father’s pleading.

The point of this parable seems to be two-fold:

1) Jesus’ practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners was no less than the beginning of Israel’s long awaited “resurrection,” which in Jewish tradition, had implications of global justice and restoration (Is 42:4; 49:6; Ps 96). The restoration of all things would flow from a restoration of Israel as God’s agents of justice. This restoration program was beginning through Jesus, however with the least likely – the social and moral outcasts. Yet, as they repent, they become the recipients of God’s rejoicing acceptance and they take a central role in God’s Kingdom purpose of bringing justice and restoration to broken humanity.

2) As amazing as this is, the more pointed message is directed at the Scribes and Pharisees, who initially provoked this parable and to whom it is directed. They believed the “tax collectors and sinners” were excluded from God’s purposes because they failed to scrupulously follow the Pharisee’s moral and ritual code (which in some ways went well beyond the law recorded in Scripture, and in some ways ignored major parts it – cf. Matt. 23:23). They were not primarily trying to earn their way into God’s favor (just as talk of earning does not come up in this parable), but were drawing the boundary lines to show who were God’s people and who were not. By drawing the boundary lines in the way they did, they maintained the sense of their own superiority by excluding most everyone else, thus entirely missing the purpose of God’s people – to exist for the sake of those outside, rather than being against them.

Jesus is saying that just as the older brother refused to come to the celebration, the Pharisees, by drawing the boundary lines in the way they were by trying to exclude others whom God had already reconciled, actually were excluding themselves from being in God’s house, and participating in the restoration of Israel. By insisting on their elitist boundary lines, they were placing themselves outside of the people who would be the agents of God’s glad reconciliation and restoration for the whole world. God’s work of resurrection and new creation was beginning in and through Jesus but more than not noticing it, the Pharisees were definitively placing themselves outside of it – remaining in the field, in exile so to speak, when the whole family is returning home with rejoicing.

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2 Responses to Why Greek Matters (Part 9) – The Prodigal Son and the Resurrection of the Dead

  1. Rex says:

    Thanks Richard.

  2. Greg says:

    Well, you were on the right track. Why can’t people believe resurrection means literal coming back to life. Lazarus was restored to health, in the midst of a conversation about the resurrection of all Israel. YHWH made promises he can only keep to literally resurrected people. It happens soon just after the nuclear exchange with Shinar in Zech5. They will be mistaken for refugees.

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