Parable of the Prodigal Son: Arland Hultgren

This post is part of our ongoing series examining interpretations of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Arland Hultgren
Arland Hultgren

Arland J. Hultgren’s interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in The Parables of Jesus offers a commentary style interpretation that will function within this paper as an example of several facets of the “traditional” Christian interpretation.[1] Before examining his interpretation of this narrative, we must first note several methodological factors in his hermeneutic. Within the context of his commentary, Hultgren write that “the primary interest within this volume is exegesis and theological reflection on the parables of Jesus as transmitted within the Synoptic Gospels.[2] In examining Luke 15:11b-32, Hultgren employs a variety of historical-critical tools, including textual criticism, philology, a contextual understandings of words and phrases during the Greco-Roman period, literary examination of the parable, and theological engagement of the narrative.[3] Hultgren’s overarching approach to the parables of Jesus lies with his declaration that underlies the perspective that parables are to be considered one of the two undisputed facets of historical datum (the other being his crucifixion), which makes their interpretation central for understanding the message of the historical Jesus and early Jesus movement.[4] Within this interpretation, the Parable of the Prodigal Son can only be understood within its context,[5] especially the literary context of Luke 15, in which Jesus is responding to the Pharisee’s and this parable follows those of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin.[6] As a final note concerning Hultgren’s methodological perspective, he affirms that his interpretations are but one of many possible interpretations, though adding the caveat that a parable should not be understood to mean just anything.[7] Thus Hultgren approaches this parable from a typically Protestant interpretative framework that places emphasis on the theological implications of the parable, as well as the surrounding contextual and especially socio-historical concerns.

Hultgren begins his section on the Parable of the Prodigal Son with a translation of Luke 15:11b-32 and an extensive section on textual factors and notes on translation that, while beneficial for those involved in a text-critical approach to this parable, remain outside the purposes of our comparison of interpretations here.[8] Turning to the genesis of his interpretation of this parable, Hultgren notes that while some have divided the parable into authentic and addendum sections, it is necessary to read and interpret that parable in its literary entirely, noting the literary unity that exists between the first verse of the parable and what has often been viewed as the second half of the account, namely the reference to the second son.[9] In examining the son’s request for his inheritance, this interpretation indicates that property was only transferred at death in the Roman world,[10] and that while it is not inconceivable that a parent would initiate such action (as seen in Sirach and the Talmud), the actions of the younger son appear to be brash and arrogant.[11] In short, he is essentially wishing for the death of his father, a desire that connotes willful disobedience to the command in the Decalogue concerning the honoring of his father and mother.[12] Following the father’s surprising willingness to do the bidding of his son, Hultgren writes that while would expect in this unusual setting for the traditional portion of one-third of the estate to be granted to the younger son, the father may have divided his wealth equally between the sons.[13] Further, Hultgren writes that while the father appears to remain the head of household, he appears to give the rest of his estate to the older son at the same time that younger sons received his share.[14] Given land laws in ancient Israel however, it seems likely that while the younger son would have received one-third of his father’s land, he may not have been able to sell it because his father was still alive.[15] Irrespective of the exact breakdown of the father’s estate, this interpretation argues that this narrative continues with the younger brother clearly converting whatever inheritance that he has received from his father into funds, translated by Hultgren as “cash”, for his journey.[16]


Rembrant's Prodigal Son
Rembrant’s Prodigal Son

Moving into the second portion of the parable as the son departs, Hultgren notes that the text indicates that his departure indicates not only a geographical exodus, but also the development of a psychologically separation.[17] Within the wider context, Hultgren argues that this distancing should also be understood as being developed specifically between the son and his other family and with the community in general.[18] While the younger son is in a foreign land, this interpretation understands that the text does not indicate that his life was immoral, but only infers that he lived wildly, which seems to leave the possibility open for immoral activities.[19] Regardless of the exact actions of the son, his life spins out of control and eventually factors beyond his control, namely famine, exasperate his economic situation. His decision to tend swine and subsequent desire to eat even the pods being fed to those animals demonstrates for Hultgren that the son’s quality of life has been utterly degraded by his choices.[20] His “coming to his senses” is thus not really an issue of repentance, but instead reflects his decision to return home to his father and his recognizing his foolishness, which may be viewed as a prelude to repentance, but for this interpretation should not be understood as an actual act of repentance.[21] Further, the son, in thinking about the day laborers of his father, seems ready to return to his village and slide down the social ladder by becoming a day laborer with no security as opposed to the indentured servitude that he seemed to living with in the foreign country.[22] By this thinking, he is by no means anticipating anything upon his return home other than opportunity to leave the situation that he is in.[23] Whilst traveling home, the son practices the speech that he is going to deliver to his father. For Hultgren, this speech uses the language of repentance but does not necessarily seem to indicate his genuinely repentant heart. Additionally, the exact nature of the sin that the son is preparing to confess may be somewhat ambiguous, but Hultgren argues that it consists of the son’s insolence in asking for his inheritance and leaving home.[24] As one would expect, the homecoming event is one fraught with emotional connotations, as Hultgren notes that the term used for the father’s compassion here should by understanding to be divine in origin.[25] The father violates the norm for receiving his son back, and instead of passively waiting for him to come kneel before him in obedient submission and repentance, the father joyously runs out to meet his son, an indication of his undignified joy at his return.[26] Further, that the father “fell upon the son’s neck” and kissed him indicates that there is true and full restitution, in this understanding akin to what Jacob and Esau experienced in the Genesis narrative.[27] The scene, for all of the father’s joy, seems to be set for the son’s speech of repentance. However, as the son begins to speak, he is interrupted by his father and given signs of acceptance into the family and community again.[28] The shoes are of special importance for Hultgren’s interpretation, as they mirrored the custom of the day to free slaves.[29] The father has thus welcomed his son back and returned to him the freedom that he has lost by his behavior and leaving. In merriment and proclamations of the father that follow, Hultgren understands several things as to be occurring. First, the younger son is clearly trying to be reintegrated into the family and community. Second, the older son, who has not yet be reintroduced, seems to have his status threatened by the return of what looks like a favorite son. And third, the language used by the father links this parable to those immediately preceding this narrative.[30]

Turning now to the third section of that parable and the narrative of the older son, Hultgren writes that he has apparently been loyal and hard at work in the fields upon the return of his younger brother, and thus is at first not certain of what is transpiring.[31] However, he is eventually informed, apparently while still working, and appears to seek the audience of his father, though not at the feast. As his father risks humiliation by leaving his own party, the older sons meets him in the field, where they engage in an emotional and heated debate concerning the obedience of the older son to the father. Hultgren notes that Luke’s use of the term “command” appears to be directed towards the scribes and Pharisees.[32] Especially at the slaughter of a special calf the older son appears to be incensed, and resorts to using imaginative language to describe the actions of this younger brother, whose actions texts seems to indicate cannot possible be known by the older son who has been working.[33] In his outburst, the older son appears to disrespect his father, who continues to encourage his attendance at the feast being held in honor of the younger brother.[34] In all that happens throughout the course of this parable, the father regards both sons and fully his.[35] Hultgren further notes Luke’s pointed remark against the Pharisee’s who he indicates have been unable to rejoice with the good news.[36] As the parable ends, there appears no evident resolution aside from the call of the father to join the feast of the return of his younger son. This Hultgren understands to be a reinforcement of the message of the parable, as those interacting with the parable are given the choice to rejoice.[37] In reflecting upon additional issues raised by the interpretation of this parable, Hultgren cautiously admits that it may be possible for the historical Jesus to here be comparing the older faithful son to the Pharisees, who are referenced in the first two verses of the chapter.[38] Hultgren, writing from a long history of Protestant interpretation that sets much of Jesus’ teaching into direct opposition with the strict ritualized emphasis placed on Torah by the Pharisees, is clearly uncomfortable with this interpretation, and offers the conclusion that the love of God is so great that it evokes resentment in those who presume to fully understand it.

mzm.knaunlptTo conclude his exposition, Hultgren offers several conclusions stemming from his interpretation of this parable. First, he understands the unconditional love of the father to extend to his sons long prior to their repentance.[39] In fact, one could almost argue that “forgiveness” was granted to both sons irrespective of whether they repented or not in this narrative. Such an understanding has possible ramifications for a parabolic understanding of forgiveness and repentance. The second thing that Hultgren affirms is the traditional understanding of the father figure in this parable as Father God.[40] Building on the first point, this allows Hultgren to assume a traditional Lutheran stance that God must forgive sinners before they come to repentance, as they are unable to seek repentance on their own.[41] The third and final point that Hultgren makes is that those who are self-righteous are loved by God, and the purpose of this parable is to demonstrate that they need to realize that God loves those who aren’t nearly so righteous as well.[42] Thus Hultgren, standing firmly tradition of typical Protestant historical-critical interpretation of that parable, concludes that Parable of the Prodigal Son ultimately “portrays the love of God in such a way that it evokes resentment in those who assume that they know all there is to know about it.”[43]


[1] Hultgren’s perspective should be understood firmly within the scope of the reformed Protestant, and especially Lutheran, tradition. There is of course no such “thing” as “the traditional interpretation.” However, after looking at the works of our scholars, several key facets of Hultgren’s interpretation should be visible as facets of a “traditional” interpretation that has often been critiqued by recent scholarship. [2] Arland J. Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. Print. 19. [3] Ibid., 19 [4] Ibid., 1 [5] Ibid., 17 [6] Ibid., 72 [7] Ibid., 19 [8] Arland J. Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. Print. 70-2. [9] Ibid., 72; Hultgren later notes that the central core of the parable, verses 11-24, are typically understood to have derived either from the historical Jesus or Luke, and that the duration of that parable (See pages 25 through 32), is generally argued to have come from a secondary source, either Luke or a later redactor. Hultgren also notes that some have attributed the entire parable to either Luke or the Historical Jesus. Hultgren himself seems to argue that the entire parable appears to have derived from the historical Jesus, who seems to have had a uniquely impactful influence on Luke (See page 84). [10] Ibid., 73 [11] Ibid., 73 [12] Ibid., 73 [13] Ibid., 73 [14] Ibid., 73-4 [15] Arland J. Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. Print. 74 [16] Ibid., 74-5 [17] Ibid., 75 [18] Ibid., 75 [19] Ibid., 75 [20] Ibid., 75 [21] Ibid., 76 [22] Ibid., 76-7 [23] Arland J. Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. Print. 77 [24] Ibid., 77 [25] Ibid., 78 [26] Ibid., 78 [27] Ibid., 78-9 [28] Hultgren also notes the father’s action perhaps indicates that he was seeking to protect his son from the wider community, but does not expand much on this. [29] Ibid., 79 [30] Ibid., 79-80 [31] Arland J. Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. Print. 80 [32] Ibid., 80-1 [33] Ibid., 81 [34] Ibid., 81 [35] Ibid., 82 [36] Ibid., 82 [37] Ibid., 82 [38] Ibid., 85 [39] Arland J. Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000. Print. 86 [40] Ibid., 86 [41] Ibid., 87 [42] Ibid., 87 [43] Ibid., 86


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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