Home » Biblical Studies » I’ll Take Allegories & Analogies for 200: The Prodigal Son in Reflection, Part 1

I’ll Take Allegories & Analogies for 200: The Prodigal Son in Reflection, Part 1

pilgrims-progress-smallI’m sure most of you have heard at least five prodigal son sermons in your lifetime… I’ve been around a while and can lay claim to at least 20 myself… in fact, I’ve preached more than five… not including the little mini-sermons I’ve been doing in co-operation with Jonathan Cashman (see: thecashmans.org) as we’ve gone about promoting our new book (40 Days with the Savior… available at amazon.com) and the Cashman’s new album project. [It’s awesome, you should check it out.]

There is something in the prodigal parable that resonates with almost everyone who reads it.

Jonathan, as we talk about in the book, finds himself in the younger brother, a once upon a time rebel rocker.

I find myself in the older brother. I won’t claim that my heart has never gone prodigal, that I don’t struggle with my own sins, but as far as society is concerned, I’ve remained close to the Father, or at least to his Church and its rules most of my life. I have spent most of my days as the dimple cheeked good boy—don’t drink, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do.

Just so, this story has impacted the self-perceptions of billions over the last two millennia and is often picked over like a chicken carcass, hiding, for many, meaningful applications to life and worship in the smallest of details… not infrequently without regard to the rules of parable telling in Jesus’ own day and in complete obviousness to the context of its telling.

One of the biggest confusions is that some approach the prodigal son as an allegory while it is, in actuality, an analogy. The difference is monumental.

Now I love a good allegory; I cut my teeth on Pilgrim’s Progress, after all… but if one treats an analogy like an allegory even good things can twist out of shape. In an allegory, we tend to treat everything as having meaning. The smallest points suggest to our desperately seeking minds the most significant truths… even if we have to add to the picture to do so.

One of my favorites growing up was the vast knowledge gained about human nature in the allegorized “All we like sheep have gone astray.” My church elders were wise enough to discover the whole secret world of sheep. “We are like Sheep, says our Lord” they would bleat, and then digest for us all the things that sheep teach us about ourselves. They are skittish; they are curious to their own hurt; their own wool can make life unwieldy if they don’t have a shepherd… and on and on. Now all the text says is that human beings share a tendency to stray with sheep.

This is not unlike the many lessons drawn from Psalm 23 by the esteemed Philip Keller in A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23. What is actually said about the relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep in the Psalm is not enough, the imagined details must also be explored for secret messages. This is not a far cry from the preacher who told me what the trees of the garden were among which Adam hid… the tree of shame, the tree of self-importance, the tree of lust, and so on… or the minister who, having discovered that in the father’s house there are many rooms, knew exactly what those rooms were… fortunately, I can’t remember them, but they were kissing cousins with those trees from Eden.

In an allegorized Prodigal son, specific reference is sought in every detail of the parable. The Father represents the heavenly father, the prodigal represents the sinners and tax-gatherers, and the older brother represents the religious leaders. So far so good. How far should we push the details though?

Should we seek specific meaning in the famine? The pods of the pig slop? The pigs? What about those around the prodigal who “gave him nothing?” What specific meaning should we give to the ring? The robe? The shoes? The fatted calf? Who do the servants represent and do we really want to go there?

More pointedly, if the older son represents the religious leaders of the day, do we really want to suggest that the father’s words to his older son is a word spoken to or about these leaders? Does Jesus preach to them, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Has Jesus ever spoken so glowingly of the religious leaders of Israel? Also, does this suggest that the younger son is still out of his inheritance? “Welcomed back but you are still impoverished”? “Now that the party is over, let’s talk about that new job as a hired hand, Son”?

Under this method, what would the bemoaned goat represent in the life of these men in relationship with the Father? What the older son’s work in the field? “Yes! He heard both music and dancing… music represents blah, while dancing represents, bligiddyblah.”

How much crazier could we get if we began to imagine details and seek meaning in them. Obviously these people would have had a basic house structure and wells, and they would have had crops and animals and they would have had pitchers and wine jugs and…. Those sandals must have had thongs to tie and untie; what might we make them out to be? There is no end to the possible mischief we could get up to if we allegorize. I’ve seen it… it gets ugly.

As an analogy, however, one seeks a broad situational comparison. The details are present to add shared realism and interest to the story element. We learn a simple lesson from a general similarity, usually cast in a common occurrence.

Jesus is dining with tax-collectors and sinners and the religious types want to know why? Jesus answers their question with three connected parables. We might label these three together as—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. While there are some vague representations found in the audience (Each person in the audience is supposed to find himself or herself there) the details must not be pushed too hard. The big picture speaks.

“Who wouldn’t rejoice?” Jesus asks. The answer is found in the final story, but the details are meant to enhance the main point rather than making independent points of their own. These are analogies NOT Pilgrim’s Progress-ish allegories.

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