After reading a bit of N.T. Wright’s works today, I gained much of the insight for from him; but, to start, I actually want to diverge from his content in order to point out that when reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there is one details that African readers almost always pick out that Western readers skip over. That is, all this happens in a famine (Luke 15:13).
Of course, we as readers knew that, maybe in the back of our minds, but few Western readers focus on this detail. I have a good brother who is in many of my Th.M. classes from Kenya who has told me this story, as well as others. (It must have been written in a famous book)
Long story short, we all have details that we focus on when we read, and sometimes forget to look for other layers or nuances of the story. So, coming to Luke 15:11-32, we should be on the lookout for details we sometimes miss – knowing how prone we are to overlook or deemphasize certain aspects of the account.
At its basic level, the story is about a young son who goes off to a pagan country and ‘astonishingly is welcomed back home’ (a theme which would be painfully obvious to Jewish readers, but today missed by virtually everyone).
N.T. Wright points out that in this parable (pg. 41, The Challenge of Jesus), that no matter the dozen things people say rightly and wrongly about the parable, framing it in terms of an individual sinner’s repentance (which is true, one layer of its meaning lies at this level), it is not merely a general illustration of God’s forgiveness to a sinner – but, rather, this is the story of the Exile! And, the darkness of the story, the ‘older brother’ is not merely an allegory for jealousy, but the first-century Pharisees who opposed Jesus’ work – his eating with sinners, healing on the Sabbath, etc., etc.
God’s kingdom was coming, but not like Israel expected. The message has been, and will continue to be, transferred into a timeless truth about God’s grace toward a sinner. But, in that place and time, it was also a context-specific description of what was happening between the Jewish nation itself in response to Jesus. ‘The Father’ responded to the poor and weak, those who had previously squandered and prostituted their inheritance, who came to repent rather than the older brother who would not celebrate their return.