We've all heard the parable of the prodigal son dozens of times at least. For some of us, it's a favorite story that we don't mind hearing over and over again. For others, it slips by like yesterday's news. In any case, it's easy to lose focus on the details of the story. Let's take a few minutes today to dig into this familiar tale and discover the elements that make it one of Jesus' most radical parables.
1. The younger son's request to his father is the height of disrespect. Basically, he is saying, “You're dead to me. Give me my inheritance now.” Sin sends a similar message. When someone commits a mortal sin, he is essentially telling God to get out of his life. Even venial sins tell God that His ways aren't welcome in a particular area or situation.
2. The father doesn't protest. It may have just about killed him, but he lets his son go. He knows there was no sense in trying to hold him if the son didn't want to be with him. God, too, lets us go. We have free will, and He doesn't force Himself on us.
3. The young man travels to a distant land. He seems to want to be as far away from his father and his former life as possible.
4. He soon realizes that freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be. He runs through his inheritance quickly, and when famine strikes his new land, he is left with nothing. No one helps him. He probably made quite a few “friends” when he had money, but they are nowhere in sight now that he is destitute.
5. He hires himself out to care for local citizen's pigs. Pigs. They are unclean animals to the Jews. The young man is about as low as he can get right now, caring for these filthy creatures that his Jewish faith disdains.
6. Notice that the young man longs to eat the pods he is supposed to feed to the pigs, but he doesn't. Could he still have some kind of moral sense?
7. Pretty soon the son decides to return to his father. His motives aren't pure, however. He's hungry, and he knows that his father has plenty of food, even for his hired men. He does, at least, recognize that his actions have been sinful.
8. The father must have been watching for his son, keeping a long, lonely vigil for his lost boy. He catches sight of his son while he is still a long way away and takes off running. This is an unusual response for a wealthy Jewish man. Running is simply not dignified. The father doesn't care. He just wants to hug and kiss his son. Could God respond that way when we make even the slightest turn toward Him?
9. The son barely gets his prepared speech out of his mouth, and the father pretty much ignores it. There will be no treating his son like a hired man.
10. The father orders the servants to dress his newly-returned son in the finest of clothes, sandals, and jewelry, immediately raising the young man to his former status in the household. All is forgiven. It will be as though nothing has ever happened, as though he never went away.
11. The father doesn't stop there. He orders a celebration with rich food, music, and dancing. He wants to show his son a wonderful time and to express how much he values his return.
12. Pretty soon the older son turns up. He asks a servant what's going on up at the house. When he finds out that his brother is back and that his father has thrown a party for the renegade, he's furious. He won't even enter the house. He is not nearly so quick to forgive as his father is.
13. In fact, he argues with his father, clearly jealous, and he pouts. “Look, all these years I served you,” he tells his father, “and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” It's almost as if he's saying, “See, Dad, I'm the good son, and I don't get anything? That's just wrong!!! He already spent his part. Now he should pay the consequences.” Notice, too, that he doesn't claim his brother. He says “your son” not “my brother.” He doesn't even want to be related to him.
14. The father tries to reason with his older son, assuring him that everything he owns also belongs to that faithful son. He recognizes his older son's constant presence, and he appreciates it. But he also tells the jealous young man that they must celebrate. His brother has been dead, but he is alive again. He was lost but now is found.
15. Jesus doesn't tell us how the older son responds to his father's urging. Perhaps he wants us to respond in his place.