The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
13 "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.' 20 So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
22 "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
31 " 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
One of my favorite comedians to listen to when I was growing up was Bill Cosby. My parents had nearly all of his comedy tapes and albums and I used to love to sit around and listen to them. Even as I got older and was in college, I greatly enjoyed popping in one of his long comedy tapes on my twelve-hour drives to Oklahoma where I was going to college. In one of his tapes Cosby tells an hilarious story about he and his friends taking a life size cardboard cutout of Frankenstein and hiding it on an upper floor of a apartment building. They then convinced their childhood friend, Fat Albert, to hurry up and run up the stairs of the apartment building to watch another of their friends getting a spanking. As Fat Albert ran around the corner, they pushed out the cutout of Frankenstein and roared which greatly frightened Albert. Cosby then hilariously pointed out that he forgot that he was behind Albert who turned around, scared out of his mind, and ran over young Bill. Just when you are near tears listening to this story, Cosby calmly gathers himself and says “Now, I told you that story so that I can tell you this one,” and he goes on to tell the real story about Fat Albert that he wanted to tell. He had needed, however, to set up a few things about Albert in that first story.
As I read the first two parables that were given in response as to why Jesus would consort with sinners and welcome them into his ministry, I get the feeling that that there is almost the unstated idea that he told those first two stories in order to tell us this one. Now that we have some basic principles laid out about the true vocation and identity of Jesus and the correspondence between Jesus’ ministry and the celebration in heaven, we are ready to hear the full explanation of what Jesus is doing.
Luke lets us know that Jesus “continued” as he told this story, indicating that he is indeed still answering the initial question as to why he ate with sinners and outcasts. This story is connected with the first two and fully rounds out the answer as to the nature of his ministry. Jesus gave us here a story that is in two acts. The first part has to do with the exile and return of the younger son. The second part concerns the drama between the older son and the father.
As Jesus opens up the story, we are met with what would have been a shocking and deeply disturbing request in that culture on the part of the younger son. The son went to his father and asked for his portion of the inheritance; an inheritance that would have normally been his after the death of the father. He was basically saying to the father “I wish you were dead and I care more about this inheritance than if you are dead or alive.” It would have been an un-thinkable act in that society that would have repulsed Jesus’ hearers. The request of this son would have brought shame to the whole family and even the whole community. (Familial groups were interconnected in their status and honor in those days so when one member committed a shameful act it brought shame to the whole community.) The proper response of the father would have been to strike the son in the face and drive him out of his presence.
And we should understand that this was no small inheritance. The elements of such things throughout this story like servants, their ownership of calves and goats, and the fact that they had a banquet hall large enough for the entire community are solid indicators that the father was quite wealthy. This would have been a large inheritance. So the fact that the father granted the inheritance was not only significant, it would have been equally horrifying to the listeners as the initial request was. No father, they would have assumed, would deal with such insolent behavior. It was outrageous and enraging and would equally bring shame to the whole community to have a father look so weak and actually allow this son his request and let him leave.
Just granting the son his inheritance, though, was a little more tricky than we might imagine. Surely it would have involved money and other things that could be easily sold but a large part of the inheritance would have been land. The land would have been sold at a cut-rate because the father would still have the right to live on that portion of the land until he died. This would have heaped even further shame on the family. Every action taken by the young man in this story shows us that he only cared about himself. He was wholly disinterested in the honor of the father or the affection that the father had for him. He just wanted to get away no matter the cost to the family.
As the boy left, it would have likely involved the knowledge that he would face what was called a “Kezazah” ceremony, which meant “cutting-off.” This was a ceremony of shame that awaited any Jewish boy that lost or gave his inheritance to a Gentile. The village would gather together and fill a large pot with burned nuts and corn and then break it in front of the young young all the while yelling that he was being cut off from his people. The fear of the shame of this ceremony would have been enough for most young men but this young man leaves with little thought as to the further shame that this ceremony would bring.
When the young man left, things quickly went bad for him. He spent his money on riotous living which Jesus didn’t really define. The older brother later charges that this included prostitutes but this may have been speculation since the brother was just encountering the young man for the first time since he returned. Whatever he was doing, though, he quickly found himself the victim of spending beyond his means and at the mercy of a severe famine. He had completely lost his inheritance and the only way for him to avoid a lifetime stigma of shame would have been to recover the money and provide for himself. His first attempt was by pig herding but that clearly did not provide enough to live by.
We should not miss the point that just as Jesus had described the young man in terms that would have been repulsive in the culture of the hearers, he now describes a young man that could not sink any lower in the eyes of the Jewish audience. Here was a Jewish boy who had brought shame to his family, squandered the inheritance that was the marker of he and his family as being members of the family of God, and now he was consorting with pigs to the point that he longed for their food to fill his stomach. A young Jewish man could not possibly sink any lower in the eyes of a Jewish audience. Jesus was really piling it on as he told this story.
Verse 17 tells us that finally the young man “came to his senses.” Yet, that’s not really what the text says and it changes the story that Jesus told in an important way. It literally says that “he came to himself,” which was a figure of speech that meant simply that he was reasoning with himself. There was as of yet no repentance on the part of this young prodigal. He came up with a plan that would fix his situation at least somewhat. He would return to his father as a servant and be in a much better position than he was currently in. Jesus said that he would go to his father and say “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” It sounds nice, but these were actually words that echoed Pharaoh when he was trying to manipulate Moses for his own benefit and not truly repent (Exod. 10:16). He was still trying to determine his own fate and fix things on his own. He would save himself by earning back the money and in doing so he would keep the law and earn back his own honor. He shows no concern for the father, though. He thinks the problem is the loss of money and he gives no thought to the real problem which was the damage he did to their relationship. In addition, while his plan might bring him some benefit in the long run, he has no thought of the further shame that might be heaped on the father to have one of his own sons working for him as a servant. That would have been truly scandalous. The young man simply doesn’t care. As long as it benefits him, that’s all that he is concerned with.
As the young delinquent approaches the village, he is still doing so on his own terms. He is doing what he is doing because he is hungry. But we find a shocking detail as he comes near. The father saw him while he was still a long way off. That means that the father had been looking for him all along. He had been scanning the countryside and waiting for what he hoped would be the eventual return of his son. He knew that his son would fail from the moment that he left and had been waiting. The father had always cared more about him than what people thought. The son was willing to bring shame for his own benefit but the father was willing to endure shame for the benefit of his son. The moment he saw his son, the father began to run to him. This would have been a highly unusual and undignified thing to do for a man of his age. Patriarchs simply did not hike up their robe and run in public. It would be a social equivalent to running through town in your underwear. It wasn’t horrifying, but certainly uncouth and out of the norm. Yet, there is another important cultural detail. We might think that the primary reason the father ran to greet the son was his joy and he was certainly full of that, but the main reason that he likely ran out to greet him was to protect the son from the wrath of the community as he approached. He was filled with compassion for his wayward son.
The response of the father was all unseemly. Exuberant displays of affection like the father was showering upon him was normally the behavior of a mother not of a Middle Eastern father. As the young man begins to see the incredible love and compassion that the father is lavishing upon him, something changes. The prepared speech and plan that the son had was all swept away in the torrent of the undeserved love of the father. The son stops short his own plan as he has apparently finally come to a state of true humility and repentance. All he can muster is the fact that he has truly sinned and is no longer worthy to be called his son. There is no plan to reconcile things and restore his own status, wealth, and honor. He is no longer thinking of any of that. But how will the father respond to his genuine humility? It is to that response that we will turn tomorrow.
Do you ever get the sense that you spend a lot of time approaching God on your own terms to try to get your own way? Spend some time praying today that God will help you to see when you are doing that and to be moved by his will alone.