Luke 15:1-32: “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father.
“While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
This is by far my favorite parable of all of them, each year I await the Third Pre-Lenten Sunday when in Eastern Churches everywhere this parable is read. Every year, without fail, God has given me a different insight into this parable: who the three parties are; what message is being given through each; what the different devices represent. At some point in time we have all been one of the characters in the parable: the prodigal son, the faithful son, even the father. The insights to be given are endless, if we just take the time to read or listen to it thoughtfully. In all honesty, I could write a book on this, but I will try to keep it simple here. I do not want to over analyze every position, but want, rather, to provide you with a little insight into each character, as they would have been understood by Jesus’ audience, then let you examine the parable from all its’ various angles, and years later you too may be where I am.
The typical view of the parable places God as the loving father, Israel as the prodigal son, and Christians as the faithful son. Sometimes this view is reversed with Jews as the ones who remained faithful to God while Gentiles were worshiping other gods. Sometimes it is simply sinners versus the righteous, or the Pharisees against the people. I have even heard it in modern terms with Christians as the faithful son and those who have fallen away as the prodigal son. I remember an old Catholic television show from the 60’s where this was applied to Lucifer and Michael, implying that God would even forgive Lucifer if he were to ask to come back home.
However you view the parable, and it can change from reading to reading, the lesson is simple: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven if you just repent of your ways and ask forgiveness. On the opposite side, there is also the lesson that when someone does come seeking forgiveness you are not to harden your hearts against them, as the faithful son did, but welcome them openly, not once but, as Jesus taught, seven times seventy times (which does not mean 490 times).
So, who were these characters, and how would the Jews of Jesus’ time see them?
- The Father – The father was the supreme head of the family, there was no authority greater than his. His word was law, and not to be questioned. The father owned everything that the family had, and gave it out as he saw fit. So, when the elder son said that his father never gave him so much as a goat to throw a party it was like saying that dad wouldn’t give him the keys to the car to go off and have fun with his friends. Whatever he had would be passed onto his sons, but not until after he had passed away. And this father was wealthy in comparison to the average person – he had flocks of sheep, goats; he had house servants as well as field workers. We’re talking Bill Gates rich!
- The Eldest Son – The first born, he will, traditionally, become the head of the family unit when the father passes. He will also inherit the lion’s share of the father’s estate. Unlike today, there are no wills to fight over, no other authority to question the father’s intent. Unless the father leaves other specific instructions on his deathbed the eldest son will replace the father as head of the household.
- The Younger Son – While he will inherit something from the father, he will never be the head of the family unless the eldest son dies childless. There have been exceptions to the rule throughout the Old Testament (Esau and Jacob, for example), but it is not the usual course of events. As with the eldest son, he can only inherit his portion once the father had died.
Now, let’s look at the events from the perspective of a first century Jew:
- The youngest son has just committed treason against the family. He has said, in no uncertain terms, that his father is dead to him. This is not asking dad for a raise in the allowance; it is not asking him to float a loan; he’s not asking for some more spending money while he’s off at college. He is asking for everything that he would receive from his inheritance and then to be cut off, not just from the father but from the family as well. There is no greater insult that can be given to a father, or the family, than to say, “you are dead as far as I’m concerned.”
- The son then goes off to Vegas where he spends his inheritance on gambling, prostitution, drinking, and drugs. With no source of income to replenish what he was spending he eventually runs out of money, and at the worst time possible – the market has crashed and people are losing their jobs and homes left and right. There is no one to turn to for help: the welfare state doesn’t exist so the government won’t pitch in to help; his friends, if you can call them that, are in hard times as well, and were probably relying on him for money anyway; he has no skills to obtain anything better than a minimum wage job, he didn’t prepare for the future, why bother? He’d always have plenty of money.
- Now for the biggest insult any Jew could have, things are so bad he has to go to work as a swineherd. Jews were to have nothing to do with swine, they were ritually unclean animals. Think of it as Donald Trump waking up one morning to find himself scrubbing the toilets of Warren Buffet. This was saying that he had sunk below rock-bottom, he was willing to give up everything just for a bottom-paying job. With the hard times on the country it is doubtful he earned even the 1/2 drachma we spoke of in the last parable.
He would have earned enough to eat once the day was done, but in the meantime, hard at work in the fields, he would have little or nothing. He became hungry and no one would offer him anything. The swine were fed Carob Pods (the outer hull of the Carob bean) which was a way to quickly fatten up the swine for market. This was worse than bread and water, for at least the bread had nutritional value. Imagine a hard day doing physical work with a meager breakfast, no lunch, and and equally miserable dinner.
- His decision is a difficult one, really difficult. He knows how well his father treated his servants, but to go back is the utmost in humiliation. Everyone in the household – family, servants, workers – all know what he did, and how he treated his father. Now he wants to go back as a hired servant, not as a son, but seeking indentured servitude. Indentured servants were different from day workers in that they were guaranteed work for a set period of time, after which they could re-enter servitude or sever relations and seek employment elsewhere. They were one type of slave in ancient times, in Israel indentured servitude was limited to a period of no more than seven years, however this could be bypassed if the servant borrowed money from the master (we will see this in The Unmerciful Debtor), in which case additional years were added to the servitude to repay the debt. An indentured servant was considered a piece of property, and could be treated as such.
- Now, enters the father. He sees his son coming towards him from a long distance. The father has two choices here, and the people are sitting there ready for Jesus to relate the first: the father becomes angry, turns his back, goes into the house and closes the gate. Refusing to have anything to do with this child who severed all relations. But, the father doesn’t do that, instead he runs out, arms open, and welcomes him home. Okay, maybe the mothers listening could understand this, but not the men, they’re ready for a story of revenge.
- Now, something even more remarkable occurs. Not only does the father welcome his son back, but he puts good clothes on him, and gives him the family ring. This is a powerful symbol with which we have little commonality. The ring signifies to everyone that he represents his family in any interactions with others. He can command servants, represent his family in business transactions, it’s a powerful statement, everything he gave up when he left is restored. And Jesus is making sure this point is understood, everything will be restored to those who come back home.
- Now the elder son hears the partying and comes to see what is happening. The listeners aren’t surprised at his reaction. He lands into his father pretty hard, throwing a party to welcome home this miscreant, while he was never allowed to invite his friends over for a get-together. We never hear anything more about the older brother after the argument. Did he accept his brother back? Was there ongoing resentment? What happened after the father passed away, did he seek his long-awaited revenge? We’ll never know, it is a part of the story we need to fill in for ourselves.
- But, the elder son isn’t totally cut off in the argument, the father explains something. Yes, his brother is back, and he is part of the family, but everything is not as it was before. How often do we hear commentary on this part? I’d say few of you have. So, what’s different? The father states it clearly, and it is understood by those listening: “all that I have is yours”. We don’t have a clear understanding of this these days, but what it means is that the eldest son will inherit everything, the younger has already received his inheritance, there is nothing left for him. When the father passes the eldest son will inherit everything, and the younger son will be totally dependent upon his brother for everything: food, clothing, work. If we take the standard view here, then we Christians are responsible for the loving care of our Jewish brothers, and we will be judged accordingly by our Father in heaven.
Interesting parable? What is your take on the three characters here, and their final relationship with each other?