Friday, September 19, 2008

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father give me the share of his property that will belong to me.' So he divided the property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spend everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still a far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then 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 slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to celebrate.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called on of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed you command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" (Luke 15:11-3)

This parable takes place in the context of a society where everyone was assigned a fixed place in the class structure. In that society a father was the representative of the law. The inheritance was of extreme importance and was governed by a legal code and maintained by strict rules. The father's role was to protect both the honor of the family and the inheritance. The inheritance could be divided prior to his death, but in this case it was the duty of the sons to set aside adequate funds to take care of him in his old age.

The story begins with the outrageous conduct of the younger son who demands his inheritance ahead of schedule and then, having received it, takes off for the good life. We hear about his progressive degradation. He finally winds up in disaster. A famine comes upon the country and he has nothing to eat. To avoid starving, he takes a job caring for pigs, an occupation that was considered apostasy from the Jewish religion. Eating pork was one of its religious taboos. In short, the prodigal hits bottom from every perspective.

The poverty of the prodigal is described in terms of a desperate lack of food. Nourishment belonged to the maternal function of this society, but there is no mother in the story. Maybe that was his problem. He is hungry and he recalls how well fed the servants were in his father's house. "I won't ask to be his son. If only I can be one of the hired hands, I'll have something to eat."

He starts trudging back in his rags and smelling to high heaven of his charges in the pig sty. He has jeopardized the family's economic standing and put his father at risk by dissipating with foreigners that part of his inheritance that belonged by right to his father in his old age. Besides gross ingratitude, he has added the sin of injustice.

His father evidently has one eye on the road and is overwhelmed with boundless joy when he sees his ragamuffin son coming home. He dashes out and covers him with affectionate embraces and kisses. This free expression of love is totally out of character for a father in this patriarchal society. In the only other place in scripture where this term is used, Joseph "fell on his brother's necks and kissed them affectionately" (Gen. 45:14-15).

Here, then, is a father who disregards his honor, the inheritance, and the patriarchal standards of the time, and acts like a mother. When the prodigal acknowledges his sin, the father does not even listen to his carefully prepared speech and the part about his becoming a hired hand. He immediately calls for the best robe, which is probably one of his own. He orders the servants to put sandals on his son's feet, a symbol of his full restoration to honor in the family. There is not the slightest questioning of his sincerity. Then the father calls for the fatted calf, and the music and dancing begin.

The elder son now appears. He has been faithfully serving his father on the land and working diligently for his share of the inheritance. The disappearance of the younger son has put his own share in jeopardy because now he is going to have to provide for his father's old age entirely out of his own resources. He has reason to be indignant at his younger brother and refers to him contemptuously as "that son of yours."

On the other hand, by refusing to go in to the party, the elder son sins against the fourth commandment, which requires him to honor his father. When his father graciously comes out to remonstrate with him, the elder son berates the old man for his goodness saying, "You have rewarded this son of yours who has not only wasted his share of the family fortune, but by living with prostitutes has risked the family blood line." Along with this offensive language, he dishonors both his father and his brother by refusing to take part in the celebration. Thus he has broken the legal code of the time just as much as the younger son, but in his own way.

This parable is obviously intended to subvert one of the favorite themes in the Old Testament--namely, that of the chosen and the rejected. Because of the older son's misconduct toward the father, the hearers are expecting the story of Jacob and Esau to be repeated. Jacob, the younger son, was chosen by God while Esau, the elder son, to whom the inheritance legally belonged, was rejected. The expectation is that the elder son in the story is also going to be rejected, and the hearers, who would have identified by now with the younger son, can rejoice along with him in being God's specially chosen people.

The conduct of the father, however, effectively destroys the idea of Israel as the chosen people. Instead of rejecting the elder son for his disrespect, the father affirms, "You are always with me. Everything I have is yours." The elder son thus is assured of his share of the inheritance in spite of his misconduct. Just as the younger son is received back into the family in spite of dissipating his father's livelihood, so the elder son, who has just broken the fourth commandment by his insolent disrespect, is restored to favor. The father thus disregards the offenses of both sons. He puts completely aside his personal honor and the legal code. He shows himself equally disinterested in the immorality of his younger son and in the offensive self-righteousness that is the preoccupation of his elder son. Apparently the requirements of the Mosaic law are of no great importance to him. His conduct upstages both the misconduct of the younger son and the insistence on legal rights of the elder. The kingdom of God, it would seem from this parable, is not primarily concerned with conventional morality or legalities. The father acts, according to the accepted standards of that society, as a bad father. However, as Scott puts it, he turns out to be a very good mother. Clearly this father unites in himself the qualities of both mother and father. The father in this parable represents the abba whom Jesus reveals as the God of infinite concern and love for all his children--that is, for the whole human family.

What emerges as the primary concern of the father in this parable? It is to unite his two sons: to bring them together in love. Both are guilty of serious failings and he wants to forgive them both. This father's chief concern is not justice but mercy. The father communicates unconditional love to his two sons so that they in turn may show mercy to each other. According to Jesus, his heavenly Father is not especially interested in legal codes and in conventional morality. He seeks the unity of the human family, the removal of divisions and barriers, and the triumph of compassion by manifesting the maternal values symbolized in that culture by nourishment and overflowing affection.

The parable must have left the Jewish audience with their mouths open in astonishment. What they thought was their major claim to God's protection and love, his free election of them as his chosen people, is profoundly undermined by this parable. The fact is that everyone is chosen. This includes both public sinners, who know that they have offended God, and the self-righteous who deny their complicity in sin. This father forgives both but commands them to live together in peace and common concern--the kind of concern that the Father has shown in sending his Son into the world as the sign of his forgiveness of everything and everyone.


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