THE PRODIGAL SON


We see an indication of the incredible love of God in the actions of the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). This story of Godís love, as represented by this father, starts out with a horrific rejection. The younger son asks his father for his inheritance. In Middle Eastern culture this is tantamount to wishing your father were dead! The younger son is defiant and rebellious regarding his father. Like so many, he is anxious to live life to the fullest and is quite sure he understands what this means.

At this point, the elder son has the responsibility, and is expected, to try to mediate and reconcile this broken relationship out of love for his father and/or brother. Even if the oldest son hates his brother, he is expected to try to reconcile the two out of love for his father. However, the elder son responds to the younger sonís atrocious request with resounding silence. Like so many, the elder son is confident of his personal self-righteousness. Pride has blinded him to the truth regarding his father and himself.

Middle Eastern cultural values say there should be no granting of an inheritance until the father was at least at the point of death (Si 33:20-24). The expected reaction of any father to this situation was refusal and punishment. However, this father does what no Middle Eastern father would ever do. He proceeds to divide the inheritance between the two sons, even allowing them the right to sell the property. In accepting their shares, both sons have chosen to reject their father. However, this father remains ever father, he will do nothing to sever his unending offer of love to his sons.

The Jewish custom was that the older son would receive two-thirds and the younger son one-third (e.g. Dt 21:17). However, the story simply tells us that the estate was somehow divided between them. Certainly, again at this point, the elder son could have said, and should have said, ďno father, keep your inheritance, may you live for a hundred years,Ē but he doesnít. Both sons have broken this father's heart on a very deep level by wishing, in effect, that he were dead.

The younger son chooses to sell his share of the inheritance and leave the village. The only thing he unknowingly leaves behind is his fatherís broken heart. The younger son leaving, after selling his share of the property, is not surprising. Farming villagers do not take kindly to a son who would, for example, sell the vineyard that his grandfather planted (e.g. 1 K 21:1-4). They will ostracize the younger son for doing this. The elder son chooses not to sell his share of the estate. By his decision, the elder son remains in the good graces of the villagers and ostensibly maintains some kind of relationship with his father.

When the younger son finally decides to return to his father, it is not out of filial affection or because he truly repents. It is because he has squandered his inheritance and has nowhere else to turn. He has hit rock bottom. He is starving and will now, only as a last resort, return to his father.

The younger son will ask his father to make him a hired servant. Because the son does not love, he cannot imagine that his father still loves him. He no longer thinks of himself as a son. The son does not realize that for this father the issue is not, and never will be, money. Their relationship is the only concern of this father.

Middle Eastern farmers lived in villages (Is 5:8a) for protection, the biggest homes being in the center. When the younger son sold his inheritance he, in effect, rejected the villagers and their way of life. On top of that, he has now lost his inheritance to Gentiles. The younger son can expect the villagers to mock, scorn, and taunt him as he makes his way back through the village to his fatherís house. He will also receive continued vilification from the villagers as he awaits his fatherís decision whether to allow the servants to open the door of his house to him. However, unknown to the son, this father has been on constant lookout, scouring the horizon for the possible return of his lost son.

This father wants to save his son from the scorn and derision of the villagers. While the son is still a long way off, this father sees his returning son and runs through the village toward him. He goes out to his returning son. This necessitates the lifting of his long outer robe in what was considered an undignified act. Walking in a dignified and stately way with your robes flowing behind you was the accepted practice for any respectable and important gentleman. As Ben Sirach says, ďthe way he walks, tells you what he isĒ (Si 19:27). In the Middle Eastern culture no respectable villager over the age of thirty runs anywhere.

The villagers view the fatherís running through the village holding his robe in his hand, thereby exposing his legs and undergarments, as an undignified and humiliating public spectacle. However, this father's only concern is the rescue of his son. This humble, self-sacrificing act of love will start to reveal to the son the depth of this father's love.

This father reaches his son and proceeds to kiss and hug him again and again as tears of joy pour out from the fatherís eyes down onto the sonís neck. This father's kisses on the cheek, and embrace, are a sign of extended equality. This father's action prevents the son from kissing the hands or feet of his father.

The son, seeing this costly and unexpected demonstration of love from his father, is now cut to the heart. For the first time in his life he has begun to fathom the depth of his fatherís love for him. He can no longer recite his planned address. All he can do now is say that he has sinned and no longer deserves to be a son.

This father wants to reassure his returning son that he still considers him a son. He immediately orders his servants not only to dress him, an honor in itself, but to dress his son in the fatherís finest robe, new shoes, and a ring. These are signs of conferring stature, honor, and trust on his son (Gn 41:42, 1 M 6:15, Est 3:10, 8:2). This will also reestablish his status in the village. Servants donít wear shoes, sons do. The son will be accepted in the village because he wears shoes, and his fatherís ring and finest robe.

The father orders the killing of the fatted calf in celebration of his sonís return. He has been managing the estate with the right to use the yearly operating profits. The unused profits at the end of the year became part of the permanent estate and only at that point belonged to the heir.

The fatherís joy is overflowing at this chance to once again shower his love on his son, but this father has had to, and must continue to, do this with the utmost care and grace. The greatest and most demanding act of love is forgiveness, and only God knows how to truly forgive. There can be pardons so lofty and high handed, so condescending, that the one who is pardoned will never pardon the pardoner.

Notice, for example, how Jesus offers his Fatherís forgiveness in his noncondemnation of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus is so careful not to draw undue attention to his offer of forgiveness. Jesus doesnít even stand himself over and against the crowd of hypocrites. Although Jesusí offer of forgiveness is infinitely more complete and sincere, he is careful not to separate his forgiveness from that of the crowd. Jesus carefully couches his forgiveness (noncondemnation) within the decision of the crowd. Jesus says to the woman, ďhas no one condemned you...neither do I condemn youĒ (Jn 8:10-11).

One who forgives must always exercise infinite tact and humility. He must be so overflowing with sincere affection, so careful not to wound the one he is forgiving. He has to say in effect: ďPlease be so kind as to forgive me for forgiving you. Iím doing it because I want to be at peace with myself. Please be so kind as to do me the great favor and blessing of accepting my forgiveness.Ē

In the story of the prodigal son, this is the only response by this father that could allow a son, hardened by his experiences and mistakes, the chance to come alive. The son needed to be taught to forgive himself for having sinned and to forgive his father for having forgiven him. The son needed to have rebuilt within himself everything that sin had destroyed, and that is the work that only an infinitely loving and forgiving father can do.

Jesusí parable reveals the only way a father can ever hope to resurrect a son who is dead. It shows us how God forgives. If the father had punished the son, the son would have been certain that his father never really understood him. This father wants a son, not a servant.

The fatherís heart is bursting with joy and the celebration is started. Meanwhile, the elder son had been out in the fields supervising the estateís laborers. The son of a wealthy land owner never engages in physical labor. He supervises. The elder son was most likely sitting under a shade tree supervising the hired workers. At the end of the day, he pays them their daily wage and dismisses them. As the elder son approaches the village, he hears the sounds of a celebration.

In Middle Eastern culture, the eldest sonís responsibility at a banquet given by his father is to be the representative of his father to insure that all the guests eat heartily. The father is to sit with the guests. A celebration has started in the courtyard, but the seating of the guests and the serving of the meal is awaiting the arrival of the eldest son. He is to officiate over the meal festivities.

The eldest son asks one of the village boys (better translation than servant), gathered in the courtyard of his fatherís house, for the reason for the celebration. Upon hearing it is a celebration of his younger brotherís return, he becomes angry and refuses to go in. He deliberately chooses to reject and humiliate his father in front of all the guests gathered in the courtyard.

What is a Middle Eastern fatherís expected reaction to a sonís public spectacle of insult and humiliation? The father is expected to send servants to order him into the banquet to fulfill his responsibilities. However, this father wants a son, not a servant.

For the second time in one day he immediately goes out to an errant son in a costly demonstration and offer of love. This father is again willing to endure humiliation and self-emptying love for a son. This father pleads with his son to come into the celebration and share in his joy. All this is being played out in front of the village guests who are gather in the courtyard. This father has had to again go out in a humiliating public spectacle if he ever hopes to have a son. If the father is satisfied with a servant, then a humiliating, self-emptying sacrifice of love is unnecessary.

The father has, up to this point in the parable, always been addressed with the respectful title of ďfather.Ē The elder son begins to address his father without using any title, revealing a cutting lack of respect. Out of the elder sonís mouth spews pride, envy, slander, and self-righteousness.

The elder son complains that he has ďslavedĒ for the father. He says he has obeyed all the fatherís commandments without receiving so much as a goat for him to celebrate with his friends. Only a servant mentality would think this way. Like any servant, this son begins demanding what he believes are his rights, his due. He wants what he thinks is just and fair for his efforts. He further hurts his father by his understanding of their relationship as that of a master and servant.

A servant fulfills a law, an order, a duty; but a son responds to love. The older son has the spirit of a slave. The son further hurts his father by inferring that the father and younger brother are not among the friends with whom the elder son would wish to make merry.

The elder son labels his brother, ďthis son of yours.Ē He doesnít see the younger son as a brother and tries to disown any responsibility for him, placing it all on the father. The elder son loves neither his father or brother so he does not understand or want to be a part of his fatherís celebration.

The elder son goes on to slander his brother with charges that he consorts with harlots (even though the word used in the story to describe the younger sonís activity asotos has no morality attached to it). How could the elder son know what the younger brother had been doing? He has just returned from the fields. He hasnít talked to anyone about his brotherís life away from home.

In response to all this invective, this father tries to verbalize his love for his elder son. The father uses a special word instead of the usual word for son, huios. The father uses the word teknon, a meaning similar to ďbeloved child,Ē indicating warm love and affection. This father tries to reassure the elder son that all the estate is his. The return of the younger son isnít going to change the oral will. His inheritance is safe. Every calf and goat belonging to the estate is the elder sonís to have. How fast the son seems to have forgotten that the profits at the end of every year from this father's management of the estate have been steadily adding to his inheritance. This father will never stop working to add to the eldest sonís inheritance.

Unlike the younger son who was initially remorseful, even if it was for the wrong reason (he was starving), the elder son is disrespectful, defiant, vindictive, self-righteous, and filled with spurious condemnation. He has trouble understanding or accepting his fatherís joy because he does not love his father or brother.

Both sons have never recognized their fatherís love although it had always been present to them. These two sons are dead to the life and love of their father. This father's demonstration of love is crucial if these two sons, who view themselves as servants, are to ever become sons. A master/servant relationship does not exist from the fatherís side. Both sons have just received the same level of a costly offer of love from their father. Will they allow their fatherís love to resurrect them to the true life of a son?

The older son is angry and unloving to his father, and to his brother who seems to take advantage and unduly benefit from his fatherís generous love. The older son thinks he has to earn the reward of his fatherís generosity. All of us will resent Godís generosity to anyone of our brothers if, like the older son, we donít understand, accept, and share in Godís love for them. The older son represents the ďscribes and PhariseesĒ (Lk 15:2) and all the religious people of the world who should, like God (Lk 15:4-10), celebrate the return to God of those who have been lost. They are the very ones who should be presiding over, and participating in, the celebration of the return to God of the lost ones of this world.

All of us, like the younger son, will eventually find ourselves bankrupt of true life if we choose to walk away from the love of God, to strike out on our own so sure of our resources and wisdom. The younger son represents the ďtax collectors and sinnersĒ (Lk 15:1) and those of us who look to the things of this world for salvation. We, like these two sons, have so much trouble understanding God our Father because he is so different than we are. He loves!

A better title for this parable would be the prodigal father and the lost sons. The father is the real prodigal in this story, a profuse, extravagant expender of love. It is only the overflowing generosity and love of this father that can ever hope to effect the resurrection needed in these two sons.

This story should be a revelation to us that man can choose to be without God, man can attempt to do without God; but God can never choose to do without man (Lk 15:20). Sons can deny their father, but a true father can never deny his sons. When we call God, ďFather,Ē it is not an honorary title; it is an acknowledgment of Godís eternal and infinitely generous, humble, self-sacrificing love of man.

Copyright 1999


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