Jesus went on: ‘Once there was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to the father, “Father, give me my share in the property.” So he divided up his livelihood between them. Not many days later the younger son turned his share into cash, and set off for a country far away, where he spent his share in having a riotous good time.
‘When he had spent it all, a severe famine came on that country, and he found himself destitute. So he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into the fields to feed his pigs. He longed to satisfy his hunger with the pods that the pigs were eating, and nobody gave him anything.
‘He came to his senses. “Just think!” he said to himself. “There are all my father’s hired hands with plenty to eat—and here am I, starving to death! I shall get up and go to my father, and I’ll say to him: ‘Father; I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.’ ”And he got up and went to his father.
‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and his heart was stirred with love and pity. He ran to him, hugged him tight, and kissed him. “Father,” the son began, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer.” But the father said to his servants, “Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet! And bring the calf that we’ve fattened up, kill it, and let’s eat and have a party! This son of mine was dead, and is alive again! He was lost, and now he’s found!” And they began to celebrate.’
We might think that the parable of the prodigal son, as it’s usually known, hardly needs an introduction. It has inspired artists and writers down the years. Rembrandt’s famous painting, with the younger son on his knees before the loving and welcoming father, has become for many almost as much of an inspiration as the story itself. Phrases from the story—the ‘fatted calf’, for instance, in the King James version of the Bible—have become almost proverbial.
And yet. People often assume that the story is simply about the wonderful love and forgiving grace of God, ready to welcome back sinners at the first sign of repentance. That is indeed its greatest theme, which is to be enjoyed and celebrated. But the story itself goes deeper than we often assume.
Let’s be sure we’ve understood how families like this worked. When the father divided the property between the two sons, and the younger son turned his share into cash, this must have meant that the land the father owned had been split into two, with the younger boy selling off his share to someone else. The shame that this would bring on the family would be added to the shame the son had already brought on the father by asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead’. The father bears these two blows without recrimination.
To this day, there are people in traditional cultures, like that of Jesus’ day, who find the story at this point quite incredible. Fathers just don’t behave like that; he should (they think) have beaten him, or thrown him out. There is a depth of mystery already built in to the story before the son even leaves home.
Again, in modern Western culture children routinely leave homes in the country to pursue their future and their fortune in big cities, or even abroad; but in Jesus’ culture this would likewise be seen as shameful, with the younger son abandoning his obligation to care for his father in his old age. When the son reaches the foreign country, runs through the money, and finds himself in trouble, his degradation reaches a further low point. For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs is bad enough; for him to be feeding them, and hungry enough to share their food, is worse.
But of course the most remarkable character in the story is the father himself. One might even call this ‘the parable of the Running Father’: in a culture where senior figures are far too dignified to run anywhere, this man takes to his heels as soon as he sees his young son dragging himself home. His lavish welcome is of course the point of the story: Jesus is explaining why there is a party, why it’s something to celebrate when people turn from going their own way and begin to go God’s way. Because the young man’s degradation is more or less complete, there can be no question of anything in him commending him to his father, or to any other onlookers; but the father’s closing line says it all. ‘This my son was dead and is alive; he was lost and now is found.’ How could this not be a cause of celebration?
Inside this story there is another dimension which we shouldn’t miss. One of the great stories of Israel’s past was of course the exodus, when Israel was brought out of Egypt and came home to the promised land. Many years later, after long rebellion, Israel was sent into exile in Babylon; and, though many of the exiles returned, most of Jesus’ contemporaries reckoned that they were still living in virtual exile, in evil and dark days, with pagans ruling over them. They were still waiting for God to produce a new exodus, a liberation which would bring them out of their spiritual and social exile and restore their fortunes once and for all. For Jesus to tell a story about a wicked son, lost in a foreign land, who was welcomed back with a lavish party—this was bound to be heard as a reference to the hope of Israel. ‘This my son was dead, and is alive’; ever since Ezekiel 37 the idea of resurrection had been used as picture-language for the true return from exile.
Yes, says Jesus, and it’s happening right here. When people repent and turn back to God—which, as we’ve seen, meant for Jesus that they responded positively to his gospel message—then and there the ‘return from exile’ is happening, whether or not it looks like what people expected. His answer to the Pharisees and other critics is simple: if God is fulfilling his promises before your very eyes, you can’t object if I throw a party to celebrate. It’s only right and proper.
There is a danger in splitting the story into two, as we’ve done. The second half is vital, and closely interwoven with the first. But in this first section the emphasis is on the father’s costly love. From the moment he generously gives the younger son what he wanted, through to the wonderful homecoming welcome, we have as vivid a picture as anywhere in Jesus’ teaching of what God’s love is like, and of what Jesus himself took as the model for his own ministry of welcome to the outcast and the sinner.