Lately, I find myself refocusing and reconsidering the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as it's incorrectly named. Like so much of what Christ taught and said and did, this parable must have been deeply shocking and troubling to his listeners. To begin a parable with a younger son going to his father, the center of their patriarchal society, and telling him, "Father, give me my share of property that is coming to me." Essentially, the younger son is saying, "Father, you are as dead to me. I want what is coming to me now." This meant that the Father had to sell of half of his property and his livestock (both of which determined his standing in society, so by selling half meant that he was lowering himself in the community). The reverence that was usually accorded to a Father in that culture was being challenged.
Putting myself into the crowd of those who heard this parable, I can only imagine how upsetting it was to hear this opening and how angry it would have made me. "How dare this younger son be so callous and cold! Why didn't the Father berate and chastise his younger son for being so indifferent and selfish? How could the Father just give in to his younger son's wishes?"
I also thought of a time in my own youth where, in a fit of anger, I yelled at my own father, "I hate you!" The expression of pain on his face at my words still haunt me today.
What was the expression of the Father as his younger son said these cold, hard words to him? His heart must have broken. In this culture, he had every right to respond in anger, to cast out his son, to react with, "How dare you? Do you know who I am? Do you know what you're asking of me and what that would do to my standing in this community? Do you not grasp how others would look at me if I granted such a request?"
Yet the Father did. The Father granted his son's wishes, despite the audacity and coldness of it.
And the younger son gathered all he now had and journeyed off to a far country. First, he distances himself from his Father by wishing him as dead and now he is physically distancing himself from him. As if that weren't enough, the younger son then squanders all that his Father has given him on reckless and debauched living. The term "prodigal" literally means "wasteful." It comes from the Latin roots that mean forth and to drive, which means he went forth to squander and waste all that he had. In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen wrote, "I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found."
How many of us have gone a far way off from our Father (God) in search of love in places and people and possessions that will never ever be able to fill our needs for unconditional love and acceptance? Even when we marry, we so often choose a spouse who reminds us of our parents and, at the same time, we want them to correct the mistakes that our parents made. It's an unfair burden to place on the one we marry and yet we often expect them to become our world and to make us their world. When cracks begin to happen and difficulties arise, many look at the person they married and wonder just who they really are? No one person or even many people can fill all the needs we have from all the unseen hurts and wounds that have occurred over our lives.
Many people turn to alcohol, drugs, parties, an active social life, or even becoming involved in causes in the hopes that such things will take away that deep seated feeling of loneliness, loss, insecurity, fear, and the sense that we are nothing more than a fraud and that if anyone saw behind the mask, they would not and could not love us. We flee ourselves in the desire to find someone that truly accepts and loves us, which they cannot because we cannot.
Such is the prodigal son. Despite the love his Father has for him, he flees to another country. A misspent youth. We like to focus on this son because it is easier to condemn his sins. His being an extravagant profligate, who probably spent his money trying to gain friends and loves. I think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the focus of this masterpiece, is a man who cannot move on from the rejection of Daisy Buchanan because he was a "poor boy." To change that and earn her love, Gatsby sets out to become wealthy and desirable. When he achieves success, wealth, and has a grand mansion, he begins to through lavish parties in the hopes that Daisy will attend one and see all that he has amounted and who he has become and fall in love with him. It's all success and excess - and emptiness. Fitzgerald expresses it best when he wrote, "There's a loneliness that only exists in one's mind. The loneliest moment in someone's life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart and all they can do is stare blankly." This describes accurately not only the characters of this book, but the prodigal son as his money runs out.
Luke writes that a sever famine arose in the country. The younger son is broke and starving with nowhere to turn. Those friends he had caroused and celebrated with are now gone. There is no more pleasure to be bought to hide from the pain. What does he do? He hires himself out and, to the horror of every Jew listening to this story unfold, is tending to pigs. How could a Jew get any lower? The son is feeding and taking care one of the most dirty and unclean of animals in their law. He has sunk as low as one could be. And it doesn't stop there, for Christ adds that the son begins to long to eat the food of that swine. Were there audible gasps from the crowd at different points throughout this narrative? How many of them were horrified that Jesus would even tell such a tale?
In the midst of his starving, the prodigal doesn't come to his senses so much as give in to his basic needs of survival. He realizes that the servants of his Father live better than he does, so he takes it in his mind to return and ask to become on of his Father's hired men. He is giving up claim to son-ship for servant-hood.
The next part of the parable is among the most beautiful in all of scripture and, yet, how must it have offended the listeners hearing it? The Father, who has been waiting with longing, has been keeping watch day after day after day, scanning the horizon in the hopes his prodigal son will return to him. What? No male within this culture would understand the Father's reasoning here. And to add insult to injury, when the Father sees his son a long way off, he runs to him. Excuse me? A Father run to a son? That is unheard of. And to run to this son who has shamed his Father in the community? But Jesus says that the Father felt "compassion" for his son. Compassion is something that comes from deep within someone. the Jews believed that compassion came from the bowels. It was that primal and affected the human body that much. And the Father runs to this son and embraces him. A son who is spiritually, ritually, legally and physically unclean. This is a son who has slept with prostitutes, who has touched and fed pigs and is covered in their muck. He is as filthy and smelly as the worst of homeless people. His stench must have reeked so that his Father smelled him long before he ever embraced him. And, yet, his love overcomes all. He embraces and kisses his son. This shows an unconditional love beyond anything anyone who heard this parable could comprehend.
Those listening must have been furious and disgusted at the notion of a Father debasing himself even further for this child who, by all accounts, is no longer a son and should never, ever be welcomed back into the Father's home or life or even within his Father's sight. He should have been stoned to death. His sins warranted death and the Father choose life. He gave him back his rights as his son. He calls for the best robe (which would have been the Father's robe) to be brought and placed on this child and for a ring to be put on his hand. For the fatted calf to be killed and prepared for a feast to celebrate this son's return. A child who thought himself fit only to be a servant, is now reconciled to the Father as his son.
Henri Nouwen writes, "The immense joy in welcoming back the lost son hides the immense sorrow that has gone before . . . our brokenness may not appear beautiful, but our brokenness has no other beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it."
But the parable does not end with a "Happily ever after" kind of ending. Jesus wasn't done yet. Now he moves on to the elder son. The older son was in the field. He was hard at work supervising the field hands. He is sweaty doing his duty as an elder son. He is responsible. What we now hear is that the elder son starts to come back towards the house when he hears the music, the celebration and sees the dancing (Had no one even thought to call him in?). The elder brother calls over a servant and asks what's going on. After the servant tells him, the elder brother is seized with anger, with all of the bitter dutifulness of the days he has served his Father faithfully and discovers that his younger brother, who has offended and hurt their Father, is being celebrated for coming back after wasting his inheritance?
I would imagine that most listening, including myself now, can relate to the elder brother's feelings. This seems unfair. The elder brother's anger is such that he will not go back into his Father's house to join in any of the festivities. I can only picture and hear the muttering and cursing and complaining and fury that this brother expressed, alone, outside. The violence that must have risen up in him.
Once again, to the shock of those listening, Christ says, "His father came out and entreated him . . ."
A Father come out to a son? A Father entreat and not simply demand his son's obedience? "I am your Father and you will do what I tell you to do! Get in that house, now!"
The Father entreated the elder son. Entreated in Hebrew means to supplicate. The Father is begging his son to come inside. A Father is begging a son. This was so alien and foreign to that culture that it must have offended every sensibility that wasn't already offended by every other part of this story. This was all counter-cultural. This was all contrary to the law and their concept of fatherhood, patriarchy and the very structure of their entire cultural, political and religious system.
The elder brother's response? Indignation. He bitterly recounts his faithfulness, his obedience. His jealousy and anger lashes out at his Father. He, essentially, is questioning how his Father is running things. "You're unfair! You're unjust!" He is hardened and bitter and resentful - but not just of his younger brother - but more so at his Father.
Once again, we are given a Father who is abused and mistreated by his son. We are also given a portrait of pure unadulterated grace, as the Father replies, "Son, you are always with me..." What a line. It brings tears to my eyes to think of a Father saying this with such tenderness and compassion and love. The Father continues, "... and all that is mine is yours." Even in the midst of his son's tirade, the Father is reminding his son, "You're mine. I love you and will give all to you. Everything that is mine will be yours." He doesn't berate the son. He doesn't criticize the son. He doesn't get offended and ask, "Who do you think you are?" No, he reminds him of whose he is. "You are my son."
The parable ends with the Father's words, "It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found."
I love how Henri Nouwen describes this parable as how we are all of us, at one time, the prodigal younger brother and, at other times, the self-righteous elder brother but that we are all called to be like the Father. And what a call that is.
To be reconciled to the Father, we must be willing to let the Father be the Father. To love us unconditionally, that we can be healed, restored and renewed. It's all the Father. He runs to us when we're prodigals. He entreats us when we are the bitter elder brother. But, in both cases, he welcomes and loves us and wants most desperately and unashamedly to have us in his family. And this is the very God who created us. He created us for this fellowship, to be a part of his family and He will has debased his worthiness of worship to make us worthy to be called "Beloved," to be called His "son" or His "daughter." He wants only to embrace us, as we are and where we are. This is overwhelming grace. This is all gift and not deserved. The call of the Father is simply, "Welcome home. I love you. You are Mine."