the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. [Luke 15: 13]
The story of the prodigal son is one of the most widely read parables in all of Jesus teaching. In a nutshell, there was a man who had two sons, one day the younger son came to his father and asked for his inheritance early. The father agreed and the son set off to make his own way in the world. He failed, lost it all and ended up crawling back to beg forgiveness and a second chance. The father, being a gracious man agreed and restored his son’s position in the family. – The End.
At least, that’s how I understood the story when I was younger, before I became somewhat of a prodigal son myself.
I don’t need to into the details of my story here. I’ve touched on various aspects of my past several times on this blog before. The highlights are that I went into the music business at the wizened old age of 19, traveled the world and achieved a mediocre level of success before losing it all as a result of bad planning, arrogance and a failure to see that my life was a house of cards built on cheap credit and short-sighted selfishness. Couple that with the rise of audio downloading and the stress of a family illness and by the time I was 40 I found myself a recovering bankrupt, living in my in-law’s basement and starting a whole new career.
I never forsook my family but I did a lot of the other things the prodigal son is said to have done and I paid the price. Recently I’ve come back to this story to help me understand some other things that are going on in my life and so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned with you today.
To truly understand the meaning of this story though we need to dissect it a little; first off that word – prodigal. It never actually appears anywhere in the story, it’s a label that has been placed on the story itself to help give it meaning, so what exactly where the original commentators trying to say when they used that word to describe the son?
Prodigal [adjective] 1. spending money and resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. 2.having or giving something on a lavish scale
[noun] 1. a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way
So it’s all about money, or is it?
True the son spent all of his money. But in recent years other commentators have preferred to refer to this story as the story of the lost son or the story of the two lost brothers.
Why lost? Why mention the older brother at all? In my early understanding of the story the older brother didn’t even enter into it, he’s not important is he? One commentator I’ve read on this parable even refers to it as the story of the prodigal father, what did he do the be considered prodigal? Surely it’s not about what the father did is it?
The truth is this story has so many layers it might as well be an onion and the story of how the younger son spent all is money and eventually came home is just the husk. Throughout my own prodigal journey I have learned at least three things about this story that I continue to carry with me.
Number 1 – It’s about hubris.
The younger son was proud, arrogant and impatient. He wanted it all, and he wanted it all right now. But more than that he was quite simply a bad seed, in an ancient Hebrew context the fact that the son asked his dad for his inheritance early was the equivalent of wishing his father were dead. This is not the kind of thing that got you what you asked for; it was the kind of thing that brought shame on you and your family and got you killed.
Whenever I catch myself making decisions out of pride, arrogance and impatience I try to remember this story. I’ve never done anything that would bring shame on my family or risked my life (I don’t think) but I have hurt people and I can see the potential to do a lot more damage when I continue on the path.
Number 2 – It’s about grace.
When the younger son returns home his father doesn’t kill him. When this story is told in certain Middle Eastern Muslim cultures today the reaction is shock and disgust. The moment of greatest offense to these cultures is not when the young son leaves home but when he returns and the father welcomes him with open arms. The amount of shame, and hurt brought on the family by the younger son’s actions warrants nothing less than immediate execution.
Remember, the current Middle Eastern culture is the one that has introduced the term “Honor Killing” to the world. The Middle Eastern Muslim culture of today is very similar to the ancient Hebrew culture in which story was originally told so the reaction of Jesus original followers would have been the same. That is why popular theologian Tim Keller has referred to this story as the parable of the prodigal father. It is the father, not the son who is the most extravagant and lavish with his wealth here.
I love definitions so here’s another one.
Grace [noun] the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.
Free and unmerited! According to law and cultural tradition the young son should have been stoned to death before he even set foot on his father’s property. The fact that he was instead restored to his previous position, completely free of all need to repay what he had lost and completely unencumbered by a requirement to earn his was back in is the very definition of grace. This is what God’s love looks like.
Number 3 – Given the right circumstances I have just as much tendency to be both the younger or older son.
Grace is awesome when it’s directed at me but not so great when I have to watch someone else receive it. We live in an imperfect meritocracy. Imperfect because obviously the best and most deserving don’t always win but they win often enough that we can still consider our society to be largely based on merit and justice. The so called Protestant Work Ethic that has guided and built our society for the past 500 or so years depends on it.
Work hard and play by the rules and you will have just as much opportunity to reach your goals and achieve your dreams as the next guy. That’s what the Protestant Work Ethic says in a nutshell but we all know it’s not exactly true. The game is rigged and some people are just born with more opportunity than others.
As a white, middle-class male, from Canada, I was born with more opportunity to make something of myself than over 90 percent of the world population. But more than that, when someone takes advantage of these “merits” at the expense of others they can be seen as bullies. If someone from a lower class begins to threaten my position it sometimes feels like they are cheating and my immediate reaction is to use my power and influence to “keep them in their place”.
It can be even worse when people get ahead through nothing more than the help of others, they did nothing to deserve their position, they had everything handed to them and they somehow don’t deserve it. Grace is not fair, and that is scandalous, especially to those of us who play by the rules, like the older brother.
And as a bonus,
Number 4 – Sometimes the only thing you can do is sit on the porch.
What do you do when someone insults you, takes something of value from you, turns their back on you and walks away? What’s more, what do you do when they squander what they’ve taken from you and come crawling back for more? The father in this story resisted the urge to run after his son, to reason with him or to bring him home by force. While I am sure he was deeply hurt by his son’s actions he remained calm and did not resist or retaliate in any way. For the entire time his son was gone he simply sat and waited for his return.
It is obvious to me that this man represents God in this story. He has calmly let us do things he knows are going to hurt us, and bring shame on our family. Rather than pursue us and bring us back by force he leaves the door open and patiently waits on the porch for us to return. But we don’t have to make the entire journey on our own, nor do we have to do any penance for our crimes of arrogance when we decide to come home.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. [Luke 15:20]
The image I get in my mind when I read this is of a man far off in the distance, but somehow you can tell, by the way he moves and the shape of his body, who it is. The father has been sitting on his porch, waiting, hoping and praying for this day for months, years, maybe even decades. When it finally happens he JUMPS up and RUNS to his son!
That is love, joy, grace and compassion all rolled into one glorious package. And that is quite simply how God loves each and every one of us.
The journey back can be a long and lonely road. But we don’t have to do it alone, God will see us and he will be overcome with joy enough to run out and meet us.
Here’s one last definition just for fun;
Repent (verb) from the Greek, meaning to turn and go in a different direction.
Repentance doesn’t have anything to with penance or restitution or remorse, it is simply the act of turning from one path to another. When the young son “came to his senses” (v 17) he turned around and headed home. All he had to do was repent, change direction, his father (God) met him on the road and did the rest.
There has been a lot going on in my life lately, as I already alluded to. Some of it requires repentance, both mine and from others and some of it needs to be met with grace. But for a lot of it I just need to sit on the porch and wait. Waiting for other people to repent and start their journey home is hard. I take comfort in the fact that the real work, the restoration, and the restitution, that’s God job and he’ll do it as only he can, in his own time.
And when that time finally comes – oh what a party!
Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. [Luke 15:23-24]