Today we hear one the most familiar and beloved parables of all time, the Parable of the Prodigal Son: a powerful story about a father’s abundant love and forgiveness toward his rebellious son.
Perhaps one of the reasons that this parable is so well-known and loved is because the father’s forgiveness reassures us that no matter how bad we mess up (like the prodigal son), God will forgive us and welcome us home.
This is certainly true and a large part of the parable’s message, but it’s also important for us to remember that understanding parables involves exploring their surrounding context as well. Paying careful attention to where, why and to whom the parables are told in the first place.
Today’s parable comes in response to the Pharisees and scribes who have just criticized Jesus for openly associating and eating with known “sinners.”
To a 1st Century Middle Eastern audience like the Pharisees and scribes, the actions of the younger son in today’s parable would have been unimaginable and completely offensive.
In their culture, an individual had little meaning apart from his or her family. Identity was recognized in the plural, not the singular. This meant a great deal depended upon one’s family, neighbors and community.
For example, when you needed help harvesting your crops, building a house, having a baby, or digging a grave—you counted on your family and surrounding community the same way they counted on you. (Unlike our individualistic culture, to Jesus’ original audience: one’s family, neighbor’s, and surrounding community meant everything.)
Also, to 1st Century Jews, land was considered invaluable. Not only was it their livelihood, but they also believed their ancestral land holdings to be God’s gift to their family. To sell one’s land would mean depriving future generations of this precious gift.
So, when the younger son asks his father for his share of the family property, he brings great shame upon his father and his entire family.
Not only that, but to request his inheritance while his father was still living was equivalent to saying, “Dad, I really don’t care about you. I just care about what you can give me. As a matter of fact, I wish you were dead, so I could have it right now!”
The Pharisees and scribes would have found the younger son’s request shocking and appalling. However, they would have been just as disgusted with the father’s behavior as well.
According to Biblical Scholars, the patriarch of a clan was held in high esteem and children were expected to treat their fathers with dignity and respect (especially in the eyes of the important surrounding community). There was even a strict patriarchal protocol for keeping this honor in place.
Yet, the father in today’s parable disregards this protocol by giving in to his younger son’s insulting requests. Not only does he divide his property while he is still alive; he also allows his younger son to sell his share, liquidate his assets and take them when he goes.
Finally, when the younger son squanders his inheritance and returns home, his father spots him in the distance and once again breaks the patriarchal code, by doing one of those things that fathers were never supposed to do—he runs! Now it was perfectly acceptable for children, teenagers, and women to run, but never for a man, especially for a landowner who held a certain position of honor in the community.
Yet, the father publicly humiliates himself by hiking up his robe, bearing his legs, and racing toward his son.
As the father and his son reunite, the son begins to tell his father how he plans to pay him back by working as one his employees—how he will do whatever it takes to earn his way back into the family. But the father will not hear it. Instead of punishing his disobedient son for his offensive actions, the father once again breaks protocol by dressing his son in the finest robe, killing the fatted calf, and throwing a party in honor of his return!
Yet, as we know, this is not where the story ends. While the festivities are going on, the older son suddenly shows up, and to say that he is offended would be a gross understatement. He is furious!
After all, the older son has been responsible, carefully followed the rules, and prudently kept his inheritance secure, while his younger brother has recklessly squandered his and brought shame upon the family name.
And for his punishment his father kills the fatted calf and throws the prodigal son a party! While the older, obedient son who has slaved away, day after day, year after year, gets nothing!
At this point in the story, the Pharisees and scribes would have been livid. After all, the older son, seems to do everything right, while the younger son seems to do everything wrong.
However, this is exactly the point that Jesus is trying to get across to His listeners.
You see, in 1st Century Middle Eastern culture, having beef for dinner was extremely rare and considered a delicacy. And according to scholars, one the most extravagant and expensive things you could do was kill a fatted calf. Chances are, this would not have been just a private family affair, but the entire village would have been invited to such a rare occasion.
So, when the older son in his anger refuses to enter the house, his father once again humiliates himself by leaving the party and going outside (this time) to his (older) son.
“All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders,” the older son complains. “Yet you never even gave me a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property and tarnished our family name comes home, you throw him the most expensive party imaginable!”
In other words, the older son is saying, “how dare you use our wealth like this! After all, I am the one who has obeyed you and therefore I should have some say in this.” Or to put it another way, “I should have some right over your things.”
The older son may have kept all the rules, but his sense of entitlement and superiority toward his brother separated him from God and now he was just as lost as his younger brother.
Like the older son, the Pharisees and scribes took great pride in their ability to follow the rules and in return they felt superior to others. They were known for making pious statements such as: “Thank you, God that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11).
And they did their best to distance themselves from sinners, especially those like the younger son, who blatantly sinned in the eyes of the community.
However, the Pharisees and scribes were so concerned with following the rules in order to avoid sin (and sinners) that they felt a sense of pride at their own accomplishments allowing sin to sneak in through the back door.
The radical message found in today’s parable is that sometimes keeping the rules can actually lead to even greater sin; sometimes rule following may sever our relationships much more severely than breaking the rules.
Both of the sons in today’s parable are lost. After all, each one of them wanted the father’s things, but not the father. Each one of them attempted to use the father to get what they really wanted: status and wealth. One did it by breaking the rules, while the other one did it by following the rules.
The sin that Jesus seems to be most concerned with, the sin that is at the heart of today’s parable is pride.
This was the problem with the Pharisees and scribes and continues to be a serious problem for many of us today. After all, it’s all too easy to think that we are better than others, because we do what is right while they do what is wrong.
Yet, today’s parable reminds us of the truth: that we are no better than anyone else. We are all sinners saved by Gods’ grace; none of us deserve to be rescued so, no one gets to be better than anybody else.
The good news is: God loves all of us as if we were his only sons and daughters despite our behavior.
God loves us so much that when we break the rules, He willingly humiliates Himself by hiking up his robe, bearing his legs, and racing toward us.
God loves us so much that when we follow all the rules (and become full ourselves), He willingly humiliates Himself by leaving His party, coming outside to us, and begging us to come inside.
Today may we celebrate the party of God’s never ending love and grace. May we boldly step into our Father’s house and rejoice—even with those whom we disagree and don’t believe deserve to be there—reveling in the fact that God is the Father of us all—loving us and welcoming us to the party, even when we don’t deserve it.
9th Sunday after Trinity