When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. (Luke 15.20; The Message)
The beauty of Jesus’s parables resides in their earthiness and accessibility. His characters are made of clay—flawed, unfinished, and often thickheaded. Whether central figures or supporting cast members, if they’re not exactly like us, we know someone like them. And our easy recognition of the characters, including those whom Jesus introduces as surrogates for God, enables us to enter His parables from many angles. No matter how many times we’ve heard these stories, we can always discover something new and revealing in them.
The parable in Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 15.11-32) is usually called “The Prodigal Son”. Since “prodigal” isn’t a word common to modern English, we’re apt to infer its meaning based on the son’s behavior, rather than seek out its true definition to see what Jesus wants to show us. We assume “a prodigal” is rebellious, ungrateful, devious—in short, a spoiled brat, which invites our condescension toward this character. But that’s not what the word means, nor is it what Jesus describes. Jesus’s word (asótós) doesn’t even address the son’s character. It merely portrays how he lives—loosely, wastefully, in wanton debauchery—after he leaves his father’s house, his pockets spilling easy money, with no compass for his life. A better word would be “extravagant,” and when we substitute it for “prodigal,” the story gets really interesting, because we realize the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
We don’t know what fires the son’s urgency to leave home. All Jesus tells us is he’s the younger of a prosperous farmer’s two sons. He asks his father to advance his inheritance, which totals cash equal to one-third of the father’s holdings. (According to ancient custom, the eldest son is entitled to twice what his younger brothers receive. Unfortunately, sisters don’t inherit directly from their father’s largesse; they’re given a dowry and married off to other families, who agree to support them in exchange for bearing children.) While it’s not unheard of in Jesus’s day for fathers to advance their legacies before death, it’s not how things usually go. By design, this couches a lot of blanks in the first act of the story, as Jesus withholds telling details about the nature of the father-son relationship.
Is the younger son the favorite? So it might seem, given his dad’s consent to honor his request and the older brother’s outrage when he returns home. On the other hand, their relationship may be troubled, and the father relents out of frustration, hoping some real-world experience will help his son figure things out. (Which is how the story ends.) Then again, the father’s confidence in his son may be so sure that he’s unworried about how he’ll spend his fortune. There’s also the possibility the father—like many others—sees a chance to live out his own dreams of being footloose and fancy-free through his son. Although there are many potential explanations for their rather unusual arrangement, they all lead back to two facts: the father loves his son supremely and, however the story goes, the father has a hand in its outcome. It is the father’s will—in the strictest legal sense—that enables the son to leave home.
So the son is not a rebel. He’s not greedy; he only asks for his share. He’s not deceitful; unlike Jacob in the Old Testament, he doesn’t trick the father into handing over what he doesn’t deserve. All we know is something inside him wants to break away. Maybe he’s just tired of living on the farm and wants to see the world. Maybe he’s lonely and longs for relationships he can’t find at home. (As we discover, his brother is not his friend.) Maybe he has delusions of grandeur and runs away to become a rock star. Maybe he’s a rich kid who’s curious about how the other half lives. In the end, his reasons for taking off don’t matter because the story is really about how he squanders his gifts and how that leads to reconciliation with his father.
A Tale of Horror
Once the son leaves home, we see that he and his father are more alike than they realize. They’re both extravagantly generous. They both enjoy a good party. Neither of them seems overly concerned about onlookers’ opinions, as decisions they make are likely to raise eyebrows and draw criticism. Both are undaunted by risk. In permitting his son to leave, the father risks not having a second child to care for him in his old age. In throwing his inheritance to the wind, the son risks not being able to provide for himself. And that’s what happens. Once he blows his fortune on extravagant living, it’s as though the universe turns on him. Famine descends on his newly adopted land. The friends his money bought are gone. He gets work tending pigs and stares hungrily at the swill he pours into their manger.
It’s here that Jesus’s story turns into a tale of horror that chills His listeners to the bone. The Jewish taboo about eating pork means not one of them owns a pig and very few, if any, have even seen one. Pigs are monsters—filthy, ravenous beasts that endanger their health and their faith. In the eyes of Jesus’s audience, landing in a pigpen is worse than hitting rock bottom. “That brought him to his senses,” Jesus says. The son reckons, “All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death.” Deciding to return home, he prepares a repentance speech, confessing he’s sinned against God and his father, begging to be taken on as a hired hand. And that brings us to the story’s final twist.
The father never loses hope that he’ll be reunited with his son. “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him,” Jesus tells us. “His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.” This means the father kept waiting and watching for his son’s return. The son starts his repentance speech. But the father cuts him off before he can offer to hire on as a common servant. It’s time to celebrate! The father starts issuing orders to the staff, planning an extravagant party, and moving quickly to restore everything the son surrendered: the best robe, i.e., the finest garment from the father’s own closet; the family ring, empowering the son to exercise his full rights as an heir; shoes, instantly differentiating him from the barefoot household slaves; and a grain-fed heifer, which the father set apart from his pastured cows, with the intention of breeding better stock or perhaps offering it in sacrificial worship.
The father’s lavish love won’t be denied. Naturally, this angers the older brother, who’s remained faithful the whole time. We get his resentment and refusal to join the extravagant reunion. While his brother’s been living the high life, he’s shouldered a lot of heavy lifting. He’s had to deal with his parents’ anxiety, neighborhood gossip about where the father went wrong, and servants’ concern about job stability after one-third of the household assets disappeared. “What are you doing?” the older brother asks. “He wasted a fortune on prostitutes and you throw him a party? I’ve never given you a moment’s grief and you’ve never done that for me!” Oh yes, we understand the older son. Yet that’s why we’re wise to doubt the reliability of his accusations. Left alone, he’s crafted a hateful fiction about his brother’s behavior. To some degree, it’s likely to be true. A windfall can make people do crazy things. What’s missing from his fantasy are the hard times and degradation the extravagant son encountered. He never stops to ask, “What went wrong to drive my little brother back home?”
The father doesn’t ask, either. It’s irrelevant to him. All he cares about is that his lost son has returned. Listen to his response to the elder son’s protests: “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!”
How can we not love this story? We can enter it from virtually all sides, as the son, father, elder brother, servants, and off-screen characters—neighbors and onlookers, foreigners who sap the son’s fortune, even the audience who heard the parable for the first time. It is the story of repentance writ large in bold print, the greatest comeback tale of all time. But if we leave it at that, I think we miss a central truth Jesus wants us to see.
Regardless how far we stray from home, we are never far from God. We are, in every way, God’s children and we carry God’s traits with us wherever we go. That is God’s ultimate gift to us. The extravagance of our misbehavior is a distortion of God’s extravagant goodness. The generous nature that often leads us to wastefulness comes from our exceedingly generous God. Our compulsion to take risks is inherited from a God Who is willing to risk everything in order to restore us to right relationship. And while we are away from God, abusing our privileges and channeling our godly traits in wrong-headed ways, God never stops waiting and watching for our return. How low we sink—how horrible our lives become—is a matter of choice. From the moment we leave, the door stays open. Whether anyone else appreciates the bond we share with our Maker is irrelevant. We can always come home.
Jesus gives us a story riddled with blanks about the characters’ motives and attitudes. But He does this on purpose to lead us back to His parable’s defining truth. Just as the father tells the older son, God says to us, “Everything that is Mine is yours.” Wherever we may be in our lives—if our feet are firmly planted at God’s table or if we’ve skipped town and landed in a pigsty—that truth will never change. Everything that is Mine is yours. That’s reason enough to party.
No matter how far we stray from home, regardless how low we go, God waits and watches for our return.