The Prodigal Father
Mark Twain was once interviewed by a reporter who asked him, “People say you are the best storyteller every lived. What do you have to say about that?” Twain said, “I am not the best story teller ever lived.” Then, the reporter asked, “Who would you regard as the greatest storyteller ever lived.” He said, “It would be Jesus.” “If so, what is the greatest story ever told?” He said, “The Prodigal Son.”
That is the story we read from Luke 15:11-32. Even though his story is short and succinct, it’s deep and profound. You can make a movie out of it, or even create a soup opera.
I think Mark Twain is right because every time this story is told it changes lives. It changes our misconception of what God is like. We often think God is a harsh God, a cosmic killjoy sitting up there in heaven waiting to zap anyone that doesn’t obey his commandments. This story shifts our paradigm of God to a loving father full of grace.
In fact, if you pay attention to the details of the story, you will disagree with its title being “the Prodigal Son” because this story is about “the Prodigal Father,” a father who is so extravagant in love and grace. If you focus on the son, you miss a more profound side of the story.
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
“There was a man who had two sons.” Looking at the way he started the story, Jesus’ is obviously not focusing just on the one son. Some scholars prefer to call it “The Father and Two Sons” and I greed because so that we don’t lose the original purpose of this story as it was told by Jesus.
According to the culture, this kind of request is a major insult to the father. You are not supposed to even expect to receive any inheritance before the death of the father. To ask the father to give him his share of the property is like telling the father to drop dead!
The smallest word in English is “I,” and the middle letter of “sin” is also “I.” Sin is when we put ourselves, or our ego, at the center and disregard others. This son is sinning because he is thinking all about himself.
But somehow the father gave it to him. According to the culture, the father should not give the property to his children before his death. But this father did it. If he didn’t and the son insist, it’s the son’s fault. If he gave it to the son willingly, the blame is on the father. I hope you see the point here.
The story doesn’t say the father ever tried to deny the request. By willingly giving the inheritance to the son, the father is covering up the son’s insult by letting himself to be the insult. “I want the community think that I broke the rule, rather than my son broke the rule.” He is trying to cover up his son’s sins so that the community wouldn’t despise his son. It’s an example of his extravagant grace. That’s why this story should be named “The Prodigal Father.” We’ll see that he shows this behavior again later in the story.
“13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.”
As the proverb says, a fool and his money are soon be parted. My grandmother always said that it’s a misfortune to receive a windfall of fortunes before you are thirty. Most young people are destroyed by wealth if they get rich too early.
“15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.”
Fortunately, he got a job, but unfortunately, it’s the worse job for a Jew. I remember when I was young, some of my Muslim friends would squeeze their nose and walk backward when they pass by a herd of pigs. Those were kids so they just exaggerated their disgust against pigs.
Following the Old Testament tradition, the Jews also regard pigs as one of the dirtiest and the most disgusting animals. The problem is, he is hungry and stranded in this foreign country after squandering his money, and there’s a famine going on. Now he must be happy that someone hired him, but the job is to feed the pig, the most disgusting job for a Jew like him, who is a rich man’s son. However, he is not paid or fed until finishing the job. He is so hungry that he was about to eat the pig feeds.
“17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
The keyword here is “when it came to himself.” It’s the consciousness that we all need. That’s the day awakening the Father is waiting for. The first thing we realize when we come to ourselves is the extravagant grace of the Prodigal Father. How could I betray the Prodigal Father? I have miss the mark. The Hebrew word for missing the mark is sin. That’s the basic level of consciousness.
“20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
This part also deserves a great deal of pondering. The fact that the father saw him from far away means he probably has been waiting there day in and day out hoping his son would come home. Again, it’s another indication of God being the Prodigal Father. The son betrayed him, but instead of abandoning him, he was waiting for him to come home.
He has a household and a business to manage, but every now and then he would come outside on the street to look for his son’s coming back. If we understand this sentence, we will never misunderstand God again, “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” But this son didn’t take advantage of his father’s compassion, he still confessed his sin as he originally intended to do.
“22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
This is how Jesus depict the Prodigal Father—full of grace, and grace upon grace. The best robe was the father’s robe. The signet ring was a sign of restored authority and responsibility. The shoes were a sign that he was indeed a son, not a servant because the servants don’t wear shoes.
The killing of the fatted calf was a sign that the whole community was invited to celebrate the restoration of the relationship. The unexpected, extravagant display of grace in restoring his son is accounted for by the father’s own words:
“Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (vv. 23–24).
Now the last part of the story is about the elder son, who is doing everything right, except he doesn’t understand the extravagant grace of his father. The story ends with the father reminding him of his blessings and persuading him to come and celebrate. We don’t know whether the elder brother eventually join the party.
The fact that Jesus ended the story this way tells us that the focus of the story is not about the sons, but about the Father, the Prodigal Father. His extravagant grace is shown on the upcoming Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
This week of Lent, let’s go home and meditate on this story of the Prodigal Father and the truth about him. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:32). There is a liberating power of this story. It’s freedom! Amen!