Summary: A few details of this beautiful parable that we may miss or take for granted because we think the story is so familiar.
The so-called parable of the prodigal son is one of the—if not the—most beautiful stories in the whole Bible. God, it is pointed out, is like the father in the story. The beauty and power of this story is made very clear in the description and actions of the father. One of the dangers of being so familiar with a story is that we think we know everything there is to know about it. However, I believe we can miss things or forget things or take things too much for granted because the story seems so familiar to us. So today I invite you to come along with me as we focus on a few details of the story.
At the beginning of the story, we notice that the youngest son asks his father to divide the property between himself and his older brother. Now this request was a strange one. In that culture one did not do such a thing. One of the commandments emphasises honouring parents. How did this younger son honour his dad by asking for his inheritance? The sense of the younger son’s request would sound something like this, in today’s plain language: “Dad for me you’re dead, so give me my inheritance now, before you die. I want what belongs to me now, I don’t want to wait for it until after you die.”
Can you imagine having such a self-centred, uncaring, unloving son as that? Luke doesn’t tell us, however one wonders what thoughts and emotions the father had when his younger son spoke those words to him. Yet, as far as we know from what Luke does tell us, the father doesn’t seem to get angry and start yelling at this son. He doesn’t refuse the son’s request. Rather, he agrees to the request and the son walks away with his property, travelling to a distant land likely hoping and thinking that he’d have a better life there. However, Luke tells us the younger son doesn’t do very well in that distant land. In fact, he blows all of his wealth “in dissolute living.” That word “dissolute” can, among other things, mean immoral and self-indulgent. So perhaps the younger son lived as if his life was one continuous party, depriving himself of nothing, seeking to cater to every selfish desire.
After blowing all of his wealth, he needed to do something, so he gets hired as a servant, or perhaps even a slave, working in fields and feeding pigs. Now he must have been pretty desperate to do a job working with pigs. For Jews, working with pigs would be the lowest of the low jobs. A job to be avoided like the plague. Why? Because for the Jews pigs were an unclean animal—an animal to stay away from at almost all costs. So, for a Jew to work with pigs would be one of the most dishonourable and humiliating jobs on earth.
If that weren’t bad enough, it seems to get even worse, Luke gives us another detail concerning how desperate the younger son was, he tells us: “He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.” In short, it sounds like he was starving, he had nothing to eat. This detail may suggest that the son was actually a slave who was neglected by his master—which again emphasises how desperate he had become.
Then the younger son starts thinking about life back home. He realizes that things were pretty good back home. Even his father’s hired hands were treated better than he was in this distant country. So he comes to his senses, has a change of heart, and rehearses his repentance speech that he would make when he met up with his father. Now that he realized his sin against God and against his father, he hopes that his father will take him back as a hired hand, not as his son.
In the next scene, on his way back home, the father spotted him from a distance, ran to him with open arms, and then hugged and kissed him. The word ran here is an interesting one in that it was used to describe a footrace in a stadium. So the father raced as fast as he could to meet up with his younger son. Such running at breakneck speed highlights how much the father really does love his son; and how excited and joyful he is to see him again. Of course the father’s hug and kiss also affirm his love for his son.
Then, the father cuts short the younger son’s repentance speech by ordering his slaves to fetch the best robe, a ring and a pair of sandals. When is it appropriate to put on a ceremonial robe? Well, usually it’s when there is some special celebration, marking an important accomplishment. For example, in the academic world ceremonial robes are worn when students graduate. Here the son graduated from being a foreign servant or slave working at the lowest of the low job of feeding pigs to once again being restored as the father’s son and a citizen of his homeland. God’s grace and love is like that for you and I too. In our sinfulness we can fall down into the depths, becoming the lowest of the low. Yet God our heavenly Father comes to us and welcomes us as precious members of his family.