Summary: From understanding gained from the Middle East, we see even more amazingly the measure and wonder of God’s grace
Dr Bailey lived and worked for more than two decades among isolated peasant communities in the Middle East. He stayed in villages which until 10 or 20 years ago had never seen a motor vehicle; where time and tradition have stood still for centuries, even millennia. As he learned of their traditions, his eyes were opened, so that he saw this and other parables as they would have been heard in 1st century Galilee).
We’re all probably fairly familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. It would probably be better called the Parable of the Prodigal Father. There’s a prodigality shown by the father, a prodigality of grace which is sadly lost on our 20th century ears.
Let’s first note the setting of the parable. The Pharisees were, not for the first time, objecting to Jesus eating with ’sinners’. THEY were the respectable, the righteous, the religious. Surely this upstart of a religious teacher should be eating with them. Note that they complain that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. Jesus was hosting a banquet-and that was a prophetic action on the banquet he will one day host- of which he warned in Luke 14: not one of those men invited will get a taste of my banquet. (v24) At least Jesus is dealing with two categories here:
-the ’sinners’; the social outcasts, tax-collectors, prostitutes.
-the Pharisees; those who (v8) were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else- and it was against their attack that Jesus was defending his action.
V12. "Father, give me my share of the estate". So he divided his property between them.
We think the man just wanted a taste of the high life; he wanted the kicks of life. But to have made that demand would have been scandalous. Among hundreds Bailey questioned, only two knew of such an event. In one case his father hounded him out of house and home. In the other case an Iranian pastor died three months later, of a broken heart, and his widow said "My husband died the night our son left home" His son had, in effect, said "Drop dead! I wish you were dead!" And both sons in the parable, let’s note, accepted their share of the property
Such was the grace of the father that he refused to stand on his rights. He allowed his sons freedom. To those who say the Cross is not in the parable- there it is, right at the heart of this parable of the Gospel. God’s love, God’s grace bore our sin, our rebellion, on the Cross of Calvary. When we sin we’re saying to God, "I wish you were dead. I wish you weren’t around to restrict me".
Worse still, the son not only wanted his share of the property before his father’s death: we see in his subsequent action that he wanted the right (not normally given) to dispose of the property in his father’s lifetime, for (v13) not long after (he) got together all he had and set off. His haste was probably occasioned by the hatred engendered in the local community.
And then of course things go wrong.
We get in trouble and we want home. By the bye, the parable is about how the father treats two sons- how the Father treats His children. It’s aimed at us who name the Name of Christ. Let us not lose sight of this fact. The father had two sons. One went off into the world, the other went off into religion.
V18. I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no more worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men"
The son was not only cruel. When things went wrong he was calculating. In a first century Jewish estate there were three levels of servant:
-the bondmen, part of the estate
-slaves, of a lower class
-hire servants, who lived in the village and earned a wage.
A hired servant was a free man, with his own income. The son would be his own man, and would pay off his debt. He wanted the best of both worlds: acceptance by the father he despised and worse, an equal status and the ability eventually to buy his way back into favour with the family. He could lay the ghosts of the past to rest.
He wanted salvation by works. How appealing a gospel of works is, because we can retain our own dignity and pride. But Cranmer in his superb liturgy reminds us
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But now, as the son returns home, we see the magnificence of grace writ large.