I want to take a little longer than usual with today’s story. I want to put us in the shoes of three different people. I want to walk in the shoes of the prodigal son, the faithful son, and the father. I also want to take a look at the audience Jesus is sharing this parable with.
I heard someone sharing this parable not too long ago who said we had mislabeled the son who left as the prodigal. They were stating that the term prodigal was being referenced incorrectly, so I decided to look it up on Dictionary.com and this is what I found:
- wastefully or recklessly extravagant:
- giving or yielding profusely; lavish (usually followed by of or with):
prodigal of smiles; prodigal with money.
- lavishly abundant; profuse:
nature’s prodigal resources.
4. a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance; spendthrift.
Using these definitions, you could put the younger son under numbers 1, 2 and 4. But you could put the father’s love squarely under number 3. For the purpose of walking in our characters’ shoes I am going to give them names. The youngest son I am going to call Levi. I will name his brother Philip and the father James. As there are a few Jewish traditions that I want to talk about before getting into the characters, I’m choosing to reverse my original order for exploring this story. I want to examine the traditions of inheritance and then look at Jesus’ audience and His possible reasons for sharing this particular story with them.
In our story the father had two sons and appeared to be very wealthy. According to Jewish laws of inheritance, both sons would receive a share of the father’s property, but the oldest son would receive a “double portion.” This would break down to the oldest receiving 2/3 of the property and the youngest receiving 1/3. But NONE of these transfers would take place until after the father dies.
The father in our story had every right to divide his estate between his sons, but the son had no right to cash in that inheritance before the father’s death. The Jewish Mishnah states “If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control” (Baba Bathra viii.7). In case you are wondering what the Jewish Mishnah is, it’s “a study book of the law” and includes both majority and minority points of view. The son’s behavior flew in the face of all standards and practices in Jewish law and tradition.
I believe the audience Jesus is addressing is the same audience He shared the story of the lost lamb and the lost coin with. This group was made up of Pharisees and scribes who were indignant at Jesus’ association with sinners and tax collectors. This group would certainly have a great understanding of Jewish laws, including those of inheritance. Jesus’ listeners would have been shocked to the core when they heard Jesus’ account of the son’s actions. They would have been furious with the son, as would most any other listener.
I wonder what Jesus’ disciples were thinking as they heard the story developing. Did Jesus use dramatic pauses to let bits and pieces of the story sink in before moving on to the next scene? How I wish I could have seen Jesus’ audience’s faces as Jesus told this story.
In the story, Jesus used a son who despised his life so fully that he wished his father dead, and then acted as if he were. He wanted nothing more to do with his father, other than the wealth his father could provide. We aren’t told what lead to the son’s actions. Maybe he wanted more control of his own life. Maybe he resented having to work for his father. Maybe he wanted away from his brother. Whatever his reasons, Jesus was painting a picture of the worst kind of son possible. He didn’t give this character any redeeming qualities in the beginning of His story.
In all three of Jesus’ parables to this group, He used examples where the lost item (sheep, coin, and child) belonged to the main character. The first two stories the lost items could have been accidental. The lost sheep could have simply wandered off. The coin could have slipped out of a pocket. But the prodigal son deliberately ran away from the father. There was no accident involved. He had sinned as bad as he could, barring murdering his father for his inheritance.
But in each story, the seeker never gave up looking for the lost. The father didn’t go out after the son but he watched for him all the time. And all three celebrated when their loss was restored. All welcomed back what had been missing without qualifications.
Jesus was telling His audience of the Father’s love for the lost. No matter what their condition, God wants them back. He longs for the restored relationship with each one of us, who He created in His own image. He seeks us out. He never gives up hope. And He rejoices every time one of us returns to Him. His love in not based on what we have done to get to where we are, but in the fact that we were His from the beginning. If He didn’t love us so fully He never would have sent Jesus to suffer as He did.
God knew the final result of Jesus’ suffering. He knew that there was NO other way to truly be reunited with those He loved. But He also knew the pain Jesus would suffer. He knew the cost to His own heart when He had to turn away. And He knew that turning away would break Jesus’ heart. Do you for ONE MOMENT that God would have put His own Son and Himself through those tortures if He didn’t love you BEYOND reason?! You are precious to Him. That is what Jesus was sharing that day. This is what He is still sharing with each of us today.
Father God, thank You for Your AMAZING love! Thank You Jesus for Your willingness to demonstrate that love personally. Forgive me for ever doubting that You loved me too. More times than I care to count, I have wondered about a statement I have heard all my life: “If you were the only one who ever accepted God’s gift of salvation, Jesus would still have paid the price for you.” I felt that this wasn’t true for plain old me. Maybe for the Billy Graham’s or Apostle Paul’s, but not for me. Today, after looking at Jesus’ parables, I accept that as truth. You were the Father watching diligently for the child who wished You dead. You welcomed him home with open arms. You loved him fully. He had his position of Sonship restored, even though he had done nothing to earn that place. Yes, his inheritance was gone because of his own actions, but he was brought back into the father’s home and provided for, for the rest of his life, or at least for the rest of the father’s life. You provide for me for eternity. THANK YOU for making me one of Your children. I love You with all my heart and never want to run away again. But if/when I do, I know I can come home again.