“I wish you were dead!”
That is the striking way in which Jesus began one of his most well known parables. Because of course that is how his hearers would have understood the strange request made by the younger son.
12 The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.”
The audience would have been hooked immediately because such a request is totally unthinkable! A child cannot inherit until the parent has died. So the son really was saying, “I wish you were dead! Your money means more to me than you do. Drop dead!” What would the father do? Surely he would beat his son, or even cut him out of his will completely. These are the questions which those listening to Jesus would be asking. What will happen next?
We are probably very familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. But do we even know what the word prodigal means? This evening I would like to try to tell the story as Jesus told it and help us to hear it as those first listeners did. I want us to view the parable of the prodigal son through the eyes of the peasant farmers who heard Jesus the poet tell it. We will learn a lot about God, who is represented in the story by the loving father, and about ourselves as we are portrayed by the son who is hopelessly lost but then comes back home again. The story starts as
A son was lost
Of course, the son was lost long before he decided he wanted to leave home. Something must have been very wrong with his attitude towards his home and his relationship with his father already for him to make such an outrageous request.
12 The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.
Dividing the property would finalise the split which already existed within the family. The father shows amazing patience and generosity in doing what his son had demanded. But then the son goes further.
13 ‘Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
What the son did next was scandalous. He ignored his obligation to continue working his share of the land on the family estate and instead he sold off his share of the property to go travelling. This break in convention was an insult to his father and to his brother, indeed to the whole village.
No wonder the younger son ran away to a far country – somewhere where nobody knew him. As he had gone from buyer to buyer, each would have been disgusted and horrified at his behaviour. The whole community would have hated and rejected this foolish son. So he ran away “not long after that”, even though property sales in the Middle East in those days would usually drag on for months.
The second son was already lost, but things only got worse. Cut off from family and friends, a stranger in a distant land, he had thrown away everything which makes life worth living. For a while he had money, but then (he) squandered his wealth in wild living. After a few months of wine, women and song, the younger son was left with absolutely nothing. How lost can you get?
This parable gives us a vivid picture of what life is like for so many people in the world today: trying to find happiness in money and possessions and entertainments but all the time in a far country, alienated from the God who created them for a relationship with him. People who have said to God, “I wish you were dead”. People with the same self-centred attitude as the son who demanded his inheritance now – gimme, gimme, gimme.
But the son in Jesus’s story had to sink further into the depths before he would be ready to return home. We can chart his decline.
(he) squandered his wealth in wild living.
He threw everything away in an extravagant and wasteful lifestyle. By the way, that is what the word prodigal means. Some people think the title “prodigal son” refers to a returning son or a repentant son. What the word prodigal actually means is the wasteful, reckless, profligate, squandering son. Although he was lost long before he was wasteful and in some ways his extravagance was the least of his faults, not the greatest. But things went from bad to worse.
14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
“He began to be in need” is an understatement. He was so desperate that he ended up working for a citizen of that country, who by definition was a Gentile and not a Jew. That position would be as shameful and despised as that of Jewish tax-collectors working for the Romans. And the only work available was feeding the pigs. In Judaism, pigs are ritually unclean animals. Working with them would prevent the younger son from practising his religion in any way, not even keeping the Sabbath. Could things get any worse?
Well, things did get worse. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
He was absolutely starving. Whatever challenges we may face in life, the problems that foolish young man was experiencing were worse. No one could be further away from God than that wasteful son was from the father he had wished was dead. But there is still hope for the son.
“He came to his senses.” Literally, “he came to himself.” The son realised how foolish he had been. It doesn’t say at this stage that he was sorry for how he had insulted his father or for the way he had thrown all his money away. But at least he realised what a mess his life was in and that he had to do something about it. For all the prodigal lost sons in the world here is the starting point – to come to our senses.
So the son came up with a cunning plan.
17 ‘When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father
He realized the only thing to do was to go back home. There is the next step for all prodigals – come back to God. But the plan is more even brilliant than that.
18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”
If he became a hired servant the son would keep his self-respect. He would retain his independent position in the town and not need to become a slave to pay his debts. He would work hard to earn money to pay back his father. At this stage the wasteful son wasn’t looking for forgiveness, or for reconciliation with his father. He just wanted a second chance and a way out of the dreadful mess he was in.
20 So he got up and went to his father.
Here is the first sensible thing the son has done in the story so far. He hadn’t just recognised all he had lost. He actually did something about it! He could have stayed and just wallowed in the pigsty, making the best of the very worst. But then he would never have discovered the incredible love his father had for him.
But the lost son didn’t stay lost. Instead he got up and went to his father. It is a wonderful thing when a person comes to their senses and realises they are lost in a far country far away from God. But too many people then start trying to figure out ways they could get into God’s good books, or how to earn God’s forgiveness, like the son’s masterplan of becoming a hired servant. Many people decide to try to be hired servants for God, loving their neighbours and giving to the poor. But God doesn’t need our ideas of ways to get back to him. God has a much more wonderful and amazing plan of salvation. All we need to do is follow the example of the prodigal son who got up and headed back towards his father. Only when he did that did the miracle happen.
The lost son is found
Jesus’s parable paints a wonderful picture of the amazing love of God. God doesn’t save us from ourselves to let us be his hired servants. He welcomes us as sons and daughters in his family.
20 So he got up and went to his father.
‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.
21 ‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
The loving father had been watching out longing for his son to come home, just as God is always watching out for prodigals to return to him. The father was filled with compassion as God is filled with love for us all. But then what happens next is a big surprise to everybody.
he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.
The father ran to his son. Wait a minute. In the Middle East, fathers of grown up children don’t run anywhere! For a start, it’s much too hot for folk of a certain age to go running around. But also it would be undignified. If there is any running to be done the father would send a servant to do the running. But in Jesus’s parable, “the father ran to his son.” This wasn’t just because he was pleased to see him. Remember how angry the villagers would have been at the son selling off part of the family estate. They would greet him with clenched fists. The father needed to get to his son and run the gauntlet with him before the rest of the town beat the son up or even killed him. The father needed to demonstrate to the whole community that he was welcoming the son home with open arms as a sign that he had forgiven his son.
he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.
The son had his speech ready. By now he had realised just how wrong he had been. He begins his confession,
21 … “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
All these things are true. But the father doesn’t need to hear them. His son had come home – that was all that mattered. And what a welcome he received.
22 ‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.
The best robe in the house was obviously the father’s own robe reserved for very special occasions. The ring would obviously be a signet ring, demonstrating that the son had been restored to a position of trust in the family estate, as a son and not a servant. Sandals were for free men, not servants. And the servants dressed him, because he was a son in the household and not an employee.
Finally the fattened calf is killed. That would be prepared for special occasions where the whole community would be invited. They have a feast with the son as the guest of honour, because the father wanted the whole town to know that he had forgiven his wayward son and had restored him to his former position in the family.
Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
The son had been dead and now he was alive – he had been lost and now he had been found. There is a beautiful symmetry in the Jewish poetry which we can miss in the translation. Everything which is lost in the first half is regained in the second.
Before goods were wasted in extravagant living – in the end they are used in joyful celebration. The lost son went away from his father, but then he returned again. Whereas everything was lost and the son found himself in need, everything was restored again. The son fell into great sin, even feeding the pigs, but this led to sincere repentance, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” From a place of total rejection where nobody gave him anything, the son came to a place of total acceptance as his father ran and kissed him as a sign of reconciliation. In the symmetrical structure of Jesus’s parable the most important line is always right in the centre of the poetry and it is there in verse 17. “He came to his senses.” That realisation of his need was the turning point in his life. As it is for every prodigal who comes to themselves and realises they are lost and sets out to return to God.
Of course this parable is not just really the wasteful prodigal son. It is supremely about the loving father, who represents God. The father saw the son when he was a long way off. We only need to take one single faltering step back towards God and he is already running towards us. God is watching and waiting and longing for each of us to return to him. The father was filled with compassion for his son, as God is for each of us. Not anger but overflowing love and mercy. The father threw his arms around his son and kissed him, demonstrating acceptance and forgiveness. This is how God longs to welcome all the wasteful prodigals.
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.