Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Parable of the Prodigal SONS: Part 1

So, let us begin our study of the parables with this rather famous one:
Luke 15:11-32:  The Parable of the Lost Son (New International Version)
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
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. 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. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
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 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.’ 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 around 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.’
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. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Bible
     Let’s set up the context.  Jesus loved to tell stories that held within their seemingly simple message, a profound set of truths.  Jesus is traveling, and large crowds are following Him, including the “tax collectors and ‘sinners’”—those people who were considered evil by the people.  Tax collectors handled the unclean coins of the Romans, and were, in effect, in league with the Roman government, who was bitterly oppressive towards the Jewish people.  These tax collectors not only collected money to finance such a government, but were not above pocketing some money for themselves.  The NIV Study Bible puts it well: “Notoriously evil people as well as those who refused to follow the Mosaic law as interpreted by the teachers of the law.  The term was commonly used of tax collectors, adulterers, robbers and the like.” 
     In other words, the good folks were following Jesus along with a contingent that society scorned.  But didn’t they deserve it?  Who would dare to collect money for a government that oppresses people…Why should we allow people who are unfaithful, who have sex for money, who steal and who engages in God-knows-what-other-sin to be part of Jesus’ followers? 
     It’s OK to have some revulsion for what these people do, but Jesus tries to get through the sinful behavior, and get down to the essence of the person.  He tries to rescue people from a particular category, and stands that person in front of us as a person.  He is reestablishing that person’s humanity that we all share, good or bad behavior aside.  As soon as we categorize a person (“Oh, he’s a sinner, a tax collector, a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser, etc.”) that person loses the connection to all of us, and is much more easily discarded.  So, do we forget what this person is doing/has done?  No, Jesus always confronts sin and never minimizes it, but He never strips a person of his or her humanity either.
     People are jostling for position to hear Jesus teach, and are casting scornful looks at the tax collector or the prostitute.  Once in position, the good folks are smiling up at Jesus, with a Look, Lord, here I am.  Yeah, I occasionally sin, but thank God I am not like that woman over there!  I am ready to listen…
     Add to the mix the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, hanging back distance, for fear they should have to stand amongst the unwashed masses. They are muttering to themselves, but loud enough for people to hear, how they cannot understand how a teacher could be associated with such people.  Well, Rabbi Jesus, we deal with them too, but look who you are willing to eat with!  Sinners!  Tax Collectors!  And you call yourself a Rabbi, one who follows Moses’ law and claims to walk uprightly with God?  Eating with someone, may we remind you, isn’t just lifting a morsel of bread at a table with someone—it is a sign of friendship.  You are befriending those whom God has judged to be beyond hope, in our humble opinion.  If you really want to be a rabbi, one whom we could respect, you would teach these people and then leave and dine with us.  We are the ones that God really favors.
     Then Luke says, “Then Jesus told them this parable…” He waited until the mumbling Pharisees quieted down.  Jesus could see into their hearts—all of the people's hearts—and tell those parables that would cut through the pious exterior and go directly to the heart of the matter.  Jesus is asking, in effect:  What do we do with those whose behavior disgusts us, and what kind of attitude must we have when interacting with them?  As Jesus’ story unfolds, did the "sinners," whose faces were stonily watching the crowd, along with those who wouldn’t even look up for shame, let alone look at Jesus—did their faces soften as they heard His words?  He starts to tell the story, and a hush descends.
      Everyone can relate to having a sibling, especially with large families being the cultural norm in this time.  The younger son decides it’s time to strike off on his own—that’s not a problem.  But how is he to finance his launch?  Now, there’s the problem.  The NIV Study Bible notes that in Jewish culture, the older son possessed double the portion of the father’s inheritance.  Deuteronomy 21:17 saw to that.  It is interesting that earlier, in Luke 12:13, an angry young man comes up to Jesus, and wants Him to settle a family dispute:  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  The NIV notes that rabbis regularly settled such disputes, but Jesus’ response to the young man's request is when was He “appointed judge or an arbiter between you?” Then Jesus warns the young man, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Did this young man’s face flash into Jesus’ mind as He started telling the story?    Was greed likewise in the heart of the young man in the parable?
     The NIV Study Bible says this is a “highly unusual” request to make, for the father may divide the inheritance, but that the father “retains the income from it until his death.”  So, by lessening the total of the inheritance by giving some of it to the younger son, is the income upon which the father will now live be less?  Will the older son’s inheritance provide the sole income for the father? 
     But, of course, the younger son wasn’t thinking of his father’s welfare—he was thinking of himself.  That’s how we work, huh?  What’s good for me—hey, good question!  I am tired of worrying about others, and now I need to look after myself.  Being good…pshaw.  Being a good son ain’t it’s all cracked up to be.  I want to be my own person, and look to what I can do for ME.   
     The first stage of leaving is a change in attitude.  The younger son didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to leave.  Did he watch his older brother working day after day on behalf of the father, and say, That will not be me.  Being good all the time?  No way.  Look where it’s getting my brother—fast track to No-wheres-ville. 
     (We will find out later that the older brother was battling with his own negative attitude not only about his life but also about his younger brother.) 
     So, the younger son packs up and gets “together all he had.”  Given that his resources are going to be limited (he’s young, he hasn’t made his way in the world yet), “all he had” wasn’t much.  But is Jesus looking deeper than what was in the younger son’s pack back?  Was “all he had” just that… himself?  He had his self-confidence, his pride and his arrogance to carry him through.  Did he look at himself and say, Hey, I am good enough to make it on my own.  No slaving in a field and dealing with Dad.  I am my own man, and whatever life throws at me, I will handle it. 
     How often do we say to God:  Enough.  I can handle this.  You’ve asked too much of me,  I am tired of being good all the time—it’s not getting me anywhere,  and I need to try this out based on what I think. 
     So, our younger son leaves “for a distant country.”  No living next door to Dad and brother.  Hey!  I need to reinvent myself—I am tired of being the son of so and so, and the younger brother of so and so.  I need to be ME and I must do it away from the prying eyes of my family.  I am outta here and look out world!  Here I come! 
     So, within some period of time, after his first foot fall in Anywhere-but-here-ville, he starts to spend his inheritance.  He didn’t go looking for a job right away—oh no, he’s got money.  A few inns here and there, some new friends to spend time with and soon he’s the center of the party:  You always have friends if you are paying.  All that money will last a long time, huh?  And all those pretty women, who light up when he walks into a room…All those guys, who pat him on the back, clear a place at the table, and signal him to sit down.  He then orders the endless rounds of drinks.  No worries…I’ve got people around me who really care—just look at them.  Everyone in this town knows my name.  I am no longer the younger brother…I am ME.  I’ve got friends to prove blisters on my hands from the plow, or dirt in my teeth.  I have arrived.

Next time:  When the money runs out (it always does)...  

For more posts in my parable series, click here.

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