I hope that before you read this article, you’ll take a moment to read Jesus Parable of the Prodigal Son. For the purposes of this column, read Luke 15:11-24.
When I was in seminary, our New Testament professor told us that, in a sense, parables are like good jokes. If you have to explain them, then you really missed the point. Such is the case with this parable. After reading about the actions of the father and younger son, we ought to get it by being either very relieved or very offended. To write a newspaper column about the interpretation means were behind before we even get started.
But such is the way of things, so lets begin by asking a question: Which characters in the parable should be offended? There are several…
First, the father should be offended by a son who no longer wants to be part of the family. We certainly see why imagine one of your children coming to you and asking for part of the inheritance. How much would it hurt to realize your own child wishes you were dead? How difficult would it be if you, like the father in the parable, chose to honor the request. What would you have to sell? Your car? Your house? What would others think?
Second, the community that helped raise this man would be offended by a son who treats his father as if he were dead. Shortly after the son receives his share of the inheritance, he leaves town. This was certainly part of the plan all along, but I wonder if part of the reason the son got out of town so quickly was to avoid the wrath of his neighbors. Would any of them sought to harm him for his actions?
Lest you think that is not the case, consider Casey Anthony’s recent release from prison. Public outrage for her alleged actions was so great that she will need to spend a very long time living in an undisclosed location, lest the community around her rise up and take action into its own hands. Might the prodigal son have faced such a response from his neighbors? I believe it is likely.
Third, the community where the prodigal son chooses to live is offended by him as well. After all the money is gone, no one wants this out of towner in their midst anymore. From my research into this passage, I learned that in the culture of Jesus’ day, you didn’t get rid of a person by asking them to leave. You got rid of them by asking them to do something so offensive that they would leave rather than do it. So someone offers this Jewish man a job feeding the pigs. He should have gotten the message, and packed up. Instead, he accepted the “Get out of here!” job. His shame is complete.
So what is the son to do? Go back home and see if dad will accept him as a hired hand. It seems like a long shot at best. And yet, the father does even more than the son could have possibly hoped. Not only does he accept the son back into his home, but he completely restores the position of the son in everyone’s eyes.
To see this, we need to understand the fathers actions. Luke tells us that the father sees his son while the son was still a long way off. I’ve always imagined the father way out in the back forty of the family farm, working in the fields. But it may be that the father was at home in his village when he saw his son approaching. In order for the son to make it home, he would have had to pass by all of his angry neighbors. They might have prevented him from coming home, or even harmed him physically. So the father, out of great love for his son, runs to both welcome him back and to bring him home safely.
But the father does even more than this. He orders the fattened calf to be killed and then throws a party and invites the entire town! Can you see the implications of this action? The son has offended both his father and his town in perhaps the biggest way possible. No one should want this young man around. But in this great reversal, the son is welcomed home to a feast and his father invites everyone to come. When they joined the party, they too would be welcoming the son back home.
In all of this, the father undoes the earthly effects of his sons sin. Nothing the son has done to distance himself from his family is held against him. He comes home as a son and can continue his life from that point on.
Normally, people view this parable from the perspective of the prodigal son, seeing Jesus great forgiveness of us in the actions of the father toward the son. But what happens if we view this parable from the perspective of the father? Are we in a position to extend grace and forgiveness to persons who have sinned against us? Are our churches in a position to help people undo the earthly effects of sin in our lives?
To help us all wrestle with this, I offer four basic questions. First, who are the persons who have most offended us? Second, are we willing to take an active role in their lives, walking with them as they seek to undo the effects of sin in their lives? Third, do we want persons like this sitting at our dining room table, or in the church pew next to us, or would we rather they go somewhere else? Fourth, are we willing to defend them in the presence of those who are still offended by their past actions?
I hope you’ll consider these questions before you turn the page.
Tim Harvery is the Senior Pastor at Central Church of the Brethren. Visit them at www.centralbrethren.org