Most biblical scholars agree that Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is his best. However, they disagree on a proper title for the story. Some say it should be called the parable of the loving father. Others refer to it as the parable of the unforgiving brother. These attempts to put a proper title to the parable attest to the richness of the story. We have a great deal to think about today as we ponder the Parable of the Prodigal Son/Loving Father/ Unforgiving Brother.
Jesus loved to use exaggeration in his parables. Here, the younger son is the catalyst for his exaggeration. The younger of two sons wants to leave his home and family. For us this seems perfectly natural – but not in the Jewish society of the day or even the ultra-orthodox of today. Families functioned like tribes. Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren often lived together. In wealthy families, such as the one in the parable, each generation would live in their own home on the ancestral estate. As the family expanded so did the potential of its wealth.
When Jesus, at the beginning of the parable, stated, “the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that should come to me.’ his entire audience would have let out a gasp. This good-fornothing selfish brat just told his father that he wished he were dead. To add insult to injury, he demanded that the family estate be cut in two. Theoretically, it was his right, but in a tribal society it was an unpardonable act of disrespect not only toward the patriarch of the family but the entire family. From this moment on the rest of the family had to live from the wealth of only half the estate – land, livestock, and other related businesses.
Jesus then described what this ingrate son did with his inheritance: wine, women and song. He gathered new “friends” around him who happily shared in his lavish lifestyle. He had gone out of the Jewish world and slipped into the world of Roman decadence. After he had lost everything, he tended pigs to try to stay alive. At this point in the story the crowd would have been nodding their heads. “He deserves everything he gets!”
Jesus moves on with the parable. When this young man realized that even the slaves in his father’s house had more than he did, he had the audacity to think about going back to his father. He decided to plead with his father to take him in, not as a son, but as a slave.
The parable now focuses on the father. In a simple phrase, Jesus told the crowd that the father never stopped looking off into the distant landscape longing to see his son returning. “While he was still a long way off” the father caught sight of him. The father was in deep mourning for his child. A soon as he saw him he put aside all his dignity, lifted up his long, regal robe up to his waist, exposing his naked legs, and ran to meet his lost son.
As soon as his father got to him, his son began his prepared script about wanting to return as a slave. The father did something mindboggling. He embraced his son and kissed him, probably weeping all the while. He immediately ordered that shoes be put on his son’s feet, thereby declaring that his son was not a slave. (Slaves were not allowed to wear shoes.) He put a ring on his finger thereby reinstating him as a legal heir to the estate. The son had the right to half of what was left of the estate, once again! And – he ordered the slaves to prepare a great celebrative banquet. The people must have lost it at this point. The old man’s meshuggineh!
Jesus then inserted the voice of “reason” into the parable – the older brother. He refused to enter the house when he discovered that his brother had returned and his father was throwing a lavish party for him. The father left the banquet to plead with him. The son reminded his father that he had been loyal to him, working the fields and never disobeying any command. “When your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fatted calf!” Again, the crowd would have been nodding in assent. How could he have rewarded his son who insulted him and the entire family, abandoned his race and religion, and lost everything he had taken from the family?
Finally, Jesus revealed the secret of the parable. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
What does it mean to forgive? It means thinking and acting like God, the Father of us all. Forgiveness began to emerge in the parable when the younger son realized that he had abandoned home and family, and his father’s unconditional love. The son then took a second step; he dared to reach out to his father with humility and trust.“Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Notice that the father didn’t use the word sin, his younger son did. The father didn’t respond with any words. He simply kissed him. The kiss said everything that was on his heart. His long vigil of waiting was over; his son had returned. “He was lost and has been found.”
The last scene in the parable takes place on a very human plain. The father’s great banquet, that even included music and dancing, wasn’t complete. The older brother was absent; his anger and lack of forgiveness kept him separated from this extraordinary celebration. The father reached out to him.
Jesus didn’t reveal the older brother’s response. It’s easy to figure out why. Everyone who’s listening to this parable is meant to be the older brother. Jesus is challenging each of us to lift ourselves from the human plain. He’s challenging us to think and act like God. We all know people who are lost. We all know people who are dead. Our Father is longing for them to find their way home. The fatted calf is prepared. Can we forgive our brother and sister, no matter what they’ve done? Will we decide to enter the banquet our crazy, loving Father has prepared for each and every one of his children?