This story that we know so well, that we feel we could recite from memory, is badly named. It would be better known as the parable of the loving father, or at least the parable of the two lost sons.
Let’s place this story in context and see if we can decide which other title is best. To begin let us remember that First Century Palestine was steeped in a culture of honor.
This story is the last of three that Jesus tells when we hear that:
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
The first parable is the story of the Good Shepherd. The Second is the story of the Lost Coin. The third story is the longest of the three and tells the story of, “a man who had two sons.”
The younger of the two said to his father, “give me the share of the property that will come to me.” This is a very disrespectful request.
In effect he is saying to his father, “I would rather you were dead because your property is more valuable to me than you are.” In the request he does not even acknowledge that the property is his father’s. He says only, “the property.”
And his request is in violation of custom and scripture. Sirach 33:20-24 says:
To son or wife, to brother or friend,
do not give power over yourself, as long as you live;
and do not give your property to another,
in case you change your mind and must ask for it.
While you are still alive and have breath in you,
do not let anyone take your place.
For it is better that your children should ask from you
than that you should look to the hand of your children.
Excel in all that you do;
bring no stain upon your honor.
At the time when you end the days of your life,
in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.
This would have been common knowledge to the people who were hearing Jesus tell this story as well as the characters themselves.
Next Jesus tells us, “He divided his property.” We don’t hear any objection from the older son that what he is doing is contrary to custom and law. Instead, the older son apparently accepts his half of the property.
In effect, this older son abdicates his position of honor with his father and agrees with the younger brother that his father is better off dead. He has now joined the insult.
Beyond this he makes no attempt to reconcile his father and brother which custom demands that he do. His behavior is disgraceful.
So the younger son departs for a distant land and, “squandered his property in dissolute living.” He was living among Gentiles far from home and had given up his culture and possibly his religion.
After he has spent all of his money with no care for his future, Jesus tells us a severe famine took place. If he had no money, I’m not sure what difference that made.
Meanwhile, he lowers himself further in abandoning his honor and culture by hiring himself out to one of the citizens of that country. He’s hoping to find that he might be cared for as he would be in his own country, but alas this is not to be.
His new patron sends him to his fields to feed the pigs. One of the most unclean jobs a Jew could perform.
He is hungry and surrounded by forbidden food. And not only are the animals he cares for forbidden to him, the carob pods he feeds them have no nutritional value to humans.
By custom he is entitled to some of the pigs he cares for, but this provides no hope because to eat them would be to behave more shamefully than he has already.
At least if he were in his homeland, he would have been given some scraps of meat as a beggar, or be allowed to harvest grain from the edges of the fields, but no one would give him anything.
He seems to have fallen as far as one person could possibly fall. He is at rock bottom. But when this happens, as it happens to many of us in our lives, he “comes to himself.”
He remembers who he is and where he is from. He remembers that he comes from a culture that holds as one of its values that the poor are fed. He remembers his loving father and the abundance of his care for him.
He decides that he will get up and go to his father, this man who he wished dead, who gave to him out of his abundance, and will say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
In doing so, he will regain some honor in being able to help care for his father as long as he lives.
He plans to return and begin with the same word that started his decline into disgrace and poverty, “Father.”
Meanwhile, his father waits. He must be watching, because he sees him from far off. Then he does what no patriarch would do, he runs to greet him.
He knows that his fallen son will face the gauntlet of the other people in the village. His son had not only driven himself into poverty, he has broken the standards of behavior and the duty a son owes his father.
His former neighbors would be outraged since his actions might help other children think that they could behave similarly.
So the loving father runs to greet him to show to all the people that he forgives his son and greets him with kisses. He publicly heals the relationship.
The finest robe is probably the father’s own garment. It will guarantee that the community will accept the son.
The ring is a sign of trust and the sandals are a sign that he is not a servant in the house and assures the reacceptance of the son by the father’s servants.
Killing a fatted calf shows that the feast will be large and the whole village will be invited. All these signs show the people of the father’s forgiveness and encourage their acceptance of this son.
Meanwhile, the older brother is in the fields. He is completely unaware of the return of his brother. As a matter of fact, he has been living in a world where to him both his father and brother are dead. He no longer honors his relationships.
Instead of being in the field, his culture demands that he should be playing the role of host to the feast to honor his father and the reconciliation of this brother.
When he does arrive, he refuses to enter the feast and instead insults his brother.
Even now his father shows the same love to him that he did to the younger son. He breaks custom and leaves his guests to go out and invite this other lost son to join the banquet.
When his father speaks to him, his older son accuses him of favoritism, “… you have never given me even a young goat.” The thought occurs… “Did he ever ask?” The character we see in this father surely would not have denied him a young goat.
He denies his relationship with his brother, “… when this son of yours came back.”
He embellishes the offences of the younger brother, taking a rumor of dissolute living and turning it into, “devouring your property with prostitutes.”
But this loving father responds with self-humiliating kindness. He addresses him as his child and says, “Son you are always with me…” such reassuring words, and clarifies the abundance of the relationship. “All that is mine is yours.”
Then he reaffirms the relationship of the brothers. “This brother of yours…” was dead and has come to life, was lost and is found. For this we must rejoice and celebrate.
We don’t learn from Jesus if the older brother goes into the banquet. He goes on to tell yet another parable.
What do you think the brother did?
What would you do?