The Prodigal Son

The story of the prodigal son is so famous in our culture, even people who don’t know the origin of the story know the word “prodigal” to mean someone who is rebellious and estranged from family.  The original story told by Jesus has many different lessons contained in it,and to fully understand, it has to be looked at through the prism of ancient Hebrew culture.

The son who asked for his inheritance committed a sin, which in that culture deserved the death sentence.  He not only denied his father any respect, he as much as said “I wish you were dead because I only care about the wealth I will get.”  His father, unbelievably, gave him his inheritance, and further disrespect followed.  The prodigal son sold his portion of the land.  In Hebrew culture, the land was a gift from God, never to be sold.  With the money he got from the sale, he left his father, his country, his culture and in all that as well as spending his money in “wild living” he trashed every one of his father’s values.

When the money ran out, he found himself friendless and starving.  He hired himself out to a pig farmer.  The pig was considered filthy in his native culture, yet he was so hungry he wanted to eat with the pigs and was denied even that.  The story says “he came to his senses”.  There’s hope in that little phrase.  God often brings people to a place where they see the light.  God gave this young man such a longing for home, he was willing to risk throwing himself on his father’s mercy.  He recognized being a slave in his father’s house was better than his present situation.

When he comes home, the story shows the father seeing him “from afar”, meaning the father has been watching the horizon.  When he recognizes his son, he runs to him.  This was unheard of in this culture.  This son had wronged the father, and the father’s running to the son was the height of indignity.  Then he threw himself on the son, hugging the young man who probably reeked of pigs.  The father bestows all the symbols of sonship on his son once again, the ring, the robe and the sandals.  There was no earning of this favor.  It was sheer mercy.  Then the father throws a party.

This is a picture of God.  God is a father who so loves his errant children, there should be no fear, ever, in returning home to him.

Another interesting part of the story is the reaction of the older son, who is jealous of all the attention being paid to his treasonous brother.  He had, after all, been the perfect son, staying behind, caring for the father’s interests, and doing a double share of the work.  However, it is clear he also wants something from his father.  He wants recognition and reward.  He wants to be considered better than his brother.  He is a model of the religious person who hopes to earn reward from God by “being good enough”.  He hopes to earn through works what the father gives through grace.  He has no understanding of his father’s heart, nor does he truly love his father.

The summary of the whole story is this father has two sons who neither love him nor appreciate him for who he is.  None of their actions show a care for the father or a putting of the Father’s interests first.  In that way, neither of the sons is truly the better son.  Both are in the relationship for what they can get out of it.  One is just more socially acceptable.

Again, we see the father who loves both his sons when neither has earned the father’s love.  How like God and his human children.  Who of us can say we truly put God first.  Who of us can say we truly love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength.  Thank God, through his grace and revelation of himself, some of us are beginning to come to our senses.  He has a long way to take us yet, before we understand His heart, appreciate Him and begin to become like Him.


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