The first two parables - the lost sheep and the lost coin - are pretty straightforward and not as challenging as the third. That may be because in the third, the parable of the Prodigal Son, we’re talking about people who act in selfish or resentful ways, as most of us do at times. That means it can cut close to home, and make us uncomfortable.
We probably don't often act as selfishly as the Prodigal Son does. To understand just how selfish the Prodigal Son acts, you have to understand the culture of the times. Then, as now, you could not inherit until someone had died. When he asks for his inheritance when his father is still alive, he is disrespecting his father, in a big way. He’s basically saying, “You are dead to me.” This must have been heartbreaking to his father, who in all his actions shows himself to be an unusually loving and forgiving person. His father does as his son asks, and his son takes off.
To understand the rest of the story, you have to know how shamefully the Prodigal Son acts in the view of his time. He quickly loses all his money to Gentiles. At the time, when a Jewish person to lose money to Gentiles it brought shame upon a person’s family and even onto his village. In the story the degradation shows in the young man taking a job working for Gentiles, who are raising pigs, because pigs are considered unclean under Jewish law. And then not only does he work with pigs, he actually wants to take their food.
He is so degraded, it’s hard to imagine something similar in our society. Finally he hits rock bottom and decides to go back and throw himself on his father’s mercy. We don’t know if he has truly repented – the fact that he comes up with a speech which he repeats to his father suggests perhaps he has not. This does not seem to matter to his father. What matters is that his son is alive and has returned to him.
Imagine someone you love engaging in the worst, most shameful behavior you can imagine, and then returning to you. How would you respond? Earlier I mentioned that the Prodigal Son brought shame on both his family and his village. Alyce McKenzie says that at the time if such a person tried to return to the village, the village would perform a ceremony called “gesasah” – the people, including the family, would surround the person, break jars full of grain, and declare this person cut off from the village. In the normal course of things back then, the Prodigal Son would be shunned, cast out. That's what the people hearing Jesus tell this story would have expected.
Knowing this, you start to see that having a celebration to welcome back his son, is a highly unusual way for a father to respond. Shocking, even - it would have been shocking to those who first heard this story. Running out to meet his son is unusual – it would be considered humiliating for a dignified family man to do such a thing (even today, in some places). Alyce McKenzie suggests the he runs out to greet his son in order to protect him from that terrible casting-out ceremony. He sets aside his own dignity to save his son.
Recall that what provoked these three parables was the righteous criticizing Jesus for going about with people they condemned as unclean or as sinners. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the older brother represents this point of view. Those who criticize Jesus are acting like the older brother. And here is the tough part of that story – Divine grace and love can provoke resentment among those who consider themselves to be righteous. Have you ever felt that sort of righteous indignation, that sort of resentment? I have.
Resentment is a painful feeling. There is a saying today that resentment is a poison you drink hoping the other person will die. It does not hurt the other person as much as it hurts you – it harms your heart and your spirit. Because we can easily fall into this feeling of righteous resentment, it’s important to consider how the loving father acts toward the older son when that son pours out his bitterness and resentment.
The father acts in a loving and kind way – saying that all he has belongs to this son, who will always be with him. He responds in a compassionate, grace-filled manner. Clearly he wants the older son to join in the party, to set aside his own resentment. After all, the cause of celebration is that the Prodigal Son has come to himself, turned around, confessed and been forgiven. He who was thought to be dead has come back to life.
The older son has some valid points- why no celebration for his years of righteousness? We don't know whether or not the father sees that point, and realizes he should celebrate his elder son's faithfulness. We don't know if he does that but given that he is a good father, we can guess that he would. We don’t know whether the older son will overcome his resentment and join in the celebration. What would it take for love to overcome resentment and the wish for fairness?
It seems there are two different messages for two different target audiences in the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. The first message is aimed at the righteous – and the message is to practice humility, and to free ourselves from the terrible burden of resentment by forgiving, by practicing compassion.
The second message is geared towards the unrighteous (who were also listening to this story). This message is that incomprehensible grace and forgiveness are there for the taking and follow us everywhere. When we turn and accept grace and forgiveness, they free us from the terrible burdens of shame and guilt. The common message is that there are ways to free ourselves of spiritual burdens, and both have to do with loving grace.
Scholar Paul Myhre says that grace always comes first. He says it is grace the prompts us to repent, resolving to turn and walk the other way. This means the grace was there when the Prodigal Son “came to himself,” and returned to his home. The three parables tell us that even if we are lost, or have turned our backs and left, the grace is there anyway – for both the righteous and the unrighteous. As unfair as that may seem to the righteous, there it is.
Grace is what helps the righteous release resentment Grace comes first, and because it frees us I believe this means we are always, potentially, free. It is up to us. Will we turn to it, confess our errors and repent, returning to a home where we are loved and forgiven? Will those who always were home turn to grace, using it to forgive so we can then join in the celebration? Either way, the message of the gospel is that freedom is available to us through grace. So come, let us join the banquet. Let us return home.