The most Luke 15:11-24 Jesus told begins with a dramatic shock. The first hearers of this tale must have had eyebrows arch and jaws drop into the dust. The horror of it would have been almost unimaginable for them. “Father,” the youngest son said, “give me the share of property that falls to me.”
Kenneth Bailey, a professor in the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut once said: “For over 15 years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has almost always been emphastically the same …. the conversation runs as follows:
‘Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?’
‘Never!’
‘Could anyone ever make such a request?’
‘Impossible!’
‘If anyone ever did, what would happen?’
‘His father would beat him, of course!’
‘Why?’
‘The request means — he wants his father to die’!”1
The only way a son could claim his inheritance was on the death of his father. “Dad,” the younger son said in effect, “I wish you were dead; I wish you were out of the way so I could start a new life on my own.”
Ken Bailey comments on the startling fact that “in all of Middle Eastern literature … from ancient times to the present, there is no case of any son, older or younger, asking for his inheritance from a father who is still in good health” — except in this parable. Jesus knew how to grab the attention of His listeners!
And if they were surprised at the cruel implications of this selfish demand, they would have been blown out of their sandals by the response of the father. Any Israelite would have expected the father to explode in anger and discipline. Instead, they heard Jesus tell of a father who loved in an astonishing way, who loved enough to grant his son the freedom to reject that love, the freedom to make wrong choices, the freedom even to hurt himself in order maybe to find himself.
So the lawyers were called in, the papers were signed, and the boy immediately set about to cash in one-third of his father’s property (the portion coming to him as the youngest son). It wasn’t easy. Going from one prospective buyer to another, the intensity of community hatred and disgust mounted. At every turn he was greeted with amazement, horror, and rejection. It had become more than a family-affair; insulting a father was a community affair. The boy had made himself an outcast. He was treated as though he were a leper …. or as though were dead.
Eventually someone was found greedy enough to take advantage of the situation, and before the banks closed that day, the son, who knew he had no future left in the village, converted his cash into traveller’s checks and hit the road for the far country.
The far country! It had seduced his imagination by day and ravished his dreams by night. His heart had long ago left home, of course, and emigrated to the land of restless longing. But now he would catch up with his heart; now he would not awaken from his dream to face another dull day of drudgery in his father’s fields; now he would actually live his dream.
With cold cash in his pocket and hot desire in his body, he succumbed to the centrifugal pull of pleasure; he bolted into unrestrained ecstasies of the flesh; he became a one-man stampede of self-indulgence — trampling, mutilating, exhausting everything noble in him. As the King James version so quaintly puts it, “He wasted his substance with riotous living.”
It was not a good time to blow his wad. He was generous with money when the sky was stingy with rain. Famine gripped the land, and the stranglehold brought hunger and death. The prodigal had no choice but to find work. There aren’t many options in a famine; you take what you can get. You grovel, accept humiliation — anything to survive.
So the one who greedily seized freedom had freedom turn in upon him until he was locked in a prison he could never have imagined before leaving home. The text graphically tells us that he “glued” himself to a citizen of that country. And that citizen sent him (sent this one who wanted freedom more than anything else) to do the most detestable thing imaginable for a Jew: he forced him to feed the pigs.
The degradation wasn’t finished. He still wasn’t making enough to stay alive. He was so hungry he found himself wishing he could eat the pig slop. Yes, he would have chewed on the bitter wild carob and like the pigs have grubbed for its berries, had he been able to get away with it. But the owner watched his every move.
“But when he came to himself,” Jesus said. “What a gracious way of saying it. Jesus mercifully puts the best possible light on his crimes. “When he came to himself.” In truth, when he had turned his back on his father, he had turned his back on himself. He had not been himself, not really, when he took off on a self-centered quest for pleasure. But when he came to himself, when his eyes were opened, he saw his true situation. He saw that while he was mucking about up to his knees in mud and excrement, and so hungry he would have been glad to trade places with the pigs, his father’s day-laborers had more than enough bread to spare.
Swallowing his pride, at that point, was easier than swallowing death. So he decided to go home. His motives were not great. He had given no thought to his father’s suffering, no thought to his own shame. It was a matter of survival. Not the best reason to go home, perhaps, but it was enough. It turned him around.
That’s what repentance is — turning toward home. Perhaps you need to do that this day. Perhaps you’ve emigrated to the far country of your own choosing, taken matters into your own hands, lusted after personal freedom and seized it the first chance you’ve had; you’ve given no thought to the Father. But now you find yourself in the horrible poverty of meaningless affluence, or the pig pen of moral guilt, or you feel a hunger gnawing at your insides which promises death. It’s time to go home.
The prodigal knew it was time for him. So he repented, in a way. It was really a weak, distorted repentance. It got him headed in the right direction, but it was filled with all the pride that got him into trouble in the first place. You see, he developed a plan. He wanted to retain some dignity, have some control over his destiny. He would freely admit that he had sinned. He would admit that he was unworthy to be a son. And he would ask to be a hired servant.
(There were three classes of servants in Jewish society. Bondsmen were slaves who were a part of the estate, and indeed almost a part of the family. Underneath them in dignity were slaves of a lower class, subordinates to bondsmen. And finally, lowest of all, were hired servants — casual day laborers from the village who had no continuing relationship with the family.)
He would claim nothing for himself but the status of hired servant. In this way, however, he could work for his living, and perhaps begin to make atonement for the mess he had made of his life.
There would be a problem, of course, in returning to the village. He had managed to offend the entire community by selling his inheritance while his father was living and he had lost his money to the Gentiles. His entry into the village would be humiliating, ruthless. But he would face the rejection. It would be part of the suffering he deserved, a way he could pay for his sins.
So he set off with his plan. He would live in the village as a servant; he would work to pay his own way; he would face the mockery of the village. But perhaps through it all he would be able to retain a certain amount of dignity — at least within himself.
The prodigal’s return is a perfect picture of the rabbi’s teaching of repentance in Jesus’ day. Repentance, in the Jewish mind, was a type of human work done to earn God’s favor. God had to come part of the way, to be sure, but humans had to come the rest of the way. They had to do what they could. The work of repentance had to be sincere and accompanied by reparations for sin and a determination to avoid further sin. The prodigal planned a course of action which would fulfill the demands of repentance as taught by the rabbis.
Perhaps that’s how you view the situation before you. You’d like to go home, to renew your relationship with the Father. So you develop a plan of action. You intend to do this and that, to become more regular in worship, to give more money to the church and charity, to clean up your life as best you can, and to face the music.
Join the prodigal on the road home, won’t you? And be ready for a surprise.
The father knew what would happen if his son ever tried to return. He knew that a crowd would gather spontaneously as word of his return flashed through the gossip network. A sort of human barrier would be created at the edge of the village; he would be mocked, subjected to taunting songs, verbally and even physically abused. Little boys would hurl stones at him; old ladies would spit on him. The father knew all of this would happen.
So when the kid who had been playing at the edge of the village came racing through the streets screaming the news, the father did what love — amazing grace! — compelled him to do. He did not do what we would have expected him to do: he did not wait to see if the prodigal had learned his lesson; he did not wait to see if the prodigal was truly sorry for his wrongs; he did not wait for anything! He couldn’t wait to do what he had to do, to do what he wanted to do!
He ran down the road to meet his son, to get to the edge of the village before his son. He ran. It was a horribly humiliating thing for a nobleman to run in the ancient east; it was a disgrace for a man of age to run down a road with robes flapping in the wind. Aristotle said, “Great men never run in public.” But this father ran. His son was home!
He had to reach the edge of the village before his son. He knew what his son would face, so he ran to protect him. He ran the gauntlet through the crowd for his son, and he suffered the humiliation and heard the insults, and the stones beat against his body and the spittle ran down his cheeks. But no matter! It was love compelling him, compassion for his son who had been lost but was now found.
The text literally says he fell on his son’s neck and kissed him. Whenever a serious quarrel would break out in the village, part of the ceremony of reconciliation was for the leading men in the dispute to kiss each other. So the father kissed the son, taking the initiative in reconciliation, witnessing to the healing of the breach. And it was no halfhearted kiss; the verb implies that he kissed and kissed and kissed.
The returned prodigal started his speech, just as he had planned: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Then he stopped. He had planned to ask to become a hired servant, to be able to work for his living and pay his way as a resident in the village. But he said nothing of this. Why?
Most commentators think it’s because the father interrupted him. I used to think that, but I’ve changed my mind. If the father had interrupted him the son could have finished his speech later in the story. And remember, Jesus could have told this story any way He wanted to tell it. The omission of the second half of the son’s speech calls attention to itself; it must mean something important. Why didn’t he follow through with his plan? What made the son change his mind?
I’ll tell you what I think: he was shattered by the father’s love. The unexpected welcome was overwhelming. The father had humiliated himself in the villagers’ eyes; the father had taken the initiative and run to him; the father had announced reconciliation; the father had embraced him with compassion and forgiveness; the father had … loved him with a love the son had never before recognized. It had always been there, but now it was evident. And the prodigal was overwhelmed. His plan was shattered. He knew he could not pay his way. The tragedy was not the lost money; the tragedy was a broken relationship which he could not heal but the father had healed out of love. Now he could not talk — could not even think — of being a hired servant. He was a son, and would always be a son.
The servants were told to get the “best robe” and put it on this poor, shivering wreck of a son. The best robe would be the father’s own robe, the garment worn at all feasts and festive occasions. And the servants were told to find the ring — the signet ring, the sign of family authority — and to put it on his fingers, fingers that were still stinking of pig slop. And then the shoes. The servants were to get shoes out of his closet because sons wore shoes. Slaves did not wear shoes; only free men wore shoes. The robe, the ring, and shoes — honor, authority, and freedom. Full restitution for the prodigal come home.
If all that wasn’t enough, the father rounded out the instructions to his servants by telling them to get the fattest calf on the ranch and turn it into breaded veal. It was time to celebrate and have a party that would be talked about for years to come!
The choice of a calf is interesting. He could have slaughtered a goat; that would have provided plenty of food for a fine family celebration. But at least a hundred people would be required to eat a calf before it spoiled. The father intended to invite the whole village! The grandest banquet imaginable — and everyone invited! The son had alienated the entire community, but now the entire community would come and make merry and the division would be healed. Reconciliation for all. Grace always leads to an inclusive party.
Do I need to say anything more? Perhaps you’ve been in a far country; perhaps you’ve developed a plan to get your life in order — and even retain a bit of your dignity. But the Father awaits your return with a welcome that will overwhelm you with grace. See him running toward you now …. feel the embrace …. get ready for a party.
1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 161-62.

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