I said during the previous series that there were two groups of people following Jesus—the disciples, who were focused on Jesus, and the crowds, who were focused on what they could get from Jesus. There were two groups within the crowds, as well. One was the religious folk. There were several different factions—the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, the Sadducees, who were the priestly party, and so on—and they disagreed about a great many things, but not about Jesus: they hated him. There were exceptions to that, but not many. They followed him to gather evidence against him.
On the other side, you had the “people of the land”—which was actually what the Pharisees called everyone who wasn’t as serious about keeping the Law as they were. What they meant by it was “scum of the earth.” This included the professional sinners, of course—the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the like—but it also included all the ordinary folk. You might think of them as your typical pew-sitters. They did the required stuff, but otherwise, they weren’t all that focused on the things of God, so the serious religious types lumped them all together with the rest of the sinners.
As Jesus looked out, he saw both groups. One was lost and knew it, or at least had been told so on many occasions; the other was equally lost, but thought itself the very model of godly living. To both, he told a story about a man who had two sons.
The story begins as the younger son says, “Dad, divide the property and give me what’s coming to me.” That translates as, “I wish you were dead so that I could take my inheritance. I would rather have the money than you—give me what’s mine and let me go.” At this point, two things would be expected, in that culture. The father would be within his rights to beat his son within an inch of his life and cast him out of the house for such an insult; the elder brother has the responsibility to try to patch things up and reconcile his father and his younger brother. Neither happens. The older son waits in silence for judgment to fall on his brother; the younger son is determined to go, no matter what, and the older one wants him gone. The father, grieved and hurt by both of them, withholds judgment and offers grace.
The scandal this caused in the village only got worse for the way the younger brother used the gift his father gave him. His inheritance wasn’t money or jewels but a portion of the family land, and he didn’t want to stay there, he wanted out; so he sold it off as quickly as he could, just to be on his way. Since that land supported the whole family, he left all of them quite a bit poorer. In response, the elders of the town went down to the property and performed the qetsatsah, formally casting him out of the community. If he were able to come back with enough money to re-purchase the land and restore it to his family, he could resume his place; otherwise, he was banished—forever.
The younger son must have known that was coming. Cut off from his name, his family, his community, and even his nation, he headed off to a far land. The money in his pocket gave him a feeling of security, and so he lived expensively––a penthouse suite, eating at the finest restaurants, dating rich women. Somehow, though, his business ventures never quite turned out. He ran through his money, and his associates abandoned him. He managed to scrape by, until drought brought economic collapse; when the famine hit in earnest, he was out of a job and out on the street.
In desperation, he went to one of the leading men of the city, someone he had wined and dined in the good times, begging for work. In an effort to get rid of him, this man offered him a job tending the pigs—surely no Jew would accept such a job. It was an insult, but to his surprise, the young Jew took it, and went out to live with the pigs.
Sitting there in the mud, his stomach aching with hunger, the younger son wised up and faced the facts: he’d made a complete mess of things, and if he stayed there, he would starve. “The craftsmen who work for my father feed themselves and have money left over, and here I am dying of hunger! What’s the sense in that?” he asked himself. “I know what I have to do. I’ll go back to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and you, and right now I’m not worthy to be called your son. Let me be trained as a craftsman—I’ll be able to support myself and save up money, and eventually I’ll be able to buy back the land I sold.’ It will take some doing, but I bet I can talk him into it.”
At this point, Jesus’ hearers were listening raptly—especially the religious leaders. Feeding pigs! The ultimate degradation for a Jew. This man betrayed his father, and he wound up an exile feeding pigs! What a perfect picture of the consequences of sin! Even they had never described it so well. To earn back his father’s favor, he would have to return to his hometown in utter humiliation and take terrible abuse from the village. Then, perhaps the father would lock the door on his son and make him grovel for a while; perhaps he would never open the door at all. It would serve the son right.
But the door wasn’t locked. The father was on his front porch, sitting on the hill in the middle of town, watching the road. If his son ever came back, he must be protected from the hostility of the town; if he had to fight past all the people who hated him for what he had done, he might never make it home. When the father saw his son in the distance, he took off running, leaving his neighbors in shock. Adults never ran; that was for children, and the more important a man was, the slower he walked. Running meant lifting your robes and exposing your legs, which was humiliating. To see this rich man running with all his might—they would as soon have expected him to flap his arms and fly.
The younger son was dumbstruck. For long, weary days he had been rehearsing the arguments he would make to win over his father, dreading the humiliation and abuse he would face on the long walk through the town—but his father took it all himself, suffering it for him, and it broke him. His entire plan was gone, for he was being welcomed back as a son. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, and am not worthy to be called your son,” and he meant it.
Having welcomed his son in full view of his neighbors (most of whom had followed him down the street), the father now set about making perfectly clear to them that this was still his son. He ordered one of his servants to bring his best robe and cover his son’s rags with it, told another to go get a ring for his son’s finger, and sent a third to bring sandals—servants went barefoot, the family wore shoes. A fourth was ordered off to kill the fattened calf—which could feed 200 people—and start up the grill. Then the father announced in a ringing voice, “My son was dead and now he is alive––he was lost and we have found him––and we will celebrate.”
This turn staggered Jesus’ audience. This father had violated every right he held as patriarch, had thrown away his reputation and humiliated himself before the whole town—and for what? To protect a son who had insulted and humiliated him from the proper consequences of his own actions; to restore to his place in the family a son who had betrayed him, making it possible for the son to betray him again. What sort of love was that? It went much too far. How could he do that?
Someone was sent to bring the elder son, but missed him somehow, so the elder son started back from the field with no idea what was happening. As he drew close to the town, he could hear the music—first the drums, then the sound of many voices, and soon the various instruments. As he walked through the streets, it quickly became clear that whatever the reason for the party, it was in the great hall of his own home. When he reached the courtyard, he asked one of the boys dancing there what was going on. The boy looked up at him and said, “Your brother is back and your father made up with him, so your father killed the fatted calf and threw a party. They’re waiting for you inside.”
This hit the elder brother like a ton of bricks. That shiftless, good-for-nothing brat was back, and his sentimental father had let himself be used again and had let him back in the family. Now there was a party going on, and he was supposed to go in and pretend the brat hadn’t done anything. He wouldn’t do it. He turned his back and stalked off.
This was the second major shock of the day for the village, for this was an act of absolute disrespect to his father. It was fully as bad as the insult the younger son had originally offered the father—in fact, it was worse, because it was in public. Within moments, someone had hurried in to tell the father what was happening. The townspeople would have expected the father to have his son dragged off to be beaten, for that would be the proper response—but who knew with this man anymore?
Instead, the father rose and went out to the courtyard to ask his son to come in. Once again, he did what a servant should do; once again he put his suffering on public display. His son snapped back, “All these years I’ve slaved for you, and you never gave me so much as a goat to have a party with my friends—but when this, this, this son of yours came back after wasting your money on prostitutes, you killed the pride of the herd for him! It isn’t fair!” He insulted his father a second time by addressing him with no title, as he would a servant; the townspeople’s eyes widened, but he didn’t care. This reconciliation was insufferable, and he would do everything he could to shatter it.
The religious leaders in Jesus’ audience leaned forward as the elder brother spoke, bringing their own reactions into the story; they shared his firm conviction that this was not how things should be, and wondered how the father could possibly answer him.
Within the story, the villagers had their own questions. The elder son had publicly insulted and shamed his father, and yet he had the nerve to claim never to have broken his father’s commandments. He had refused to acknowledge his brother and tried to destroy the peace which the father had made between the younger son and the community. Surely now the father would defend his honor and punish the elder son? Instead, the father looked sadly at his son and said, “Beloved son, I’ve provided for you all your life, given you everything, and all that I have is yours; you haven’t been my servant, you’ve been serving yourself. You don’t need to worry that I’ll give what’s yours to your brother—your rights and privileges are intact. But your brother was dead and has come alive, was lost and we found him; it is necessary to celebrate. Come in, be reconciled to him.”
With that outstretched hand, the father humiliating himself to reach out to his first son as he had done with his younger son, the parable ends. Having drawn the religious leaders into the story through the elder son, Jesus left them with the father’s appeal. The elder son’s decision was yet unmade, for it was theirs to make. Would they accept his call to reconcile with the younger son—the “sinners,” the “people of the land”—or would they instead hold to their bitterness and reject God? They did not have any other choice, Jesus was telling them, for he had already reached out to the lost to bring them home.
And for us? Some of us identify with the younger brother, having gone far away from God into all sorts of wrong lifestyles. Others see ourselves in the elder brother, because we always stayed close to the house—but maybe on the inside we wandered a long way from God, seeing him as a stern taskmaster and a slave-driver. All of us need to know that no matter how far from God we go, the Father’s heart goes farther. His love for his children will not let go no matter what we do. We need to remember that this is for us, that God will not leave us in our wanderings; we need also to remember that this is for everyone else too, even those we hate and despise. No matter what they might have done, God wants to bring them home and celebrate. He longs for the day when he will be able to say, “Look, my children were dead and have come alive, were lost and I found them!” Heaven rejoices at such words.