Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Gracious Father

Chapter 10

Luke 15:11-32

Jesus gave A trio of parables in response to the charge of the scribes and Pharisees that he was as bad as the publicans and sinners he associated with. We considered the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin in the previous chapter. This chapter begins our consideration of the Parable of the Lost Son. The entire parable is found in Luke 15:11-32, though in this chapter we shall deal only with verses 11-24. These verses contrast the sinfulness of the younger brother and the great compassion and graciousness of the loving father.

The Sinfulness of the Prodigal Son

The prodigal son had a wonderful, loving father who gave him everything he needed to make him feel accepted and comfortable. It is obvious from the description of the father that he was patient, kind, considerate, loving, and understanding. A person could not have asked for a better father or home. And yet his youngest son was not satisfied. He was not happy. No doubt he felt hemmed in by the boundaries that the father placed around him. Everything was too good. He wanted a taste of license, a taste of the world outside the loving boundaries set by his father. Consequently, his first sin was his dissatisfaction with the good things provided by a fine home. Like Adam and Eve, the prodigal son was not satisfied with a perfect Garden of Eden. He had to taste the fruit of the tree of good and evil. He had only known good. He wanted to know evil as well.

This young man's second sin was the request that he made of his father. "Father, give me the share of property that falls to me." Levison says, "There is no law or custom among the Jews or Arabs which entitles the son to a share of the father's wealth while the father is still alive." 1 His third sin was to demand his inheritance immediately.

Even if the father granted immediate ownership of the inheritance to the son, the law provided that the father had the right to live off the proceeds of the property until he died. This is a grave insult to the father because according to Bailey, the son is saying, "I wish you were dead," or "Act as if you were dead, so that I can take over and dispose of my property right now." 2

Notwithstanding, the younger son made his demands and the father granted him his request. The prodigal son then went to a far country and quickly "squandered his inheritance in loose living." A famine takes place that heightened his economic depravity. He abandoned his religious scruples, hired himself to a Gentile to feed swine, was reduced to eating what the swine ate, and apparently gave up keeping the Sabbath.

It was at this point that he evaluated his situation objectively. "Here I am perishing in hunger. At home my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare. It doesn't make any sense for me to remain here. I'm going home to become one of my father's hired servants." He knew he could not be accepted back again as a son. He had forfeited this privilege by leaving home and squandering his share of the property. But he was pretty sure that he could live in the village and work for his father. And so as he traveled home, he memorized the speech that he would make to his father. "Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers."

The Graciousness of the Father

When Jesus told this story, the reaction of a typical father to a son's insulting, early request for his inheritance would be to beat him severely. Kenneth Bailey asked people from Morocco to India what a father would do if faced with such a demand, and the answer was unanimous. "He would beat him, of course." 3 There would be an explosion of anger followed by punishment. But instead this father does the unheard of, the unbelievable thing. He grants the son his request.

The son knew that the father loved him and did not want him to go. He knew that his father considered this decision to be unwise. He knew that his father believed that granting the request would end in disaster. But the son desperately wanted his freedom, and so his father gave it to him.

An event such as this was so unusual that every person in the village would have heard about it. There would have been unanimous anger directed at the son for insulting his father and bringing such a bad reputation to the village. The news that the son had squandered all his money recklessly and was working for a Gentile feeding pigs made matters worse. It was a good thing that all this had happened in a distant land, and that the son would never return to further shame the community. If he ever showed himself in the village again, he would receive a very rough welcome. His actions could not be forgotten or forgiven.

But the son returns. His father sees him first, for he had been looking for him every day. An Oriental nobleman with long flowing robes never ran anywhere, but this one did. With no thought of propriety or decorum, he dashed out to meet his son in the outskirts of the village. All eyes are on the unseemly behavior of the father. The villagers watch as he embraces and kisses his son. The prodigal is not able to fall on his knees to humble himself before his father. He was planning to kiss his father's feet in penitence and kiss his hand to acknowledge his authority. But the father was hugging him before he could fall on his knees, and instead of the son kissing the father, the father kisses him on the cheek.

We must remember the symbolism of the kiss to grasp fully the meaning of the text. The servant or the slave kisses the feet. Even the kiss on the hand, for which one bends the knee, still expresses that the man kissed is being honored as a superior. The kiss on the cheek is for an equal. 4

The neighbors watch in surprise and wonder how someone who had been so disgracefully insulted by this son could accept him so lovingly? They cannot understand such love, but they know that if the father accepted the son, so must they. The father went to meet the son while he was still a long way off to allay the hostility of the village and restore him to the fellowship of the community. 5

The son has no opportunity to finish the speech that he had so carefully prepared. The response of the father is immediate and commanding. "Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."

The best robe was probably the father's own used for special occasions. The ring was the sign of authority. The shoes were a sign that he was a free man in the house; slaves went barefoot. The killing of a calf meant that the celebration was to be a big one that included the whole village. 6

The father who had been so outrageously insulted by his son, who rejected his family, squandered his money, and abandoned his religion, and who returned home hoping to be a hired servant, is unconditionally accepted back into the home as a son. This prodigal, dressed in the tattered rags of the expensive clothes he left home in, is given his father's own best robe; this prodigal who had by his own stupidity and dissipation forfeited all claim to influence is given a signet ring as a sign of authority; this prodigal who had been reduced to a barefoot slave is given shoes; this prodigal who had eaten what pigs ate was honored with the fatted calf. Such is the father's loving graciousness.

In this parable, Jesus eloquently illustrates that this is the way God the Father responds to repentant publicans and sinners who have been rejected by society; the way he responds to every member of the human race who repents of their foolishness and sinful ways.

God loves us dearly. He created humankind in his own image in the hope that we would fulfill his highest intentions and our own loftiest possibilities. In order to do that, he gave us freedom of choice. God took the risk that men and women might behave badly. But when we do and our choices threaten to destroy us, and we decide that "home" is our only hope, God, like the father of the prodigal son, celebrates our return to right thinking with the robe of his righteousness, the ring of his authority, and the shoes of his freedom.

Jesus could not have spoken more clearly. Treat others with the loving kindness exemplified by the father of the prodigal son.

Contrast the actions of the father in the parable with that of some human parents. On Nov 25, 1991, the Wall Street Journal published a story of how one set of parents treated their daughter. Ralph Falk was the founder of Baxter International, the largest hospital supply company in the country. When he died 31 years ago, he left stocks and bonds that would grow to be worth $200 million. He willed this fortune to his son, Ralph II, who succeeded him as chairman of Baxter and to Marian, his widow. But there was another Falk, a daughter named Carol, to whom he left only $100. Her mother's will also left her nothing. This was because Carol was fat.

Her mother was a svelte and striking beauty, and her daughter's obesity became an obsession. At age eight Marian marched Carol to the bathroom scale every night and read her weight to her disapprovingly. She was given only small portions to eat. However, the more she was denied food, the more she ate on the sly. She was sent to boarding schools, juvenile fat farms, and psychiatric clinics. She became estranged from her parents and eventually weighed 340 pounds.

A close friend of the parents for more than twenty-seven years says that he never knew the Baxters had a daughter. Ann Landers, who was a close friend of the mother, once asked about Marian. Marian replied, "I have no daughter."

When she got married, Carol and her husband stopped at the home of her mother because she wanted to introduce her husband. Her mother's first words were, "What do you weigh?" When told Carol was still heavy, she said she couldn't see her. She had guests.

Once again she reached out for her mother. Her son Nathan was musically precocious, so she called her on Mother's Day so that he could play for her mother. The boy was talking to his grandmother when she told him to hand the phone to his mother. When he did, Marian asked Carol, "What do you weigh?"

Some time later Carol dieted down to 142 pounds and wanted to show off her new figure to her mother. Her brother arranged a meeting at a Presbyterian church. Carol bought new clothes and nervously awaited the meeting with her mother. But it was too late. Marian, in a wheelchair, was senile and had little idea of what was going on.

Hunter refers to a modern parable in which a young man having gone to the "far country" went to the minister of the area who recommended that he return to his father. A few months later, surprised at meeting the young man again, the minister asked, "Well, and did your father kill the fatted calf?" "No," the young man replied, "but he nearly killed the prodigal son!" 7

Paul writes in amazement about God's love in Romans 8:31. "What are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?"

In Romans 5:6, 8, and 10 he writes: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us . . . For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life." How will we respond to this kind of gracious, unconditional love?

1. N. Levison, The Parables: Their Background and Local Setting (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1926), p. 156 quoted in Bailey, Poet and Peasant, p. 162.

2. Ibid., pp. 164-165. It is obvious that I am much in debt to Bailey in this section for his understanding of the cultural situation of that part of the world.

3. Ibid., pp. 161-162.

4. K. Bornhaeuser, Studien zum Sondergut des Lukas (Guetersloh, 1934), p. 114 quoted in Eta Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables: Introduction and Exposition (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 77.

5. Bailey, pp. 181-182.

6. Ibid., pp. 185-187.

7. Hunter, p. 60.

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