The Prodigal Son is told in Luke 15:11-32. It is a very familiar story. This feckless kid has been leaving his father, destroying a fortune and coming home with his tail between his legs on a regular basis for two millennia. We’ve all heard the story many times, and the question is why go back to it?
Well, Jesus stories have an uncanny knack of having application to our current circumstances – and this one is no different. So let’s see what this story has to say to us in 2017.
He eats with Tax Collectors and Sinners
This is one of three stories that are gathered together in Luke – the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep and our story today, the Lost son – or as it is more traditionally known, the Prodigal son. Like many of Jesus stories, these are told because of a comment made in the crowd. Verse 2 reads:
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
This is a recurring theme in Luke – in chapter 5: 29-31 we read:
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”. Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
Inviting Sinners to a Banquet
In chapter 14 we read about the man whose invitations to a banquet.
Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready’. But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me’. Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me’. Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame’. ‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room’. Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
The “Lost” Stories
The three “lost” stories develop this theme. The lost coin talks about the importance of a single coin, which would have little intrinsic value but was symbolic of the dowry given at marriage and so would have enormous cultural and emotional value. The woman goes to huge trouble to find her lost coin.
The lost sheep is about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for the lost individual sheep. He doesn’t play a numbers game but is concerned for individual sheep, and even celebrates when he finds that single sheep.
The Prodigal Son Commercial
Then we come to our story, the lost or prodigal son. I wonder if you have considered how modern this story is, not in its content, but in the way it is told. It has the format of a modern 30-second television advert.
Jesus starts, like many adverts, with a family at home and quickly disrupts home life as younger son essentially says “Father, I wish you were dead and I could have my inheritance now”. Then there is some explanation as Jesus describes the gradual decline into poverty and the realisation of our prodigal that he needs to go home.
Along the way, there is some market segmentation. This is where advertisers look at different target audiences and try to market to those different audiences to maximise sales. Jesus segments by describing different characters:
- Do you identify with the feckless son? We all do, don’t we? Haven’t we all wished for something and made a fool of ourselves?
- Are we the people in the distant land who helped the naïve boy waste his money? Again, aren’t we all keen to enjoy the largess of others?
- Are we the farmer who gave the boy a job? Did we help, or did we exploit?
- Or are we the father who allowed his son to learn this painful lesson?
What is being sold in a normal advert is usually clear – after all this is the whole purpose of the advert. The product that Jesus is revealing in this parable is love – and not just any love – the Father’s love. Look at what happens at the end of our “advert” in verse 20:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“While he was still a long way off”. The father is watching the road, looking out for his son. This isn’t some odd coincidence; the father is deliberately waiting and watching and has been ever since the young man left home. You can imagine what Hollywood would do with that scene, can’t you? The soaring strings, the soft lighting, the warm colours.
This is product, love, grace, acceptance – call it what you will. The unquestioning, unlimited love that a parent has for a child, the love that God has for us.
The gifts that the father gives the son are symbols, easily understood by the people of the time, but a little more obscure for us. I think we get the fatted calf: a symbol of feasting. The cape, ring and the sandals are status symbols – capes are a symbol of wealth and importance, sandals distinguish free men from slaves. The ring is a symbol of status, the young man is being accepted as a son – not as a servant.
In marketing land, this is where our advert concludes. The product is presented as the solution of all the problems, the son is reconciled with the father and, if you buy the product, we have a happy ending.
The “Entitled” Elder Son
Jesus doesn’t end here though, he goes on. There is a party pooper. The older son.
Notice in verse 30 that he doesn’t refer to his brother as “my brother” – he refers to him as “this son of yours”. He is pushing the notion of being a brother away. This is clearly a representation of the Pharisees, and a reference to their muttering in verse 2 about Jesus eating with “sinners and tax collectors”.
The Pharisees lived by a code called the Rabbinic Law, and in that code it says “Let not a man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him to the law”. This is the basis of their condemnation of Jesus – and they cannot move on from that.
The word “prodigal” means “spending money or using resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant”. In this parable, Jesus uses the prodigal to represent the wicked, but gives him a dual role as he is also a son. This parable poses the question, “do we expect God to abandon his children?”.
See how the elder son justifies his position:
But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
The Lesson for Today
So what lessons does this present for us? What is happening in 2017 that particularly resonates with this parable?
In America, the new President, when he was campaigning denounced all Muslims as terrorists and all Mexicans as criminals. He used these comments to justify banning all Muslims and building a wall.
There has been a wave of racist incidents because of the referendum on Brexit, with violence and even murder. Nigel Farage stood in front of a poster of refugees asking if this country was nearing “Breaking Point”. We wanted to test the teeth of refugee children to check that they were children, as though there is a huge difference between helping a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old.
In other European countries, the Fascist party in Austria is on the rise, Marine Le Pen’s Nationalist Party looks like it might take the Presidency in France and Angela Merkel is threatened by a racist party in Germany.
These political movements all act like the elder son – they push away other people, Mexicans, Muslims or migrants in general. They push away God’s children because they are different from us. Then they make excuses for why those who are different are wicked, “The country is too crowded”, “They only come here to claim our benefits”, “They steal our jobs”, “They use our healthcare”, “We pay our taxes”, “We have obeyed the rules”, “We have done the right thing”, “We are not to blame”.
“Difference” is not the teaching of Jesus
Jesus tells us that this is essentially not his teaching, He goes out of his way to seek out those that are most in need of the Father’s love. Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors because they are the people that society shuns.
The Pharisees define who is wicked, and then tell us that we should not associate with them – “even to bring them to the law”.
Jesus says exactly the opposite. Says that we should welcome and draw into our midst the stranger and the refugee. It is not only a theme in Luke, and it is not only Jesus that says this. In Leviticus 19:34 it says:
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
The Pharisees were going against their own teaching – Leviticus is the law of the Levites – the priest class.
They reverted to a more “comfortable” zone because liking those people that are like you is easy. As a result, you can justify that by saying that those not like us are wicked. Jesus reminds us that all people are children of God, and so are our Sisters and Brothers.
This simple little story of love has a sting in the tail, and a challenge to us in the times in which we live.
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’