How well do you know the stories in the Bible? I’m guessing that anyone who lives in the UK knows at least some of them. Which of these do you know?: Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Joseph and the Plagues, The Nativity, The Lost Sheep, The Prodigal Son.
As you know, I am rather keen on knowing what the Bible says, and have been reading it for most of my life. However, sometimes I read a commentary that shows how little I still know. This was true recently, when I was looking at the story of The Prodigal Son. I thought I’d let you know about the bits I have been getting wrong for the last 50 years.
Firstly, when you think of the story, where do you see it set? I have this image of a house surrounded by fields – so when the father runs to meet his returning son at the end, he is running down this long straight road. A bit like a farm on the American plains. This is so wrong! When the story was told, land owners, even wealthy ones, lived in small communities. They might send someone to sleep near the fields when the harvest was ready, but their home would be in a community. So, when we read this story, we need to be aware of all the friends and neighbours who would have been part of the story, even though they’re not specifically mentioned. (They weren’t mentioned, because everyone listening already knew this. If I write a story today, about a family eating roast beef, I don’t say that the food is served on a china plate, because anyone reading my story already knows that.)
So, what happens in this story? It begins with a man and two sons, and the younger one asks for his share of the inheritance, before his father has died. Now, in those days (actually, today it still holds true) this was in effect, telling his father, “I wish you were dead”. You would expect the father to be angry, to throw out his son and not give him anything. However, the father in the story doesn’t do this. He divides his money between both his sons. Which is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, in order for this to be legal, it would have to be done in a way that the community believed this was the father’s free choice – so he was protecting his son even though he’d been insulted. Secondly, the oldest son also took the money. He didn’t protest, tell his father he’d wait for his share. Nope, the money was divided between both of them. (Leaving the father in a very vulnerable position). The community would be angry at how the sons shamed the father.
Next, the youngest son leaves. This is where the community matters. In those days, it was very important to a community, that all wealth remained with Jews. If you sold property, you sold to Jews. If you spent money, you spent it with Jews. To lose money to non-Jews (Gentiles) was disgraceful. They actually had a ceremony, called the kezazah ceremony where a community would smash a pot filled with burnt corn and nuts in front of the individual, to show he was cut off from the community. We know that the youngest son lost his money amongst Gentiles, because he is later employed as a pig farmer (Jews don’t eat pork). He is working because the only way he can return to his community is if he manages to repay the money he lost. But we read that no one ‘gave him anything’ – so he’s not managing to earn money to cover his loss.
So, the son is in a pickle. He has lost his money to Gentiles, and he’s hungry and poor. What to do? Now, here comes an interesting bit. The story says he says to himself, ‘I will go back to my father and say, “I have sinned against heaven and before you”’. He then plans to ask his father for employment (so he can pay back what he owes, and no longer be in disgrace). He has a plan. Now, I always thought that these words meant that the son was sorry, and was returning to his father to ask for forgiveness. But no, that’s wrong.
This story was told by Jesus to the pharisees, who were annoyed because Jesus was eating with sinners. Pharisees would know the old testament extremely well (better than I do). So, when they heard the words, “I have sinned before heaven and before you”, they would recognise them at once. As you, if you enjoy old films, might recognise “I go to the hills for the sound of music”, or if you read, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. You see, the words spoken by the son are a direct quote from the story of Moses and Pharaoh and the plagues. They are the words that Pharaoh says when he wants the plagues to stop. Was Pharaoh sorry? Did he accept that Moses was right? No! He just wanted the problem to end. It was the same with the son. He had his plan all clear in his mind. He would go home, manipulate his father into letting him work for him, earn enough money to pay back what he’d lost, then his problem would be over, the community would accept him back.
However, that’s not how it turned out. Before he even reached the community, his father saw him and came running. He ran because he wanted to show the community that he accepted his son, that there was no need for the kezazah ceremony. Men in those days did not run. Mothers did, not fathers. The father is again breaking the mould, doing what is necessary, to save his son. When they meet, the son starts on his prepared speech – but he doesn’t finish it. He is overwhelmed by his father’s love and forgiveness. He stops and simply accepts what the father is offering.
Then we have the feast. I always thought there was a party to welcome the son home, which to my mind seemed a bit unfair, because he didn’t deserve one. But the friends came to the feast to honour the father, not the son. Another interesting twist is this, when the feast happens, the father (good man) is eating with the son (bad man). Which is exactly what those listening to the story had accused Jesus of doing.
Now we return to the older son, the one who had been the silent benefactor of his brother’s abuse of the father. He is outside, and hears the party, and asks what it’s for. The story is clear here, he is not angry because his brother has returned, he is angry because his father has accepted him back. He is angry and jealous and refuses to go inside. In those days, that would be another huge insult to the father. The father could be expected to be angry, to cast him out. (It would be like someone at a wedding standing up and criticising, in public, the parents of the bride. Not done.) Instead, the father again risks his own humiliation and leaves his guests and goes to find his son. He listens to his grievances and reminds him that he has all he wants. It is important to remember here, the banquet is for the father – to celebrate what he has done for the son – NOT to celebrate the wayward son. If the older son wants to truly be unified with his father, he must also accept his brother. Which is, I think, the point that Jesus was making to the pharisees. If they wanted to be part of God’s work, the shepherds of his flock, then they must accept everyone who God accepts; and God accepts sinners.
So, what is the point of this story for us? It tells us what it means to be reunited with God (who is represented by the father in the story). It tells us that there is no scheme that we might have that makes us good enough, all we can do is accept the amazing generosity of God. It tells us that ‘being a Christian’ is not a belief system, is not a list of rules, is not a hereditary condition. It simply means we have chosen to accept what God has done, we choose to accept being taken back.
Thank you for reading.
I learned these details by reading Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth E Bailey. Great book!