The prodigal God (part 2)

Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

In the previous post, I retold the first part of Jesus’ so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son, leaning on Kenneth Bailey’s knowledge of the cultural setting to fill in the details. The son’s behavior would have shocked and offended Jesus’ hearers. Even more shocking, however, is the father’s response; the scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus told the story would probably have thought it shamefully irresponsible.

If, like me, you hail from a culture that practices filial piety (basically, reverence toward one’s elders and parents), it’s easier to understand. Parents in such cultures expect and even demand their children’s loyalty and respect.

Imagine, then, a father who expects to pass the family business on to his sons. His younger son says, “Dad, I know I’m going to inherit a share of the business someday. But I’m more interested in having fun today than being in business tomorrow. So, if you don’t mind, can we just pretend you’re already dead? I want to cash out my share and go.”

That boy might not make it out of the room in one piece. And the neighbors? They’d back up the father.

Thus, the father in the parable is impossibly, recklessly gracious. He is not expected to forgive his son. Quite the opposite: the respectable thing to do would be to beat the son or drive him away. One surmises that this is what the Pharisees would do if they were in the father’s shoes. After all, isn’t that how sinners should be treated?

But Jesus insists that God is not like that. The father is filled with “compassion” (vs. 20) at the mere sight of his lost son. The word is an interesting one, suggesting a gut reaction of pity and love. And in a way that echoes Jesus’ two earlier parables, when the lost son is found, the father throws a joyous party.

A really big party, in fact. A fattened calf would feed a whole village. Everyone would have been invited. But the invitation, Bailey insists, would come with a price: If you join my celebration, then you are declaring by your presence that you have accepted my act of forgiveness toward my son.

When we read the story, we may think of God’s reckless grace toward us, and rightly so. We are the prodigal. We are the ones who have rebelliously gone off into the far country, and our Father has welcomed us home. We should be awed and grateful for that kind of forgiveness.

But we should also remember that Jesus told this story to scribes and Pharisees who would not for a second have identified with the prodigal son.

That’s why there’s another son in the story. More on that in the next post.