The Prodigal Son
This parable is usually called ‘The Prodigal Son’, but it might just as well be called ‘The Lost Sons’. Both the young men are lost to their family, and by the ending of the parable it is not clear if both, or only one, has been found.
The dramatic situation is that the younger son demanded full rights of possession over the portion (about one-third) of his father’s estate which he could expect to inherit in the normal course of events when the father died. While the elder son remained at home, and his father retained his rights over the produce of his portion of the estate, the younger son turned his share into cash and departed to enjoy the proceeds away from home and parental control.
When dissolute living had reduced him to penury, and his new friends had deserted him, he was forced to take the most menial form of employment, one that was particularly loathsome to a Jew who regarded swine as unclean animals. He would gladly have eked out his miserable wages by sharing the carob pods which the swine ate but he was too disgusted to do so.
His desperate state brought him to repentance. He realized not only that he had landed himself in sorry straits but also that he was unworthy to be called his father’s son; he was fit only to be a servant, and he was prepared to humble himself and seek reinstatement at that level.
The Prodigal Son, Rembrandt But before he reached home his father was already looking for his arrival, and before he could blurt out the whole of his intended confession, his father had welcomed him back into the family circle, treated him with great honour, and given orders for a feast of rejoicing over the return of one who had been as good as dead.
One person refused to join in the celebration, and grumbled at the lavish care being given his ne’er-do-well brother. He accused his father of failing to treat him in the same free and joyous manner, only to be reminded that all the resources of the home were his. One can be lost even at home. The discovery of the lost and the resurrection of the dead were occasions for joy.
One question is left unanswered: did the elder brother eventually join in the celebration and accept his brother back as a member of the family? The omission is deliberate. For the elder brother represents the Pharisees and their spiritual kin, and the parable is an appeal to them to receive the outcasts. Jesus was waiting for their verdict.
The Gospel text
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons;
12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. 15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20 And he arose and came to his father.
But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”