Full Title: The Least, The Lost, The Last, The Losers, and the Little Ones: Revisiting the Parables of Jesus In Light of Religion Versus Relationship

The Lost: The Parable of the So-Called Prodigal Son (Or as I prefer to call it: My So-Called Life) Luke 15:11–32

Read: The Parable of the (So-Called) Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11–32

It has long been recognized that the commonly used title for this parable (The Prodigal Son) is less than the best. It does not accurately summarize the story as a whole or even the primary point(s) we are to take away. Even worse, it prejudices our opinion with regard to interpretation before we even read the story. This is a parable about a father and two sons—understanding all three of which is critical to understanding the parable as a whole.

(11) And he said, A certain man had two sons: (12) And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. [Luke 15:11–12 KJV]

As is often the case with such stories, there are details that are part of the initial premise that should arrest our attention. The first and most obvious of these details, the fact that the younger son requests his inheritance prematurely, should move us to ask: “When does one usually receive their inheritance?” The equally obvious answer is only after our parents have died.

From reading the parable even once through we are already aware of the fact that the younger son is likely foolish and arrogant, but this pretty much seals the deal. By asking for his inheritance prematurely, the younger son is indicating the depth of his contempt for his father—essentially declaring either “Would you just up and die already?” or, “You’re dead to me already.” Either way, he is rather clearly crossing a significant threshold with regard to his relationship (or more accurately his lack of relationship) with his father. This combined with what we will read in verse 13, most likely indicates crossing a point of no return.

What should really slap us in the face however is the fact that his father grants his request! For most of us, regardless of whether we are on the parent or progeny side of the equation, we generally understand the typical scenario to look something like this: Which ever parent dies first, the estate goes fully to the surviving spouse first. Then once the surviving spouse dies, the children will get their share. Although there certainly may be some variations on this theme, it is reasonably certain that this is how it goes down most of the time. And even if we take cultural considerations into account, primarily the right of primogeniture—the practice of the eldest son receiving a double portion in order to care for his mother if his father dies first—the younger son’s request is severely out of order. One does not inherit until your parents, or at least your father, is dead.

But not this father, and not this time. This father grants his younger son’s request and presumably sells off enough of his estate to pay him off in cash. The rest of the estate, from the context presumably a farm or other agricultural interest, goes to the older brother—a point that becomes critical later on.

I prefer the King James Version of the Bible for this text because of the translation of one particular Greek word. In the second half of verse 12, we read: “And he divided unto them his living.” The word his is in italics here due to the practice of the King James translators to call our attention to any words not found in the critical Greek text. But the word I want to focus on is the word living. Most other translations use words like wealth, assets, substance, or possessions—the WEB uses the word livelihood—but the word living is actually the most accurate, because in Greek it is ton bion—one of the Greek words for life. In addition, although no English version I am aware of tips us off, the Greek word for goods (v. 12—“give me the portion of goods that falleth to me”), is the word ten oisian, which can be translated either substance or being. The net result of these Greeks words yields the understanding that by giving them their inheritance early, the father is in effect “dying.” In other words the father is willingly laying down his life (being) for his sons. So in a manner of speaking, when his younger son said, “Hey Dad, drop dead”—he did. As previously indicated, and as is usually the case, this sets the stage for all that follows.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. [Luke 15:13 KJV]

As hinted at earlier, when we combine the fact that the younger son considered his father to be “dead already” with the now revealed fact that he wasted no time getting out of Dodge, and to a far country no less, it is fair to assume that he had some pretty significant “Daddy issues” and didn’t plan on returning. And now that his father is “dead” so to speak, there seems to be little doubt that we will never see him again.

But even before verse 13 ends we get a hint that this may not be so. We soon learn that the “get-rich-quick” younger son just as quickly squanders his existence on what the King James Version calls “riotous” living. We are not told specifically what his particular vices are, but again it is fair to assume that it is a least “wine, women, and song,” if not worse.

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. [Luke 15:14 KJV]

I am particularly fond of this verse. Not because I wish any greater harm to fall on this insolent little twerp, but because this scenario, although fictitious, rings so true. I have little doubt that the younger son didn’t plan on running out of money. As a matter of fact, he may have held a small portion in reserve for when the major partying would eventually come to an end. But now the unexpected happens, a famine “just happens” to come along—and no ordinary famine—a mighty famine. If the younger son wasn’t “dead” (hint, hint) broke already—he is now.

And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. (16) And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. [Luke 15:15–16 KJV]

Although we are never told with any certainty the ethnicity of the family in this story, we are certain of who Jesus’ audience is—and it is fair to assume that Jesus utilized this portion of the story to deliberately provoke Jewish religious sensibilities. The younger son was clearly young and foolish, and most likely cocky or even flat out arrogant—but we can all relate to unforeseen tragedy, and famine in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. Was the impudent whelp, young? Who hasn’t been young at least once in their life? Was he foolish? He certainly isn’t alone on that count. But a mighty famine isn’t his fault—is it? Did the young man deserve to perish simply for being young and foolish? And this can’t be an example of reaping what he has sown because it is affecting everyone. So for a Jew, or at least a Jewish audience, this is about as low as you can go. Working for a pig farmer is bad enough, but he is now hungry enough that pig food sounds appealing, and still no one would help him.

(17) And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! (18) I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, (19) And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. [Luke 15:17–19 KJV]

Shazam! Thank God he finally “comes to himself.” The younger son wakes up one morning and realizes that his life as he once knew it is now over—in other words, he wakes up dead. As a matter of fact, I have waited until now to take note of the fact that the substance he wastes in verse 13, is the same Greek word as verse 12 (ten oisian) meaning his being—his life. (He has wasted life.)

Furthermore, he realizes his folly and begins composing his confession to his father. And while I have little doubt that he is genuinely remorseful and this is truly a critical turning point in the story, we must remember to keep it within the context of the whole story. Take note of the content of his “confession” as it stands at this point.

• I have sinned against heaven, and before thee
• I am no more worthy to be called thy son
• Make me as one of thy hired servants

“Make me as one of your hired servants.” This isn’t confession—it’s negotiation. So apparently he’s not quite dead yet—but he’s close—he’ll be stone dead in a minute. But for now, with his last gasping breath, he is trying to make a trade—one life (albeit a wasted one) for another—because it may be as a servant, but it’s better than my wasted life—all without actually having to “die.”

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20 KJV]

This is clearly one of the most important take-away points of the entire story—you simply do not see someone “yet a great way off” if you’re not looking for them. Despite the enormous price he paid, despite the fact that his son rather clearly considered him dead, despite the fact that for all he knew his son was dead, or never returning—the father has never stopped hoping his son would come home. And when he does (come home), the father does not “make sure he learned his lesson” first, doesn’t make him wallow in remorse, or even let him blurt out his confession first—he runs to meet him and smothers him with affection.

I have heard it said that culturally, elder men such as this father simply did not run in public—to hike up one’s robes and sprint through the pasture was undignified—even shameful. If this is so, it makes this parable all the more poignant, because it demonstrates that the father was willing to pay any price for his son—even taking the shame upon himself. Whatever shame and mockery the son felt in returning with his tail between his legs was trumped by the father dashing through the dust and dung to meet him.

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. [Luke 15:21 KJV]

Take note of the distinction between his actual confession and his planned confession. The “make me as one of your hired servants” clause is conspicuously absent—no more negotiating, no more trading—finally—stone dead.

(22) But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: (23) And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: (24) For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. [Luke 15:22–24 KJV]

Did I say “Shazam” already? I guess I should have saved it for now—Shazam! Although there are many take away points from this parable, this is clearly the crux (pun intended) of the matter—death and resurrection. The dead are made alive, the lost are found. And right in the middle of it all—a veal roast.

The fatted-calf is a rather unusual “sacrifice”—because we usually don’t look at this as a sacrifice—just a good meal. But think about it. The fatted-calf has but one purpose in “life”—death. It stands around in a stall all day, getting well-marbled and waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice so people can have a cookout. In my opinion this makes the fatted-calf the most conspicuous Christ figure in the whole story.

(25) Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. (26) And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. (27) And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. (28a) And he was angry, and would not go in. [Luke 15:25–28a KJV]

Angry? Why is he angry? Your long lost brother is home, your bereaved father who has never given up hope is beside himself with joy, there’s beef on the barbeque, and you’re angry? That’s carrying one huge grudge for an awful long time. Forgive me for being blunt, but here goes. This is where I believe the traditional title “The Prodigal Son” prejudices our interpretation from the start and we totally miss the point we are supposed to take away about the elder son—that the elder son had no better relationship with his father than the younger son.

(28b) Therefore came his father out, and intreated him. (29) And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. (30) But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. [Luke 15:28b–30 KJV]

Because the elder son wouldn’t go in the father comes out and entreats him. I imagine he said something to the affect of, “I know you’re upset with your brother—but please do this for me”—but the elder brother would have none of it. Furthermore, he feels compelled to explain to his father why he won’t go in, and in doing so describes his “life” and how he feels about it—and in so doing also describes his “relationship” with his father (again, or lack thereof). “Lo, these many years do I serve thee…” The Greek word for serve here is the word douleo, which is better translated slave—“Lo, these many years have I slaved for you.” Some relationship—huh? And furthermore, he goes on to whine, “I did everything right, and he did everything wrong, and yet you love him more!” Plus, “You gave him the most costly sacrifice of all and never even gave me a stupid goat!” In other words, “You never gave me anything!” And this is where he is dead wrong—not dead (and that’s the problem)—but definitely dead wrong.

Also take note of the fact that the elder son accuses the younger son of wasting his father’s living (“devoured thy living” v.30). But the father has been “dead” since the beginning of the parable. Therefore, the younger son could not have wasted his father’s living—he wasted his own living. But possibly even more important is the fact that the elder son implies “But I didn’t waste your living like my brother did.” But this is equally fallacious. The elder brother didn’t “not waste” his father’s living—he didn’t “not waste” what already belonged to him (since his father has been dead the whole time)—his own life. But there are two points we should take away from this. The first is that the elder brother can’t accuse the younger brother of wasting his father’s money and pat himself on the pack for not wasting his father’s money in the same breath—since in both cases, it wasn’t his father’s money. The second is, when we once again realize that they are talking about wasting their “lives,” the elder brother is under the mistaken impression that while the younger brother clearly wasted his “life,” that he (the elder brother) didn’t waste his! But the quality of his so-called life, “Lo, these many years have I slaved for you,” speaks for itself and betrays him.

(31) And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. (32) It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. [Luke 15:31–32 KJV]

Remember how I said at the outset that the father’s actions set the tone for the whole story? The father preemptively laid down his life for both his sons. From the moment he “died” the elder son (since his younger brother soon beats feet out of town) owned everything. In other words, the “father’s life” has always been available to him this entire time, but instead of living by the father’s life, he lived as a slave, overburdened by rule keeping and obligation.

Parties (celebration, weddings, festivals, etc) in Scripture are indicative of relationship. And there is no greater cause for celebration than resurrection. If the elder son cannot recognize this, it is genuinely too bad—especially because he doesn’t seem to realize that his life isn’t really much of a life, and that he too should probably just admit that he is already dead and thereby get a new one.

Isn’t it funny, when we encounter a season of significant adversity, and everything seems to be going south that we sometimes say, “I want my life back”! Although I can relate to the frustration because I have done this myself, the reality is that the Father would rather that we just admit that we’re dead already so he can give us a new one.

In conclusion, the younger son rejected a relationship with his father by rebelling—the elder son rejected a relationship with his father by “living” (if you can call it that) a life of rule keeping and obligation—in a word—religion. And what’s worse, the elder son absolutely refuses to give up his crappy so-called life for a new one!

The tragic irony is that when the father entreats the elder son, he is asking him to join the party—in effect saying, “If you’ll just die to your twisted idea of what life is supposed to be, you can have a new one!” Or to put a different way—just admit the fact that you’re already dead!

But the ultimate tragedy is the cliffhanger ending—we never know if the elder son goes into the party—it doesn’t appear as though he does. The parable has been a plethora of death—dead father—dead younger son—dead calf—dead everything except a dead older brother.

What does the father have with his younger son at the end of the parable that he doesn’t have at the beginning? An affectionate relationship. What does the father have with his elder son that he didn’t have at the beginning? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

God does not want the indentured servitude of slaves—he wants the extravagant affection of a relationship with sons and daughters.

The kingdom of heaven in not advanced by human achievement and worldly methodologies, regardless of how cleverly disguised they are as “Christian principles.” If human effort gained anything then the Gospel of Jesus Christ is pointless (Galatians 3:21). God simply does not define success the way the world defines success. The kingdom of heaven is advanced by paradox. The last shall be first. Losers win. The least are greatest. The lost are found. And the dead… are resurrected.

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