02 November 2015

Culturally Understanding the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Pt 2

In part one we began looking at the prodigal son parable, covering through where he has left his people, cut all ties and rights to them, took everything he owned and lived recklessly and lost everything. He had nothing left, nowhere to go and of course could not simply call his parents to come and pick him up.he  He knows going home would mean dealing with the ridicule of the rest of the village, as well as that of his brother who now has the rights of the rest of the father’s possessions.

These options are not ones he can bare to deal with, not at this point and time at least. Instead, he chose another route:

So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. (Luke 11:15 ESV)

It is the fact that pigs are mentioned here that most commentators say he was living, spending, and now working among the Gentiles. The word here translated as hired in our text, is often translated as “joined to” and comes from the root word meaning to glue or attach. It is used elsewhere to refer to everything from dust clinging (Luke 10:11) to joining oneself with a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:16).

Some commentators state that it is not uncommon for a man to join himself to another, even if it is not something the other party desires. Kind of like in some cities where when you stop at a red light, a person will rush over and clean your windshield against your will and expect payment. It is possible that is what this son does. The reason some think this might be the case, is the job he is given.

Chances are the speech and dress of the son would have given him away as being a Hebrew, and in an effort to rid himself of this man, the person assigns him a job he suspects will cause the man to leave. It can be hard for us to fully grasp how this is would be for someone from a culture that loathes pigs. But, the son accepts even this – he is that desperate. So desperate in fact that the next verse tells us:

And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. (Luke 11:16 ESV)

The Greek word here translated as longing is a very strong word and implies a very strong desire. Some say that the pods spoken of here were not something that could even be digested by humans, and thus he was unable to even eat them, but truly and strongly desired to be able to.

Things were getting worse for him, and there was no relief in sight. He couldn’t eat what the pigs were eating, and asking others was not working, as no one gave him anything. He was finally at the end of his rope, unable to provide anything for himself. He was broke and starving, and death was surely in his future, so he decided there was only one option left.

"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."' (Luke 11:17-19 ESV)

One thing we should notice here is that the son was not repentant. Many over the years have understood that when it says “he came to himself” that it implies a repentant attitude, but others point out that there is nothing in the language to really reveal that at all. He does not mention being sorry for anything he had done, he simply realizes that he was truly starving and decided enough is enough. He reasons that even his father’s servants have food, and that is what he desires to have so he won’t perish. 
He will acknowledge his sin against the father, but only because it is a means to an end - he desires to eat, even if it is as a servant. The words he chooses to say to his father may have some significance too. Yeshua is talking to an audience that knows the Scriptures; they are quite a scholarly group.

When the son says “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” The words used here are a paraphrased version of the words of Pharaoh to Moses after the plagues. Pharaoh says:

I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. (Exodus 10:16 ESV)

Some commentators say that the Aramaic version of this verse is worded even more closely to the way it is stated in our text in Luke. If that is indeed a legitimate link, we all know Pharaoh was not repentant. He simply wanted to manipulate Moses and get away from the bad situation, and that seems a similar attitude that the son in our story has.

Because he was in dire straits with no other options, he would choose what he believes is the right things to say, hoping that his father would have him back as a servant.Of course, he is not asking to be restored to the family. If he were accepted back as a servant, it would mean he would most likely reside in a nearby village with the other workers, and not in the family home.

He does not ask to be in any way restored to the former relationship as a son, nor does he ask to in any way be a part of any inheritance. He is still not asking for that responsibility or relationship. The son is seeing the root issue to be focused on his losing everything and starving, and not to breaking the relationship or breaking his father’s heart.

It seems he is not aware of what he has actually done. The issue of relationship with the Father does not seem to be a focus at all, he simply wants to return and get food. Reconciliation does not seem to be his goal in taking this course of action.

I am sure most of us can see modern ways this type of scenario plays out. For instance, say a child has done something to completely hurt the parents in some way, by breaking their trust or disobeying them directly, and they get caught doing so.

The child will most likely apologize – but most likely the focus of their concern will be with the issue they got caught in. Rarely are they aware of the damaged relationship with the parents, they are simply sorry they got caught and saying what is needed to satisfy the uncomfortable position they are in. 

Reconciliation is not usually the thought they have, they simply want to get out of the bad situation of getting caught. Had they not gotten caught, they would probably have done nothing.If the prodigal son had not ended up like he had, chances are he would not have ever considered returning home. He was only doing so now because he was desperate. And so we are told:

And he arose and came to his father. (Luke 15:20a ESV)

As the son approached the town, he surely would have been thinking more and more on what he would say, maybe even practicing how he would lay it on thick to gain some sympathy.

He probably pondered on how he would handle facing the town’s people, who once they had discovered what he did, would perform the Kezazah ceremony against him. This would mean having to take their punishment before he could ever make it over to see his father at all. After who knows how long, he may eventually be summoned to the presence of his father.

By that point, the village would have rejected him, and surely then his father would be very angry, and he would have to plead to be taken back as a servant. After all, not only did he in essence declare a death wish upon his father, but he then left and lost everything among the pagan nations.

However, we know that what does happen is not at all what he would have expected in his situation. The text tells us:

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20b ESV)

This action of the father’s is very much against what a man in his position would do. He is basically breaking all of the rules of the oriental patriarchy just by running. The Greek word used here for “ran” is the technical term used for the foot races in the stadium. So, we are actually told that the father raced to the son with urgency.

In their culture, a man of his age would always walk slowly and in a dignified manner. They would never, ever run.  To do so would require him to reach down and take the front ends of his rode and hike them up so he could run. Doing that would thereby expose his legs, which was considered a humiliating posture for him.

Performing this action would be to bring great shame upon himself, on top of the shame the son’s prior actions had already brought upon him and the family name. But obviously the father was not concerned at all about this.

His compassion leads him to do these acts, and knowing how the villagers would treat the son upon his arrival, he probably ran even faster to catch him first. This is the father, leaving his high home, assuming a humiliating posture in order to seek he who was lost and bring about reconciliation.

As parents, we all can learn from this scenario. When our children go astray, how quick are we to run in to say “I told you so,” or to berate them with scornful speech? Often the parents will belittle them and bring them to shame. But here, we find pretty much the opposite of that.

We find the father humiliating himself to reconcile with his rebellious son. And the father has done all of this without hearing word one from the son. Is the son repentant? The father doesn’t know. Is he coming home to repay all he took? The father doesn’t know. Whatever the news is, the father has yet to hear it, yet he humiliates himself to run and love his lost son.

There are those in of the Islam faith who actually use this story to show that man can be saved without a savior – without Yeshua. They claim the boy repents, returns, and the father forgives him. They say therefore there is no need for a cross, no suffering, and no savior needed to get to God. They totally miss the suffering, sacrifice, and humility that is portrayed here.

They also fail to see this story as representing the Father in heaven, sending the son, who is God incarnate, who assumes the humiliating position as a human in order to passionately go out and seek and save those who were lost, and bring them into reconciliation and son-ship once again.

They also, like many commentators today, make the mistake of viewing this whole story and the characters involved as basically a representation of God the Father loving and reconciling any repentant sinner unto himself. However, in light of audience relevance and what Yeshua had come to do, I find it hard to agree with that general assessment of the party’s involved or the main focus of the story, but I will discuss that a little later. The story continues:

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.' (Luke 15:21 ESV)

Now, in case you don’t notice here, the son’s planned confession is a bit shorter than he initially decided upon. What happened to the last sentence where he was to say “Treat me as one of your hired servants” as he mentioned back in verse 19? Was he caught off guard by the actions of his father and forgot? Had he along the road decided against that portion?

Can you imagine what may have been going through the son’s mind just moments before? He is walking home, knowing he has rejected his family and brought shame to them. Knowing he will most definitely face being outcast by the rest of the village and probably greatly punished.

Now, he reaches the village and here he sees his father running toward him. Not knowing what the father would do, he may have thought that his father was running to take swift vengeance against him. After the way he had rejected him, he knew he deserved such a response.

So, surely he would have been shocked and taken back when his father instead came and threw his arms around him and started kissing him. Maybe that threw him for a loop and caused him to forget his planned speech. Or maybe instead, the son now realized he had no right to ask anything of the father directly.

Instead, he would just throw himself on the mercy of the father and accept whatever happens at his hand. Or it is possible the son was cut short in his speech, as the father interrupts him:

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. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24 ESV)

The twist here is that in this situation, it should be the son who was to come bearing gifts. The son is in the wrong, he has committed great wrongdoings against his father, and it is he who owes a major debt. But he comes empty handed with nothing to offer the father.

He basically spat in his father’s face and wished him dead, cutting all ties as a son, and now returns, declaring he is unworthy to be called a son still. Instead, he is given a king’s return and restored fully to son-ship.

Now, being lavished with gifts so quickly and so publicly, it would surely stop any idea of the villagers performing the Kezazah ceremony, as the son was now openly reconciled to the father. Unfortunately I cannot spend any time here going into any of the details on the gifts he was given, but suffice it to say they were prime, extravagant gifts from the father.

Now we reach the point where son #2 joins the party. And we'll pick up there in part three.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4