The Prodigal Son, an unfinished story
Unfinished stories can be quite infuriating.
If we go back a few years, there was a time at that most famous of all Universities, Oxford University, where no student could be given a degree in any area until he (and in those days it was only a he!) could show they that had basic competence in Divinity. Since educated people in those days also needed to show familiarity with Greek, an important part of the Divinity exam was to give the student a passage from the Greek New Testament to translate. Martin Kitchen tells the story of what happened at one of these Viva Voce exams. Here it is in paraphrase. When it was the turn of that most irreverent and un-church like (and some might even say prodigal student) Oscar Wilde, he was given part of the Passion story to translate. Well, Oscar may not have been exactly Divinity material, but he was very bright.
He picked up the passage and started translating the lead into the Easter story fluently and well. After a few short minutes his examiners were more than satisfied. “You may stop now Mr Wilde”, they said. Oscar was just getting into his stride – and he continued.
“ That will do, thank you”, said the examiners.
“ You have passed, you can stop!”
“Oh, do let me continue”, said Oscar Wilde. “I want to see how it ends”.
That was all very well for the Passion story, but had Oscar Wilde been handed Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son, he would have been extremely frustrated. The story finishes just as it is getting very interesting indeed.
It is, of course, one of the most famous of all parables. I suspect that, unlike many other parables this one was found only in Luke’s gospel. Maybe this was because to those familiar with expected behaviour in the Middle East, it revealed actions not only on the part of the Son – but for the Father as well, that would have been totally shocking and unexpected.
In outline the story is now extremely well known. The younger of two sons is an immature, selfish young man with no sense of family obligation. He goes to Dad and in effect tells him that since he was probably going to hand on his share of the family fortune as part of his rightful inheritance, he might as well give him his share now while he is still young enough to enjoy it. Surprisingly (and probably most reluctantly), Dad agrees to this jumped up young wastrel’s idea and gives him the money. The son promptly leaves home – takes the money to some distant place and blows the lot on the first century equivalent of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Once the money is gone the son has nothing.
He is reduced to the appalling survival tactic of tending pigs and sharing their food scraps. In despair he looks at his total lack of prospects and heads home to throw himself on the mercy of his father. Notice this is self-serving behaviour, certainly not conversion and probably not even genuine repentance. His actions were saying in effect, since the old man was generous first time around, maybe Dad will forgive me. If so I try this tactic I might get back into the family and even avoid the public rejection by the village.
To the understandable horror of the older brother, Dad who has been daily scanning the distance in the hope that one day his son might return, not only welcomes the boy home, he actually runs out in joy to meet him, then organizes a welcome home feast.
We tend to miss the full implications in this situation because we don’t have our society built on the cooperative family unit with the Father as respected total head of household and patriarch. Respect for one’s parent was not only expected, it was mandatory. In Leviticus there are rules for family behaviour, including I might add, the death penalty for any child who curses his parent. Under the complex and highly regulated Jewish society, there was even a ceremony which was supposed to happen should anyone attempt to turn their back on their family. What was laid down by law was that a public gathering, a Kezazah ceremony should then take place, whereby the one who had brought shame to the family was officially rejected by the whole community, banished never to return.
The point of having the village attend the welcome home feast was that this then nullified the possibility of the shameful and irrevocable Kezazah ceremony.
I said earlier it was an unfinished story. The older brother was still on the scene. How would the two brothers have worked together after that? Eventually, the Father would presumably die. Would the younger son now get nothing? The Father was forgiving – and indeed there is a good case for believing the story was not so much about the son as the attitude and actions of the Father. But would others eventually support his decision.
Would the village have come round to share his attitude? ….So many unanswered questions.
And if I might add my own two questions in here….why did Jesus tell the story in the first place? And second and more interesting question – how should this affect our behaviour today?
And yes, I am aware that some of the modern Bible scholars have pointed out that some of the parables were not original to Jesus, but even the Bible scholars in the famous “Jesus Seminar” decided that this particular parable should be classified Pink – in other words, something that Jesus himself had very probably told in this form.
So back to the first question…Why did Jesus tell this particular story?
In some ways this story is pivotal in helping us understand a key part of Jesus’ message. It seems to me that Jesus comes to help move us beyond an attitude of a rules based society. For this story the prodigal son comes from a society where rules and conventions dominate. The prodigal son exhibits strong but we would have to say, typical human weaknesses. Even today there are untold examples of young people who will and do choose the doomed path of easy pleasure and instant gratification.
The Father brings a new dimension to the relationship which moves beyond the rules. Jesus taught forgiveness. The father lives forgiveness. Jesus taught with his lost parables (the lost coin, the lost sheep and here, the lost son) the transforming power of showing deep concern for even the most undeserving lost one. The father lives out this concern.
Jesus also acknowledges that redemption was in a context where others in that society would not understand. For his story he chooses a society where a punitive Kezazah ceremony is the expected norm for those who stray.
For his story he also casts a self righteous brother who has followed the rules – because in real societies families do have such people. For his story he implies that the whole society has to be won over – which is why the villagers must be invited to the feast.
Which brings us to the present…and to the second question. If Jesus merely told the story to explain God’s care we can at least give it a passing nod. Good for a Sunday sermon and not much else. If however we are intended to learn from the Father’s behaviour and change our behaviour accordingly, the parable suddenly raises an unsettling issue. Has the theme of this story become a recognisable feature of our families – our society and our Church? For me at least, and my setting, I would have to say that there is still a long way to go.
Those seeking instant gratification can be seen by the thousand any Friday of Saturday night in any of our big cities. We see them spilling out into the streets in the early hours of the morning – vomiting, drunk, drugged…and who is there to meet them?
Whole communities of society dropouts gather behind fortified walls in gang houses and become increasingly isolated from their waiting fathers, or should that be isolated from us?
But instant gratification is more than a lure for those at the bottom of society.
Our whole economic system is slowly but surely becoming enslaved to the possibility of using unearned money for selfish purposes. Employers who have no wish to share profits with the workers, investors who will cheerfully borrow money to invest with no genuine intention to repay the debtors, and instead simply walk away protected by a maze of trusts when things start to go wrong.
When it comes to the environment don’t get me wrong. I am not against mining – indeed every time a road is sealed, a house is built or teeth get cleaned it is partly thanks to our mineral wealth. But even as a society, instant gratification of spending the inheritance is what happens when we tear down the hardwood tropical forests faster than we plant, when we allow multi-nationals to destroy the habitat for ethnic populations, destroy the environment with opencast mining, poison rivers with cyanide or fertilizer and effluent to foul the waters with rock-snot or to throw away tonnes of plastic to pollute the seas.
Yet if we are hearing Jesus aright, those who have alienated themselves from the good of family and the good of community must be welcomed back into the family, for as such is the kingdom of God.
I would have to say that I don’t see much sign of the waiting forgiving Father. The streetie sits with empty begging cup as the church members hurry past with unseeing eyes on their way to the safety of the pews with a congregation mercifully free of undesirables. We may not be quite brave enough to invite strangers and profligate losers into our houses – but are we really being true to the Spirit of the one who described the waiting Father if we cannot even share a smile.
Sometimes those at our door are one step removed from those who have unsuccessfully sought gratification. Sometimes they are the victims. So how do we, as proxy for the waiting Father do on that score? It is all very well for the West to call for the bombing of ISIS in Syria so that a Western domination of the area can be re-established, but what then should happen with the flood of refugees pouring across the borders. Do they really deserve what they got with the way they wasted their good fortune when the oil was flowing and are therefore undeserving of our charity.
True we can be sucked into interminable arguments about global warming but a more urgent issue is whether to accept the need to relocate refugees created when their land and livelihood is removed by the gratification seekers. I spotted a newspaper photo of a recently released failed developer the other day. It is easier to lament the lenient sentences handed out to the Bernie Madoffs of the world, than to invite the failed money barons into our family circle and encourage them into more community friendly ways of making a living.
That there are those who have chosen personal gratification ahead of the good of family and community is utterly beyond question. But for each of those we encounter there is an unfinished story.
We don’t have to wait like Oscar Wilde in frustrated anticipation if the pages to that story are part of our own story.