The Lost Son I - The Younger Son
by Aneel Aranha
Jesus is generally considered a master storyteller and when we look at this parable that he told about a wayward son who returns home to a loving father it is easy to see why. Though just a few paragraphs long, it nonetheless has the scope of an epic saga. But before we look at the parable itself, let us look at why Jesus told it and whom he told it to.
At the beginning of this chapter (Luke 15), we see Jesus surrounded by people, most of whom were publicans and "sinners" hungry for God's word. But also among them were pharisees and scribes. The pharisees thought they were hotshots. They knew the law, and believed that anybody who did not obey it to the letter were unworthy people who were not to be associated with. They grumbled among themselves that Jesus did.
Jesus had answered their objections before. "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick," he had said when the pharisees asked his disciples why he ate with tax collectors and "sinners" (cf Matthew 9:12). This time, however, he decides to tell them a few stories.
"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them," he said. "Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'" (Luke 15:4-6)
He then makes his point: "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (Luke 15:7)
"Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one," he continues. "Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 18:8-9)
Then, he tells them the parable of the Lost Son.
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24)
The main characters in this story are a man and his two sons. The man is rich, something we know by the fact he has estates, servants and cattle. Now in an agrarian society (the cattle points to that!), a rich man occupies a very prominent place in society. He has honor, power and respect in the community. It was honor, power and respect that the sons were entitled to, but it wasn't something that the younger son seemed too interested in. Unlike the elder son who was loyal and obedient, he smarted under his father's authority and wanted to do his own thing, go his own way. So one day he went to his father and asked him for his share of his inheritance.
There is no culture in the world (that I am aware of) where the property of a man is divided before his death. True, there are occasions when a father might divide his property because he wishes to discontinue active interest in his business, go on a cruise, or some other reason, but the initiative for this lies with the father. Never is a child permitted to ask his father for his inheritance without intending serious disrespect, because the demand effectively implies the child wishes his father dead.
Despite his shock, sorrow and shame, I am sure the father tried to talk his son out of the folly of his ways, but finally seeing his son was so adamant, he acceded to his demands and divided his property between the two. The younger son took his share of the estate, which according to Mosaic law would be one-third of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17), and then went about doing something totally illegal: He sold his inheritance and with the money he obtained from the sale, he skipped town!
Settling down in a new place, far from his family, he began to spend his life in wasteful living. (That is where the term "prodigal" comes from: it means "wasteful".) And like most fortunes that aren't earned with hard work, this one quickly began to dwindle, until one day there was nothing left. As fate would have it—or as God would have it—there was a famine in the country and there was no food or work to be found.
His friends—those who had been with him all these months living off him—were nowhere to be found, and in desperation, the young man took a job feeding pigs to support himself. In Jewish culture, pigs were unclean animals (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 15:8), and it is indicative of how low the young man had sunk that he had to support himself feeding them. There in the pig sty, as he found himself envying the pigs what they were eating, the young man came to his senses.
Coming to One's Senses
In the NIV Bible, it says "when he came to his senses" ("when he came to himself" NRSV; emphasis mine). It was inevitable that the young man came to his senses, just as it is inevitable that all of us will come to our senses. The only question is: Where will it be? In the comfort of your armchair, as you read this? In a pig sty, like this boy found himself? In a jail cell, like I found myself? (see my testimony: The Return of the Prodigal) Or after we are dead, when there is precious little we can do about it? But all us will come to our senses.
What does it mean to come to our senses? It means three things.
One: understanding that there is a problem. As the prodigal son fed the pigs and envied them the food they ate, he thought, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!" (cf Luke 15:17)
The realization that he had a problem might seem obvious to many of us who are reading this, but it isn't always so obvious when we are in a similar situation ourselves. We rationalize the situations in our lives, even when they are very bad. This boy didn't.
Two: acknowledging one's responsibility for the problem. We often blame others for the bad state of affairs. This boy didn't. He acknowledged his mistake. "I have sinned against heaven," he said (cf Luke 15:18)
Three: taking the steps necessary to rectify the problem. The boy said, "I will get up and go to my father" (cf Luke 15:18)
I want to do a brief side-step here to look at Jesus's mastery over the art of story telling. Though he is talking to a whole mix of people, he is addressing himself especially to the Pharisees. He has led them to an entire gamut of emotions in the span of a few minutes, beginning with outrage (the son asks his father for his inheritance), then through anger (the son wastes his money on wild—read, sinful—living), followed by disgust (the boy feeds pigs!!!), which is accompanied by a certain sense of satisfaction (the guy got what he deserved!). Now that he is set to return home, they are waiting for the payback! They are sure that the son is going to get the whipping of a lifetime, if not worse and they can't wait for it to happen! Boy, are they in for a shock!
Scripture tells us that "while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion" (cf Luke 15:20). Many of us picture the father eagerly waiting on the roof of his house for his son to come home, but although he undoubtedly longed for the return of his son, it is highly unlikely that all he did was wait for him. As the boy trudged home, villagers on the outskirts of town would have seen him approach and somebody would have recognized him. Word would have spread rapidly and by the time he reached his father's house (weak from hunger and tired from his journey he couldn't have been walking very fast), his father would have received the news about his return.
Like the Pharisees, the villagers who had gathered around were waiting for the certain retribution that would follow. But to everybody's surprise, including the son's, the father embraced him, and then turned to the servants and said to them: “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
While this story is essentially one of forgiveness, it is also one of tremendous love, and we see it in the instructions the father gives to the servants. What do they signify?
The Robe, the Ring and the Sandals
He tells the servants to bring out the best robe. The best robe in the house is the one worn by the father. The next time the boy goes into the marketplace wearing his father's robe, people are going to see him come and believe it is the father coming and give him the respect due the father!
The second thing he asks the servants to bring is a ring. A ring is a symbol of power and authority. This boy, who has squandered his father's wealth in wild living, can go about his father's business, telling people what they need to do and they will have to do it, because he wears the ring on his finger.
The third thing he tells the servants to bring is sandals. In a Jewish household, the only people allowed to wear footwear in the house was the father and his sons. He was declaring in no uncertain terms that the boy, despite everything he had done, was still his son, entitled to the rights of a son.
We all know this story is illustrative of God (the father) and us (the sons). When we return home to the father, we get more than forgiveness; we gets special gifts: a robe, a ring, sandals. What do these gifts represent to us?
In Isaiah 61:10, we see the prophet describing a "robe of righteousness" as being one of the garments of salvation. This is the robe of righteousness that is given to all of us who return to the father in repentance and are baptized in the name of Jesus (cf Romans 3:22). We also see a robe described in Revelations 6:11 that is going to be given to all the saints who enter heaven.
It's the best robe in the house! Intended for us! And what happens to us when we wear it? We become like the father!!! "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18)
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells us to be perfect as the heavenly father is perfect. We are all called to be perfect. But we can't be perfect by our own efforts. However, when we put on the robe of righteousness that comes through faith, we are gradually transformed into the likeness of the father.
A ring is given to us too, a ring of power and authority. What power, though? In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." We receive the power of the Holy Spirit. To do what?
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
This is how we go about our father's business, being witnesses to the ends of the earth and making disciples of all nations, all through the power of the Holy Spirit with the authority of Jesus.
We too are made sons of God when we return home. John proclaims it boldly in his first letter. "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!"
Paul too confirms that "the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ ..." (Romans 8:16-17 NIV)
We are inheritors, not only of the Kingdom of heaven, but also of earth, and all of God's promises.
The Fatted Calf
The love doesn't end here; there is more to come. A feast where the fatted calf would be served! This reminds me of a story I once heard. A teacher told her young class the parable of the prodigal son and at the end of the lesson, she asked the children who they thought suffered the most: the father, the elder son, or the younger son. A bright spark at the back of the class chirped, "The fatted calf!"
This was a joke, but the kid was right. It was the fattened calf who suffered the most. In our parable this is Jesus, the lamb of God. All sin demands sacrifice. Right through the Bible we see that there is a sacrifice made for the remission of sins.
In Leviticus 9 we see Moses telling Aaron and the elders of Israel to "take a bull calf for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord. Take a male goat for a sin-offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt-offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a grain-offering mixed with oil. Draw near to the altar and sacrifice your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded.’ (cf Leviticus 9:2-3,7)
To ensure the sacrifice was perfect, the Israelites would separate a lamb, calf or goat that was without blemish at birth and raise it up, often with more care than they would a little child, until it was ready to be sacrificed at the altar. This was a painstaking process, that took a lot of time and effort, and needed to be made repeatedly.
We, however, have Jesus, the perfect sacrifice made for all time. For any of us who want to go back home, we don't need to go looking for a goat or ram to sacrifice; Jesus has already sacrificed himself for us. We can simply walk through the door to our Father's house, wearing the robe of righteousness, the ring of power and authority, and the sandals of sonship.
So what are we waiting for? Let's go home!
May the Spirit be with you.
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