Today is going to be the first installment in a series about the story of the prodigal son, a parable by Jesus that is probably known to everyone reading this blog. To me, this is one of Jesus' most beautiful parables. In contrast to many of Jesus' other parables, this one doesn't just focus on one topic. This parable touches on hypocrisy, God's love, and man's depravity.
I'll be up front about this parable. I love this parable. Jesus touches on hypocrisy, sin, forgiveness, and love in the same parable, rebuking the Pharisees, giving hope to the sinners, and praising the Father all in the same motion.
Today, I'll be speaking about the character that gets the most emphasis in the story itself, the prodigal son. In this story, the prodigal son is the bad guy, the sinner, the rebel. That's how Jesus gives hope to sinners that the Father still loves them, even through their sin.
We see the prodigal son begin the parable (Lk. 15:11-32) with greed and amazing disrespect. "The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of the estate that falls to me.' So he divided his wealth between them." I honestly cannot picture any son asking his father for his inheritance, not only before his father's death, but to his face! This guy was brazen!
V. 13-14 really sums up the prodigal's life. He got as far as he could from his father, abandoned Jewish law, and seemingly turned himself over to whatever he wanted to do. We don't know how long he was away, but we do see that he completely runs himself out of money. The fact that the father states that there was a fatted calf to be slaughtered, a ring to put on the son's finger, and a robe to adorn him with later in the chapter means that this was a family of means. According to Levitical law, the younger son got half the portion of the oldest son. Since there were two sons, the older would have received two-thirds, and the younger one-third, still a large chunk of cash. That should really show the amount of wild living this young man was doing to demand what was probably a very large sum of money.
V. 15 really shows how far this young man had fallen. To a Jew, pigs, and any work involving pigs, was the lowest of the low. A practicing Jew would never have had anything to do with pigs. So this means one of two things: 1.) the prodigal was so hungry and destitute that he no longer cared or 2.) the prodigal had long since forsaken his religion, so going on more step further against the law was no problem. Either way, this guy is as low as you can go. When you, as a Jew, are considering eating pods (v. 16), which I've read is actually indigestible for humans, that belongs to the pigs, it's not really possible to go much lower.
That's who this parable is representing: the sinner who holds out as long as they can against God, the sinner who tries everything until he has exhausted all other avenues of possible escape, the sinner who is willing to take God's mercy in letting him live, then squander it by abusing the love shown to him, the sinner so scarred by sin that he looks for any way possible but back to the father's arms. That is the main character of the tale, a sinner so low and disgusting most Jews would simply avert their eyes.
Jesus' point cannot be missed in this parable. The depravity of man is impossible to miss as we read this. This guy is not kinda sinful, sorta sinful, or maybe sinful. He's just plain sinful! Jesus' point to the crowd was very clear; salvation is offered to the very worst of the worst. It's offered to those who have sinned terribly, to those who have rejected God before, to those who have turned their back on God's precepts, to those alienated from their own friends and people.
That's beautiful grace. A grace that is offered, not just to the "good", but to the bad. A grace that isn't for the "clean", but for the dirty. A grace that is seen as pointless until we see our fault, our sin, our rebellion, just as the prodigal did in the pigpen. A grace that loves the unlovable, the outcasts, the sinners. A grace that stands forever, in stark contrast to man's blind indifference to the Father's love. That's grace.
Obviously, I'm leaving off the happy ending. Tomorrow I will discuss the father in the story, and necessarily, the ending. The good news of the father's love means nothing until after the bad news of the son's rebellion.