The Wild Living Son Comes Back Home
1. The passage given to us today is the famous one called "The Parable Of The Prodigal Son." If we were to read this as a story of "a bad person becoming good," then similar stories like this one would exist through out the world. We need to be especially attentive to a famous story like this and to the many similar examples of such stories. That is to say, there are many instances when we cannot read them with great care because we have come in contact with certain types of presuppositions for this genre.
2. So as we begin to read this one with a bit of special attentiveness, we notice this is not the type of story of the so-called "bad guy turns good guy." This is placed as one of the three parable stories that Jesus told. The first story is "The Parable Of The Missing Sheep [or The Lost Sheep]." The second one is "The Parable Of The Vanished Coin [ or The Lost Coin]." Not one word for morality is spoken regarding the sheep that appears in the first tale. There are many tales often told of a sheep that has lost its way as an inattentive and careless sheep like we are, but in this very parable told by the Lord he did not say one thing pertaining to the sheep that has lost its way. It is just a tale of a sheep separated from its shepherd's side and then it returns to the shepherd's hands. We can say the same thing for the second story, too. Coins and morality are unrelated [in this tale]. It's only a tale in which a coin got lost and a woman looked for it. To be brief, the theme is not "the good and the bad" of the sheep and the coin. "The relationships" of the sheep and the shepherd and of the coin and the woman are the main subjects. The issue is whether separated and lost or back in hand and back at home. That is, we think that we can say the same thing regarding the third parable, "The Parable Of The Prodigal Son." The theme is not that the wild living son turned into an honest and sincere son. The issue through and through is "his relationship with his father."
3. Furthermore, if I were to identify one more point, in the two previous parables, the foci of the stories were not the sheep and the coin. The focus was not on them, but rather the focus in the stories was the shepherd and the woman respectively. In the same way, in the third story of "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," the focus of the story was not the sons but was the father.
4. So then, with the above appraisal I have set before us, without delay, let's go on to read this story.
Separated Far From His Dad
5. Please begin by reading from verse twelve to sixteen. The younger brother asks for his portion of the family fortune. The manner of distributing the family fortune was set by law. There was certainly a portion set aside for the younger brother as set by law. But, fathers did not usually divide the fortune in their lifetimes. Furthermore, assuming he had divided up the property in his lifetime for some reason or another, the entire fortune was still placed under paternal authority as long as the father was alive. In other words, the child only has received the right to own and would not be able to have the right to transact or the right to use. This is what the elder brother says later in spite of his having long ago been apportioned some of the assets, "You have never given me even one kid for me to banquet with my friends, have you?" (verse twenty-nine). However, this younger brother is making transactions with the property and converting it to cash. Then he begins a trip to a faraway country. When he asked for the distribution of the fortune, clearly he had intended on using it in transactions. What might this mean? The younger brother did not merely deviate from the common custom of that time. It means that he was considering his father as having long been dead.
6. In other words, this is about the relationship first and foremost between a father and his younger son. The younger son was physically near his father. The father certainly had not been far. But, his heart was already separated far from him. It was not after he had begun his trip that he was separated far from him. With him it was already an existence in which his father was dead. So, this also shows the relationship of a person and God. Even though God is near, it is possible for a person only to have an existence where God is dead or it is even possible for a person only to have an existence where he wishes God is dead. It is possible to have circumstances where one ignores and rejects a relationship. This is exactly where the story takes its start.
7. Well, the focus of the story is the father. What did he do? In Jewish society the father has the power and the authority. If we think of the situation in this story he could have kept this younger child at home by the sheer strength of his authority. He could have treated this son like a slave, placed him under surveillance, and kept him tied down to the house. But, this father didn't do that. Because the relationship would be unchanged even if he had done that [that is, his son would still wish his father dead]. Because his son would not become close to him by handling it like that. Instead, there is something surprising for us, because he goes on to divide the fortune in accordance with the request of his son. In the same way the father acts here, God acts in accordance with the wishes and the desires of a person. Just as it was with the younger son, he makes what one wishes for come to pass and he puts in hand what one is craving for. We frequently think we will be happy at the fulfillment of our wishes like this. We are happy acquiring the things we want one after another. However, as far as we read in this story, the fulfillment of one's wishes is not likely to mean such unchanging happiness; because this younger brother is clearly unhappy. The real reason he was unhappy was he was not by his father and was separated so far from his dad. Furthermore, since what he wished for had come to pass he has been separated farther and farther. That is what is really making him so unhappy. This is exactly the same as the sheep who roams about in the wilderness separated from the shepherd's side and the coin tumbling in the darkness separated from the hand of the woman.
8. That he has such an unhappy existence becomes clear in the next picture. The first thing to keep in our eye is the words, "He exhausted the limits of his dissipation and ended up squandering his fortune." Soon after a famine arose and he experienced the extremes of misery. Because of this point in the story, this tale is called "The Parable Of The Prodigal Son." But, don't you think it strange? Only one line is recorded that he had squandered his fortune. If it were a novel, there would have been written numerous pages on his evil deeds and immoral lifestyle. And I think his miserable life would have been depicted as the consequence of his deeds. But, without any interest in what kind of wild living the brother did, the Lord says only one short phrase, "after exhausting the limits of dissipation." Why is that? That is because the lifestyle of wild partying in and of itself is not the issue here. The issue is he has been separated from his father.
9. As the famine arose he began to have troubles in eating. At that point he was to feed the hogs. For Jews, pigs were detestable animals. It says he got to feeding the hogs and even worse he came to the point of wanting to satisfy his stomach with the food of the hogs because of his hunger. The contents expressed by this unique picture given by Jesus is thoroughly full of misery. He has the shape of a human being but in his true nature he is no longer human at all. He is the same as a pig; no, he is turning to something lower than that. This state of brutality is being expressed in this point in the story. We should not think that his miserable condition is because of his poverty or the famine. When we think about such a situation, even if we were substantially wealthy but we lost our sacredness as a human being, we would end up lower than a pig in everything we say, do, and think. We should not think that he was miserable because the famine arose. The fact is not that he was happy when he was strutting around in good times and then became miserable when his money ran out. That's not the truth; the truth is he was miserable from the start. From the time he separated from his father, no, from the time he asked his father for his fortune he already had a miserable existence. Therefore, as if with one stroke of the pen, the Lord tells in one breath about his lifestyle after he separated from his father.
He Returns To His Dad
10. But, at that point the son realizes something. He comes to know that his original position was not that of one who was lower than a pig. He says, "I will get up from here, go to my father and say, 'Father, I committed a sin against heaven and also against [you] my father. I don't deserve to be called your son any more. I ask you please take me as an employee.'" The important point here is not that he had made a change of heart. That's not what was important. Rather, the important part was that he decided to return back home to his father. It's the fact that he changed directions and it's the fact that in actual practice he changed his direction and began to walk therein.
11. He got up at that point and headed for his father's side. He could see the house from afar. He was still separated far away. However, the one who got sight of him who was separated so far away was the father. The son did not see the father. "When the father got sight of the son, he felt compassion, ran over to him, hugged his neck, and kissed him," says the text. It was not the son who filled the distance between the two men, it was the father [who ran]. It was the forgiveness and mercy of the father [that filled the distance].
12. The son spoke words which he had prepared in advance. "Father, I committed a sin against heaven and also against [you] my father. I don't deserve to be called your son any more." He would have said, "I ask you please take me as an employee," if the possibility were there after [his confession]. But, his father interrupts his confession. His dad had no interest in words like "I don't deserve to be called your son any more. I ask you please take me as an employee." The father's interest was in just one thing, which was that his son was there and the heart of his son was once again with the father. Even though he came back torn and worn like one who turned into something lower than a pig, it was still all right by dad. God rejoices when a person turns to him and that person's heart is with God
13. So, what kind of joy did he have? The Lord speaks further. "But, the father said to the servants. 'Hurry and bring the best clothes, put them on my child, put a ring on his hand, and put something to wear on his feet, please. Then, Please bring out and slaughter a fattened calf. Let's eat and celebrate; because though my son was dead, he returns to life, and though he was not [in existence], he has been found.' Then, they began a banquet." The story by the Lord Jesus is way far out of line with common sense. Actually, it is extreme. But, the Lord says that that is the rejoicing of God. Did the son rejoice when he was welcomed in? Perhaps he did. But, this parable says nothing in it at all about the joy of a returned son. That's because it's not a great matter at all. At the least the clear point is that the son knew his dad's joy. What a person must truly know is not how great a happiness he or she can experience in God. That's just not what it is all about; rather, it is about how happy will God be about us in our turning to Him.
Another Person Separated Afar Off
14. Well, the story doesn't end here. The elder brother enters the scene. The elder brother is a righteous man who served his father in honesty and sincerity for many years. As he was a righteous and hardworking brother, when he heard the things that happened at that time and that his younger brother came home and when he heard a banquet was to be held for a brother like this, he became deeply enraged. His anger doesn't seem unreasonable to me. "Now wait a second, I have served [you] my father for many years. I have never once disobeyed your orders. In spite of that, you have not given me one kid for me to banquet with my friends, [have you]? However, your son comes home after being with harlots and blows your social position in waste and you sacrifice a fattened calf for him?" That's how the elder brother made his appeal to his father. The elder son's message seems right to me. We don't need to vilify the elder brother for saying things like, "The reason I am talking this way is I don't know what I might have done in the dark [against you]." He was righteous.
15. However, the Bible does not make an issue of whether the elder brother was righteous or not. That is not the issue, but it does make an issue of one main point. What would that be? It's that he was not able to share in his father's joy. He was not able to make his will [or heart] as his father's will [or heart]. Therefore, he was not able to welcome his younger brother who was making his father happy. He can only call [his brother] "your son." What might this mean? The truth is this meant that the elder brother also has been separated a great distance from his dad. The father said, "Son, you are always with me." He was certainly different from his runaway brother. But, his own heart was not close to his dad at all. As we hear his words "You have never given me even one kid for me to banquet with my friends," we are made to think that even during the many days he was working along with his dad his heart had never been there with his dad. If the younger brother was lost, the elder brother was also lost.
16. However, the father comes out over to the elder brother who would not go into the house. The text says, "The father came over and comforted him." The father could have dragged him into the house by the sheer force of his authority. But, the father does not act like that because he knew he could not make his elder child draw near to him by such actions. So, the father calms and persuades the elder brother. The father requests that the elder brother share in his joy voluntarily and therefore to welcome his younger brother and join in the joyous banquet.
17. It's in this way that the focus of this parable is the father. The main subject is not a bad guy turning good, but deals with a father and his sons. What God asks of us is neither that we just become good people, nor that we just serve Him fervently. What God is asking for is us ourselves. God is looking for us to return to Him and be with Him, and that our hearts be with Him. And, we should not forget these are the words of none other than Christ himself. This parable has meaning because they are the words of the Christ who knew the heart of such a father as this and they are the words of the Christ who faced the cross to fulfill the heart of his father. Therefore, this time of Lent when we especially turn our thoughts to the sufferings of Christ is exactly the time for us to incline our thoughts to the heart of the father and the time for us who have been separated to come back home to our father.