Luke 15:11: And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, 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.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 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.’ 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 fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
Everyone has heard this parable preached dozens of times, usually talking about the loving father or the jealous son, but this time let’s take a look at it from the point of view of the prodigal son. These days it is an all too common event in society, a child (for one reason or another) decides home just isn’t the place they want to be anymore, so they take off – the runaway child. The reasons for this are legion, but here we have a good look into his reason for wanting to leave – to party and enjoy life. As the younger son his life on the family farm would be one of endless hard work with little reward at the end (his older brother would inherit the bulk of the estate), so why not just take off and enjoy life. Dad was, obviously, very wealthy, son not too wise in worldly ways (especially the long term costs of partying) so probably figured his share would see him through in good stead. Kids today are not much different, they feel they’re invulnerable and don’t need a lot of money (ask any college kid living off of loans and partying with their friends), problem is that at some time reality kicks in (usually very hard); in the case of our friend here, that comes in the way of hard times, in the case of our kids that usually hits after graduation when the loan payments become due.
The story opens with our “hero” asking dad to give him his inheritance, the equivalent for most people of sonny asking you to cash in your life insurance policy and give him his half (yeah, he’s saying “dad, you died and I want what’s coming to me”), not a very nice thing in those times. Effectively this terminates any relationship between the son and the rest of the family, they are dead to him, and he is dead to them. In short time he packs up his belonging and heads off to seek his fortune.
It doesn’t say where he goes, but the description is pretty close to what we would call “sin city.” Everything was available to him, and it would appear he partook of it all. He found plenty of friends, friends who hung around until the money was gone and a famine arose in the country. At that point our hero is left holding the bag, an empty bag, with no way to pay his expenses, and no one around ready to lend a hand, so he does what anyone in his situation would do – he looks for employment. The problem is: all the good jobs have been taken. With no real marketable skills he ends up taking the only job he can find – a swineherd (something no self-respecting Jew would ever consider), he has given up not only his lifestyle, but his last tie to his religion, and his identity.
Life as any kind of a herder isn’t easy, long days in the hot sun, not much to eat, rounding up wandering livestock without losing the herd itself, protecting it from invaders (human and otherwise), working 24/7 with no end in site. Additionally, it is during a famine, where the food supply for the lucky is hard to find, much less those at the bottom of the social scale…even the pigs are eating better than he. What he longs to eat is the carob pod, a highly nutritional food used widely in the ancient world for its many health benefits, yet he is to feed them to the pigs, not allowed to eat them himself.
Eventually he comes to his senses and realizes that the servants who work for his father are faring better than he is. He knows he has burned his bridges, but hopes that his father will take pity on him and take him on as a hired hand, so he heads back with what few belongings remain. Imagine how he must feel, having to go back to the father he called dead, the brother whom he knows despises him, hoping to work alongside people that he used to order around, fully realizing that his father may well turn his back on him and refuse to have anything further to do with this traitor to family and God (think of Tevye and Chava). Things cannot be worse in the young man’s life.
Now, let’s shift our attention to the father, still from the perspective of the son. We are told that the father sees his son returning home while he is still a long way off. Let’s not just breeze through this, there is a lot going on in this short sentence, three things in fact. Let’s look at each on individually.
But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
- The father saw him. That implies that he was looking for his son, watching every day for his return. Surely at the start and end of the day, and probably at various times throughout, and this went on for years. Every day looking out upon the horizon, ever hopeful that one day may be the day when he catches a glimpse of his lost child. Just as our Father in heaven awaits the day when we return to Him from our sinful life.
- The son was quite a distance when he was spotted. Think about that for a moment. He’s too far off to make out his face, too far off to see any of what we might think of as reconizable features. But his father recognizes him by things only a parent would notice – his build, his general shape, his gate as he walks. Thing no one but a loving, longing parent would recognize. As Jesus tells us, God knows even the hairs on our heads, no matter how far away we have strayed He will know us the moment we turn towards him.
- The son was, most likely, caught totally by surprise. Not only did his father welcome him back, but he ran to meet him. Picture an elderly father, a dignified member of his society, breaking out in a run down a dusty road to meet his long lost child. Picture the king of any nation breaking out in a full-out run, as fast as he can possibly run, all to meet up with a child who disavowed himself of all relationship. That is what we do every time we sin against God, imagine this god, then, rushing at full force to meet reach us, hug us, and welcome us back into His household. Not just into His kingdom, but into that inner sanctom that only a beloved child could enter.
This is how things must have looked from the perspective of the Prodigal son, a far different view than that of the father or the loyal son.