117. Prodigality

  • Prodigals, we are all prodigal here. Each one of us has cashed out our inheritance and figuratively run off to Vegas for wine, women, and song. Vegas might have been a strip club in West Virginia or a bar in Hagerstown or a neighbor’s open window or a forbidden website.  Each of us is broken spiritually if not broke materially. The Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15 is preceded by the lost sheep and lost coin parables. In each of those brief parables the owner/loser rejoices when the sheep or coin is found. Jesus then says that the same reaction will occur in heaven over the repentance of one sinner.

In Luke 15:11 Jesus extends this theme to interpersonal relationships, going beyond a coin or a sheep.  A father had two sons, as you know. One takes his inheritance and cashes out. (Let’s call him Billy.)  He squanders all his money. Famine grips the distant country where he went, and Billy hires on as a pigherder, if there is such a job. I imagine the modern equivalent would be running a septic tank truck and emptying out port-a-potties.  Not exactly son-in-law credentials. Billy has lots of time on his stinky hands and hungry belly. He gets envious of the pigs’ situation.  Finally he comes to his senses, not his sensuality. He ran through his sensuality to get into the pigherding business, remember?

We don’t know what the state of his heart was back with his family, but we can deduce that he was impatient and greedy for his share of family wealth. We can deduce that money and fulfilling his desires were more important than his relationships with his father and his brother and any obligation that he owed to the rest of his family/community. When Billy detached, it was all about him, all about now. And back in those times you just didn’t pack it up and leave your family, clan, tribe, or your people.  I can imagine that the folks in his life, friends and elders, cautioned him not to do this foolish thing. It would be like a young man today saying he was going to Iran or North Korea to make a fresh start. But Billy listened only to Billy.

From his lowest point in life, full of pig envy, Billy repents and turns back to his father. He admits that he sinned against his father on earth and his father in heaven. He determines to tell his father this and to seek employment under his father because, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He is going to present in his sin, probably still covered in pig excrement stench, and accept his consequences. Secular justice would say, “Hey, you made your pig bed, now lie in it.” We could call it a tragedy, a shame, an ironic twist of fate.

But Jesus is telling the story. His father is so filled with compassion for his repentant son that he rushes to hug and kiss him. The son did not have time to bathe or get a change of clothes. He must certainly have stunk. Jesus does not mention Billy’s hygiene or attire. He focuses on the father’s rejoicing at the foundness of his son, not on the lostness of his son.  Justice yields to mercy, and mercy yields to grace in one heartbeat.  No criticism or lecturing occurs. Instead the father calls for a robe and a party.

It’s the same way for each of us. If we focus on our sin and separation, we will continue tending pigs, covered in the excrement of our sins. We will ruminate on our guilt and do earthly thinking about supernatural issues.

Justice is a sense of fair play before the law, the administering of deserved punishment or reward.  In this story we see justice in the equal distribution of the inheritance. We see justice in the prodigal son squandering his inheritance.  We sense a cry for justice from the other brother who is offended by the unexpected return of the “dead” brother.

We also see mercy in action. Mercy is the withholding of a deserved punishment. The appropriate punishment would have been to tell Billy “tough luck, kid, you suck”. Justice would have been served, but Jesus teaches us about the quality of mercy, which Shakespeare called “twice blessed” because it blesses the giver and the recipient.  By withholding harsh treatment of his son Billy, the father exercised his option for mercy.

Finally we see grace demonstrated. Grace is the giving of some good but undeserved thing. In this case it is a hug, a kiss, a robe and a party. It is rejoicing instead of condemnation, ministry rather than murder.

I think it is pretty clear that Jesus wanted His listeners to take away a clear picture of God’s love and the process of forgiveness from this parable. In very few words He tells us a full lesson about sin, pride, repentance, forgiveness, justice, mercy and grace. And what can we take away from this story, my Bloggywogs? Faith, believing without seeing evidence or proof. Billy did not see his redemptive reception, but he did believe in his father’s noble character and set out to be under his authority again. Hope, even when we are covered in excrement we can long for a forgotten promise to be fulfilled: that we are not utterly desolate . Love, especially when we cannot do the calculus to figure out how on earth we merit any love, we can surrender our hate, envy, pride and bitterness, which afterall are the obstacles to love. Prodigals, go home.


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