The word ‘prodigal’ means ‘wastefully extravagant’. By this definition, who is the most prodigal person in the story? The younger son runs through all his assets and does so not in reckless business ventures, which would be bad enough, but in dissolute living. However, the most profligate member of the family is the father. He's prodigal not only with his wealth, but also with his good name and his love, which he showers on both of his undeserving sons despite their ingratitude and their readiness to publicly humiliate him.
Let's start with the younger son. We all know people who dream about what they'd do if somebody died and left them an inheritance. Perhaps we sometimes have that dream ourselves. To cater for that appetite lurking in us, there are even programmes on TV about detective agencies which spend all their time tracking down the distant relatives of wealthy people and giving them the good news that they've inherited a substantial amount of cash.
It even happened to my mother, who got an unsolicited phone call out of the blue call from one of these agencies to tell her that various scattered members of his family had inherited a tidy sum from a distant cousin of my mother's aunt, who had herself died without ever suspecting he existed. One portion of the money was supposed to pass to my great-aunt but it now passed instead to the beneficiaries of her own estate. Of course, what had started as a substantial sum of money was not exactly a life changing amount by the time it was divided up between a great many distant relations, but it was certainly better than a slap in the face from misfortune!
And a slap in the face is precisely what the younger son gives his father when he announces that he isn’t prepared to wait for him to die; he wants his share of the inheritance now! Of course, the ungrateful son dares not spell this out explicitly to his father’s face. He talks about the share of the property that will belong to him, but what he means is the share of the property that will belong to him when his father dies. He simply can’t wait. He wants it all, and he wants it now! That is truly shameful behaviour.
The writer Tom Wright comments that it’s the equivalent of saying, ‘I wish you were dead!’ The obvious response called for in this situation is for the father to browbeat the son into submission or disown him, but instead he indulges the request even though this is bound to bring dishonour to the whole family. After all, what sort of relationship must you have with your father first to wish he were dead and then to go far away and pretend that he really has died and no longer matters to you?
And when the son returns in absolute disgrace, having squandered his inheritance, he only brings further shame on the family. First, he shames himself because he ought to have recognised that he was no longer deserving of his father’s sympathy. As he himself admits, he has broken every moral code. What he doesn’t seem to recognise is that he has no right even to be taken on by his father as a hired hand. But in returning anyway, he also shames his father, who will now have a worthless good-for-nothing living under his roof as a permanent reminder to everyone of how his family relationships have broken down.
Yet how does the father respond? With an amazing and prodigal generosity that further undermines his own dignity and social standing! Forgetting all decorum, he runs to greet the worthless son, and then throws a party for him with enough food not just for a whole family but for a whole village.
You’ve heard of a hog roast, which is enough to feed at least a hundred people. Well this is an ox roast! According to the Whole Roast Ox catering company, even a fatted calf would produce enough meat for at least five hundred servings. This is more like an extravagant wedding celebration than a home-coming.
But the father’s prodigality doesn’t end there, because - of course - the stay-at-home son still has to be placated. Again, the socially acceptable way to behave would be for the elder son to seek a private interview with his father to set the record straight Instead, he sulks outside, forcing the father to leave the party and go outside to persuade him to come home. Once again the dysfunctionality of the family is laid bare. In front of the whole village the father is once more put to shame. Yet how does the father respond? He doesn’t chide his son. Instead he seeks to win him round. In fact, Jesus says that he pleads.
The elder son’s response is to inflate the crimes of his younger brother, who he now accuses of squandering the inheritance on prostitutes, and to complain that he has never been invited to throw a big party. But as the father reminds him, he is now the sole beneficiary of the father’s will. Even though the younger son has been welcomed home, everything that the father still owns will one day belong to him.
The story cries out for a proper ending - a tearful reconciliation between the two brothers and their father. That is what the audience would have been expecting. But instead it is open-ended. How will the older brother respond?
The parable has overtones of three other Biblical stories. First, there’s the obvious connection with the stories of Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers. There a younger brother subverts the role which the eldest brother might have expected to play. But there’s also a connection with the story of Nehemiah.
When Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem his project met with fierce opposition from the people who had not been sent into exile but had tried instead to guard the faith as best they could at home among the ruins. They had established a different shrine to God, at a holy place called Mount Jerzim, or Gerizim, to replace the ruined and discredited shrine on Mount Zion.
There were once 3 million Samaritans. Now there are just 750 left in Palestine, but they were a force to be reckoned with in the time of Jesus and there was bitter hostility between Samaritans and Jews as to who were the true guardians of the faith. Had the Jewish exiles made too many compromises with their overlords? And why had they been banished into exile in the first place? Wasn’t it because the Jewish faith had become hopelessly compromised and corrupt? Didn’t the new shrine at Mount Jerzim represent a fresh start, a new beginning?
The situation was further complicated because many Jewish people at the time of Jesus felt that the Exile was not yet at an end. Nehemiah’s restoration of Israel had been partial and incomplete. The restored temple worship in Jerusalem was still imperfect. The kings imposed by the Romans were not God’s anointed messiah. The real end to the Exile was still eagerly awaited.
In this context the story packs an explosive punch. Tom Wright suggest that the younger son represents the Jewish nation, exiled because of its disobedience to God but now finally welcomed home at the coming of the new Messiah. The older brother is not just the Samaritan community but the guardians of the restored temple started by King Herod and still under construction. The story is a challenge to all of these separate factions to reunite under a generous God who is willing to forgive all their various faults and failings. The story is open-ended because the ending is still being worked out in the mission of Jesus.
If Tom Wright is correct, the welcome home of the younger son is not the high point of the story. If it were, then the last half, about the older brother, would be a rather tedious addition, perhaps bolted on by the Christian community, long after the story was told, to underline how the Jewish community was rejecting God’s love by refusing to accept the new Israel made up of outcasts and sinners who had responded to Jesus’ call. But instead, according to Tom Wright, the emphasis in the story is on God’s unfailingly prodigal love.
The two halves of the story both end, and are linked together, by the idea of resurrection. When the younger son is welcomed home, the father justifies his expensive celebrations by announcing, ‘This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ When the older brother is begged to join in the celebration the father repeats to him, ‘We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’
Whose resurrection is this? It’s the resurrection of the true nation of Israel, now opening outwards to include everyone who is willing to start a new life living in obedience to God. But, of course, read by the new Christian community after the first Easter, the story resonates with their own radical understanding that Jesus has taken upon himself all the sins and disobedience of the human race when he died upon the Cross and has made a new beginning possible through his glorious vindication and resurrection on Easter Day.
So the parable becomes about Jesus’ resurrection too, if indeed that wasn’t already part of the meaning when it was first told. After all, Jesus’ new community of Israel gathers together when its members celebrate the feast of his death and resurrection in holy communion, and in the story the resurrection of Israel is celebrated by a big feast that is supposed to unite everyone too.
Clearly, that’s part of the story’s meaning for us. But it’s also about being open to new possibilities. To be true to its founder, the Church has to be constantly renewing and reinventing itself. It has to seek new ways of reaching out and appealing to those who have gone far away from its traditions and find themselves cut off from God in a distant country.
But it also has to be the guardian not of a closed understanding of what God’s love means in practice but of an open-ended understanding. It has to challenge complacency. It has to be willing to adapt in order to make the resurrection story come alive for each new generation.
A woman in Amble in Northumberland decided to boycott her local church because, in 2012, they had taken ten pews to create a space for meetings and a crèche. She had gone there for 65 years but couldn’t abide the thought of the worship area being used for anything except religious services. ‘I think it’s an act of vandalism to remove something that is beautiful’ just to create an ‘ugly space,’ she told a Church of England Consistory Court that was convened to hear her complaint.
It’s tempting to see her as a modern day version of the elder brother, refusing to come home despite pleas to accept changes that were only ever designed to make her church more welcoming and fit for purpose. But the elder brother lurks inside each one of us. There is always a line in the sand which we wouldn’t wish to cross even if that were the necessary price for welcoming back our brother or sister. And the younger brother - recklessly disobedient and willing to sacrifice everything he should hold dear for the sake of his own fulfilment - lurks within us too.
Thankfully the prodigal father is always waiting, filled with compassion, to throw his arms around us and welcome us back. And Jesus longs to join us in our exile, to share our disgrace by taking it upon himself, to help us then reevaluate our situation and to accompany us back home to God. So this becomes a story not just about a prodigal father, always ready to forgive and forget, but about a prodigal son but about a prodigal son - not the son in the story but God’s Son, Jesus - who constantly offers to seek out and to save the lost. He died with the lost, identified as one of them, so that we might find new life through him on our joyful return.