The parable I just read, of the prodigal son, is one in a series of parables in chapter 15 about how God cares for his human creatures—us. The first parable in the chapter is about how a shepherd, aka God, leaves 99 sheep in search for one lost sheep; and the second parable a woman, also aka God, searches high and low for one lost coin. Like the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, so too, this third parable, in which the father is aka God.
So, the Prodigal Son. As a way into this story, I want to share with you some things I learned from a book that I read some time ago.. The book by is by Kenneth Bailey Dr, Bailey is not only an author, but a lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament studies. He was formerly the chairman of the Biblical Department at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut. That’s information that should raise eyebrows. Having lived and studied for so many years in the Middle East, he has been able to bring new information to the interpretation of the story of the prodigal son. Unlike other theologians, Dr. Bailey uses the supersensitive lens of a Middle Eastern cultural historian.
There are two tidbits of information that Dr. Bailey offers—that are especially pertinent to our discussion today:
One has to do with inheritance practices. In the middle eastern culture of Jesus’ day, it was NOT common practice to divide one’s property and give it to sons during one’s lifetime. In fact, there is no record of a father EVER selling off a portion of his property and giving it to a son. Instead, the father kept the land and his sons helped farm it; and the sons also cared for their aging parents. In our culture we have social security. In that culture you had property, and you had sons.
Second, community standing was and still is of utmost importance in the Middle East. Particularly in Jesus’ day, when you did not have Jewish policemen to keep the peace, and you didn’t have Jewish lawyers either, you had cultural traditions to keep people in line. If you did not act as the community deemed proper, say, if you were to marry a woman of the streets, or sell your land to a Gentile, you were expelled from the community, sometimes literally, but at least symbolically. The symbolic action took place in a quesasah ceremony. This is the way the ceremony happened: Community members came together at the town square. They brought along a pot. As the pot was ceremonially thrown to the ground and smashed, the townspeople announced, “So and so is cut off from this village.” That smashing was symbolic of the breaking of relationship between the community and the person who had committed some unpardonable sin which stood to affect community life.
Ok. Now we are ready to study our story. We learn in scripture that the younger son in a family goes to his father and asks for his inheritance. As Dr. Bailey tells us, that JUST IS NOT DONE! In fact, several theologians besides Dr. Bailey interpret this action—this asking of his inheritance-- as a sort of death wish, “Dad, I wish you were dead”—or at least “Dad, you are of more value to me dead than alive.” Jesus minces words in the telling of this story, but we can imagine that when the son asks for his share of the property, his father suddenly suffers a range of competing emotions. Not only is there the fear of shame that the son may soon bring upon himself (remember, the quesasah) and by extension, also the family. The father also suffers the heartache of rejection--the child he has loved from the moment he was born, has wished him dead. Why is that? Adolescent rebellion, maybe? Selfishness?
We can imagine, then, that the boy’s initial request for the family inheritance, is followed by arguing, heavy stomping and the slamming of doors. Perhaps there are long stretches of silence—days even—the father, too fearful, angry and hurt to talk to the son; the son, too stubborn to back down—and the older son keeping a safe distance: “Whoa! I’m not getting into the middle of THIS thing.” All of that is followed by a very painful scene, when the father says, “Here—I sold the property to your uncle Benjamin. You can take the money and go—just as you wish,” Then he flings the coin purse in his son’s direction, sending gold coins rolling across the floor.
Of course, even before the son has time to gather up his coins, rumors begin to fly in the village. News travels quickly in small towns and villages, right? “Did you know that Joshua’s son asked for his inheritance early? And that his father actually GAVE it to him? What’s wrong with that boy?” The women shake their heads; and the men curse the son who so eagerly shirks family responsibilities, even as they pity the poor father who must suffer shame and financial loss for his son’s selfish actions.
Now this is where I want to pause for a moment to ask ourselves, “Why did the father give in? He knew his son was headed for personal disaster—Why, already the money was burning a hole in his son’s pocket. Hadn’t he spent a small fortune buying expensive traveling clothes and enjoying a raucous night in the city, all before he even finished packing the family mule? And the people in the village? Word had it that they had chosen the pot for the quesasah.
Has the father decided to play Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of his son? Or maybe, has the father decided to give his son the rope he needs to hang himself?
This is where I want to pause one MORE time, to tell you a personal story which I hope you will agree resonates with our story for today.
When my middle daughter, Joy was six years old, it was time for her to move from Kindergarten to first grade. Joy did not want to go to first grade. She had been blessed by a warm and loving kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Stansberry, and she wanted to return to Mrs. Stansberry’s kindergarten class. The first day of first grade, I half dragged, half carried a tearful Joy from my car to the elementary school building. “I want to go back to Mrs. Stansberry’s class,” she wailed. It was awful. And after I got her to the classroom and drove home I sat on the living room sofa and had a good cry. It’s so difficult to witness misery in a child, isn’t it? Unfortunately, the second day was a repeat of the first. The third day? Same thing.
This is probably a good time to mention that Joy was and still is my stubborn child. That first horrible week faded into the next, and Joy continued in her daily morning tantrums. And I wondered, “Why is my daughter the only child in the ENTIRE school who seems to have this problem? “
I suppose word spread. At any rate, during the second week, the school’s social worker met us at the building’s front door. She was calm, composed and eager to help. I was a frazzled mess. “Let’s all go up to my office and have a little chat,shall we?” she fairly sang. When we got there, this nice, composed woman knelt to Joy’s level. Eyeball to eyeball they had a very frank discussion about why the “little dear” didn’t want to go to school. Taking her cues from the nice lady, Joy explained that she didn’t want to go to school because she didn’t have anyone to play with on the playground. They discussed how Joy might connect with old friends on the playground and make new ones. Five minutes with Joy, and the social worker turned to me, her face beaming success. Problem solved! How small did I feel? Joy went to class, and I went home, to soothe my frayed nerves and battered ego.
The following morning, Surprise! Joy refused to go to school. “I want to go to Mrs. Stansberry’s class,” she howled, tears streaming down her red-splotched face. “But the playground,” I sputtered. “It’s not the playground. I just want to go to Mrs. Stansberry’s class!” Clearly the nice, calm social worker did not understand my daughter.
Just as in the story of the prodigal son, it was time for me to hand my daughter the rope.
“Fine.” I said. “Let us see what we can do.” I called the school and asked to speak to Mrs. Stansberry. Joy listened in on our conversation, her stubborn little ear pressed close to the earpiece. I said, “Mrs. Stansberry, Joy so much enjoyed your class last year, that she doesn’t want to go to first grade. Could she be part of your kindergarten class again THIS year?” You have to give Mrs. Stansberry credit. She put it all together quickly. “Of course,” she oozed. “Why, Joy reads so well. She can help teach the younger ones. I would LOVE to have her in my class. Send her on!”
After the phone call, Joy was ecstatic. By the time we arrived at the school, though, Joy had some reservations. “I don’t know anyone in the kindergarten class.” “Well, you know Mrs. Stansberry, and you will make new friends,” I encouraged.
“But my first grade friends will think I got held back.” “Is there a problem with that?” I countered. And then, right there at the school door, Joy made a monumental decision—especially monumental for a six-year-old, who suddenly realizes she has been handed the rope—that is to say, handed control of her destiny. She said, “I want to go to first grade.”
And so it is that the prodigal son, returns home hoping to become a hired hand, having realized that he, too, has been handed control of his destiny.
Friends, as I said earlier, this is a story about how God acts in the world toward his human creatures—us. We learn in parables one and two in chapter 15 of Luke, that God loves each one of us, and wants to keep us safe. However, God give us room enough to make our own decisions and decide for ourselves our own destinies. Theologians call this free will, and it is—but always behind the free will is God’s steadfast love. God may hand us the rope, but like all good parents, God never washes God’s hands of us, if in fact God has hands, (you know what I mean). God is at the school door with us, holding God’s holy breath waiting for us to decide for ourselves to move on to first grade; just as God is standing by the road, waiting for a head to appear over the horizon, so he can run tell the servants to prepare a feast for our arrival. Amen