May 23, 2009

The Prodigal Son - A Fresh Look

If there's one parable of Jesus that gets a lot of retelling by preachers, it has to be the story of the 'prodigal son.' It has been analyzed and interpreted through the ages, and books have been written based on it. Yet, there always seems to be something new and fresh to learn from the tale. Here is still another look at this story--one with perhaps a genuinely new lesson to absorb.

The word 'prodigal' has the meaning of 'wasteful,' 'reckless,' and other rather pejorative terms.
Jesus crafted this amazingly multi-layered lesson masterfully, as the ultimate illustrated guide to salvation.
It is obviously an allegory for the story of God's dealings with mankind. The 'father' represents God. He's a kindly, tolerant, long-suffering, generous person, who allows his son to go his own way, but then waits patiently, longingly, even expectantly, for him to return home. The elder son is a typical 'first-born'--responsible, obedient, and maybe too ready to resent. He has 'high standards' of behavior, and expects it of others. On the outside, he's your average Christian, you could say.


The famous prodigal is adventurous, and curious; he wants to 'experience life.' Perhaps he represents Adam and Eve, wanting to fly on his own, without Dad around to supervise. But he is no less loved of the father. Even when he demands his inheritance before the usual obituary, his father takes no offense, and hands over the portion to his inexperienced hands. Number two son goes out, and sure enough, he blows his fortune and falls on hard times. He's the kind Christians want to 'convert.'

That's a lot like most of us. We want to get away from the restrictions of external authority and live life freely, able to do what we want. We squander the blessings of health and youth that were our inheritance, and sometime in middle age, we come to our senses. So too, the prodigal comes to his senses, and realizes he's got to go back to the ancestral home. But he also realizes he's 'blown it,' and feels pretty guilty and ashamed. He figures he'll earn his way back to his father's good books by working as a servant. It sounds quite sensible to most human listeners: acknowledge your failure and go to work to pay your way, earn your keep, merit a place in the father's house. Doesn't that have an intuitive appeal to our sense of self-worth, our sense of pride and right behavior? Of course-that's what we humans would expect!

But, is that what the father wants? Not at all! First of all, he ignores the smell--the shame and guilt--of the prodigal, and runs (not walks, not waits with hands on hips). The father runs to the returning child, and before the kid can blurt out his rehearsed confession, he hugs him close, with tears in his eyes. God wants nothing to do with a 'works' repentance; He just wants us to return in love, and be part of his family again. Then the older son gets indignant about the treatment his brother is getting, reminding Dad about how well he's performed over the years. The father gently reminds him that everything in the estate belongs equally to him; there was never any question of judging his achievements.

You can see that in Jesus' own sketch of salvation, there is no mention of 'standards,' of measuring one's behavior either before or after 'conversion,' by means of external criteria, i.e. by reference to laws. The father is a figure of grace personified. All he wants is for his children to turn to him, and love him in return for the never-turning love he bears them. He doesn't want servants; he wants family. Jesus told his disciples that servants don't know the master's affairs; but he told his followers everything he knew, and called them 'friends.'

My conclusion is that this key parable, illustrative of God's plan of salvation, shows clearly that in the New Covenant, the everlasting covenant, there is no reference to, no need for, the Ten Commandment Law. The only law Jesus was interested in was the Golden Rule: love one another as you love yourself. And importantly, this is not the only place where he makes this idea clear. In another classic, eschatological parable of 'The Sheep and the Goats,' Jesus again separates those two classes of people without reference to the commandments, but simply on the basis of what we call 'charity,' or love. It's another lesson to glean from the well-studied parables; something very provocative to think about.

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