Unconditional Love: Part 1 of 2
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
Jesus tells the story of a young man who repents of his sin, apologizes to his father, and is joyfully accepted back into his family, despite the objections of his older brother who resents his father’s mercy. This is a parable in story form, sometimes called an “example parable.” It is set in the same context as the two preceding parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin that expresses the joy that comes to one who finds something that was lost. While it has been called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” it is really a story about a father who had two sons. The spotlight is on the father. It is told by Jesus for a reason; He wants to answer the Pharisees’ complaint about His association with sinners.
The Pharisees are shown to be like the elder son in the story, that is, resentful of God for being merciful. Jesus is showing that his love is like that of God. The story illustrates God’s attitude toward a sinner not only after repentance, but even before. Verses one to three set the stage for three parables about the joy of finding what was lost. The Pharisees took offense at the way Jesus related to sinners who were supposed to be shunned. They felt their sin disqualified them from not only associating with God, but with them, the righteous, as well. They were quite sure they were right.
In verse eleven it says, “There was a man who had two sons.” This parable is similar to others that Jesus told. For example, there was the parable of the two debtors, and the parable of the Pharisee and the toll-collector, and there was the one about the two sons, and then there was the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. In each parable, Jesus contrasted two types of people with each other. Even though our story is about two sons, it is the father’s attitude and behavior that is the key to the story. The father, who is clearly symbolic of God’s unconditional love, is, in the story, a well-to-do Palestinian farmer.
In verse twelve we’re told, “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” The younger son seems to be unmarried and about twenty years old or so. By law, the eldest son was entitled to two-thirds of his father’s estate with the remaining third to be divided among the other sons. In this case, there is only one younger son who would get the entire remaining one-third. The property would be given during the father’s lifetime, and that would be a rare case in which the son would have no further legal claim on the father’s goods. If the son sold the property, the buyer could not take possession until the father died.
In verse thirteen it says, “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” Bible commentators say this phrase means he converted everything into cash and spent it all on foolish things; wine, his “so-called” friends, and an extravagant lifestyle.
In verse fifteen Jesus said, “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.” To a Jew, the pig was unclean and an animal to be avoided. To land a job as a swineherd was the lowest of the low and an immoral occupation to boot.
In verse sixteen Jesus said that, “He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.” The pods on which the swine fed were the fruit of the carob tree, and today it is often called St. John’s bread. The tree is found all over the Mediterranean area; its fruit was used for animal feed, though humans could and did eat it as well.
In verse seventeen were told, “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” Coming to his senses means he repented, and changed his attitude, he admitted he was wrong and he determined to set things right.
In verses eighteen and nineteen, he is facing the facts, and he rehearses his apology to his father. He is sorry for what he has lost, but more than that he is sorry for what he has done, for sinning against God and his earthly father.
In verses twenty and twenty-one, the father, who is always on the lookout for his son, drops all of his pride and runs to kiss his son. The son does not get a chance to finish the speech he rehearsed, since his father so eager is to get on with the next step: a feast.
In verse twenty-two, the son is treated like an honored guest, like a son returned from war, not like a servant, not punished or demoted. He is treated better than he deserves and better than he expects or asks.
In verse twenty-four, his father declares his son was dead…but now he’s alive…lost…but now he is found. The changed situation causes joy on the father’s part. What the son did is now lost and dead. The son is alive and found and that’s all that matters. “He’s alive” would mean alive in the family or spiritually alive.
In verse twenty-eight we are told about the older son’s reaction; “he became angry at his father and he pleaded with him. But the father is good to both sons. He does not reject the older one because of his resentment over his generosity and mercy.
In verses twenty-nine to thirty, the elder son reveals his true feelings; that he was no more a son than his younger brother. He describes his faithfulness to his father’s wishes as “slavery.” He resents his father’s treatment of the younger and expresses his feelings of being taken for granted. After all, all he ever received from his father was a goat, and it would have been of far less value than the fatted calf. He said, “When your son returns”: the older son was so angry that he could not call him “my brother;” instead, he says, “that son of yours.”
In verses thirty to thirty-one, the father reminds the elder son that he loses nothing by his younger brother gaining forgiveness and reinstatement as a son. He has no real basis for resentment, since he is not affected by his brother’s return. His good fortune remains intact.
In verse thirty-two, we never learn about the elder son’s response to his father’s point of view. Did he go and greet his brother? Did he join in the celebration? Or did he become the one who was really “far away,” instead of his brother? The question is left open as a challenge to all of us.
This is really a parable about “the forgiving father” as much as it is about “two sons.” The parable teaches that God is waiting and willing to forgive any and all who repent. In fact, he is in the “forgiving mode” all the time. It is the sinner who postpones and prevents the moment of coming together and the loving embrace of the Father by staying “far away.”
The two sons represent two different ways of drifting apart from the love of God. Neither of them knew what being a son meant. One son physically moved away, and the other stayed at home, never straying, yet never really being at ease with his father. One feels like he is a “hired hand,” while the other will accept being a “slave.” Both saw their father in terms of work, deeds, jobs, tasks. Yet, the father’s mercy exceeded all expectations--theirs and ours--as he treated them both better than they deserved.