Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. In such a case, the father and mother must take the son to the elders as they hold court at the town gate. The parents must say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town must stone him to death. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NLT)]
When the boy we know as “the prodigal son” comes to his senses and returns home, Jesus never says he was repentant; He says the boy was hungry! Moreover, while he knows he’s not worthy to be treated as a son, the boy doesn’t ask to be taken on as a slave; he boldly plans on asking to be hired as a paid servant. Those hearing the story probably were sure the boy was about to be properly punished but Jesus defied convention again. When the father sees his returning son, he runs to him with abandon. Again, cultural norms were flouted. Because running required a man to lift his garment and expose his bare legs, it was considered improper and undignified for a grown man to run. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners excused the man’s unseemly behavior because they thought he was in a rush to rebuke his boy. Expecting him to perform a kezazah ceremony (a shunning ritual in which he’d break a pot and yell that his son was cut off from his people forever), the father breaks all of society’s rules and embraces his boy.
The father doesn’t even allow his son to offer himself as a servant; instead, he restores him into his family and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for the boy. We might overlook the significance of these gifts but Jesus’s audience wouldn’t. By calling for shoes, it’s clear the boy is reinstated into the family; masters and their sons wore shoes but servants and slaves didn’t! By covering his son’s swine filth with his best robe, he’s honoring the boy and, since the ring probably had the family crest on it, he’s returning his son to a position of authority. To further establish the boy’s restoration into the family, his father calls for the butchering of the fatted calf. This wasn’t to be a quiet family dinner; a “fatted calf” was saved for a major celebration like a wedding. Treating his son like a dignitary, there was to be a feast for the entire village. Today, this would be like welcoming back a renegade son with open arms, and giving him your Rolex, your power of attorney, a seat on the company’s board of directors, hosting a huge bash at the Country Club, and posting the pictures on social media. The father’s behavior was inexplicable and Jesus’s audience had to have been astonished. Where was the expected condemnation and punishment?
Then we get to the older brother. Again, because we’ve become accustomed to poor manners and insolence in our society, we don’t realize how unacceptable his behavior is. By defiantly refusing to attend the festivities, he snubs his father and family in much the same way his younger brother had. He further disrespects his father by telling a servant to fetch him and making his father come to him. A host leaving a feast was an insult to his guests and a father going to his son rather than requiring his son to come to him was another shocking break with propriety. Then, rather than address his father respectfully, the boy insolently launches into his tirade and further distances himself from the family by referring to his sibling not as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.” Rather than harshly castigate the boy as would be expected, his father lovingly addresses him as teknon (meaning “dearly beloved son”) rather than the more commonly used huios which is used for “son” throughout the rest of the story. Reassuring his belligerent child that he’s not lost his place and that everything he has belongs to the boy, the father lovingly tells him the more important thing is to celebrate his brother’s return.
From the beginning to the end of this parable, Jesus’s listeners would have gasped in unbelief and dismay at the appalling behavior displayed by both father and sons. Like the older brother, they couldn’t understand reconciliation without punishment!
When we put this parable in the context of the times, a far better title than “The Prodigal Son” is the “The Prodigal Father.” While “prodigal” can mean wasteful and reckless, it also means generous, giving on a lavish scale, kindhearted and magnanimous—making it the perfect adjective for the father. By seeing the father’s deep wide love for his children through the eyes of a first century Jew, we truly appreciate the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, He is our prodigal Father—generous beyond belief in mercy, love and forgiveness. Are we as prodigal with our love and forgiveness as God is with His?