This is a story about a love which is far more extraordinary than we can even guess. This story breaks so many “rules” of the culture of the Middle East, that when we realise what’s happening, it makes our heads spin. During this week, I have been reading Kenneth Bailey’s book, “Jacob and the Prodigal”. Kenneth Bailey is Research professor of Eastern New Testament studies at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. He has spent 40 years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. So we can see that he really knows what he’s talking about.
The Prodigal Son. You may already be aware that when the younger son asks for his share of the family property, it is tantamount to wishing that his father was dead. In traditional Middle Eastern culture, the father would strike him across the face, and drive him out of the house. This young man is not simply asking for money to go and make his way in the world, which would be common enough in our understanding. He is asking for the unthinkable. Those who were listening to Jesus tell this story would expect the father to refuse. He does not. This is way beyond what any father in that culture would do.
Let’s imagine the setting as best we can. This wealthy farmer, like others then and now in the Middle East, would have lived in a village. People gathered close together to allow for maximum farmland, and for protection. The point of that is that everyone around would know what was going on. The entire village. The young man sells his portion of the estate. This exposes the whole family to public shame, and no-one who had a close relationship with the father would have had anything to do with the sale. The entire community would be angry with the wayward son. The prodigal is already a pariah before he leaves home.
The young man wastes his money on extravagant living. Worse, he does it in gentile territory. Then, good grief, he becomes a pig herder. To lose his inheritance to gentiles, and to have anything to do with pigs, was to bring immense shame on his whole family, in that culture. He has sunk absolutely as far as he can go. He is the lowest of the low.
Now he comes to himself, and decides that he will go back and work his way into his father’s good graces. Work his way back into his father’s good graces, mind you. We mustn’t miss that bit. He is going to solve the problem of his estrangement from his father- and his community- by himself. The danger is that his prepared speech “I have sinned against heaven and against you” is not heartfelt repentance, but an act of manipulation to get what he wants from his father. What he wants is some food, and a safe place to live. He is not thinking of the fact that he broke his father’s heart, or that he caused the whole family a financial loss.
What can this prodigal son expect when he gets home? Rejection is what he can expect. In that culture, there is something called a Kezazah ceremony. It is a “Cutting off” ceremony, and it is designed for people exactly like this young man. The villagers would fill a large pot with burnt nuts and burnt corn, and smash it in front of the guilty individual. Together, they would shout at him “(This person) is cut off from his people.” And the entire village would have nothing to do with him from that point on. This is what the prodigal thinks he is going home to. He has no other choice. He’s starving where he is.
But the father has his own plan. If he meets his son before the young man gets right into the village, and reconciles with him in full view of the community, then the Kezazah ceremony will not happen. The father seeing his son at a distance, and disregarding all dignity and all custom, runs to meet and embrace him. The son can only blurt out his confession. His idea of working his way back into his fathers’ good books is gone with the wind. The son met his father’s extravagant offer of forgiveness with acceptance. He realised that his father’s costly demonstration of love had changed his whole world. The father throws a lavish party. The whole village comes to celebrate the father’s successful reconciliation with the son. Note the emphasis, please. The party is not simply because the prodigal son has returned home, it’s because father and son have been reconciled.
Now for the return of the older son. He is angry, because he sees this as a celebration of the wayward son, not as a celebration of the success of the father’s efforts at making peace with “this son of yours”. The older son could choose, like all the others, to rejoice at the reconciliation of father and son. No. He only sees himself as left out in the cold. He can only see that the younger son has been accepted without having to work hard to pay back what he has lost. The father’s mercy has infinitely outweighed the claims of justice, and the older brother just can’t get his head around it. And so he publicly insults his father by refusing to enter the banquet.
Here is another extraordinary display of the father’s love. In that culture, he would be expected to return to the banquet himself, and have firmly in mind that he would deal with the older son later. And deal with him he certainly would, for humiliating him in front of the whole village. The father would be expected to order a thrashing for his insolent son. But no, he stays with the angry older son, reaffirming his love for him, and reaffirming that everything the father owns is available to this troubled son. Again, the father goes way beyond anything that would be expected of him in that culture. The father’s love is like that, beyond all possible expectations.
There is no end written for this story. We see that Jesus is the One through whom costly love is brought to us. It’s there, it is a gift for us. The younger son and the older son react very differently. Do we take the gift, and accept the peace and reconciliation freely, extravagantly offered to us? It is there for the taking. Thanks be to God, who is loving beyond anything that we can imagine. Amen.