Christ’s mission on earth was one full of compassion and love. He represented the character of His Father as a loving God. Every step He took was a projection of this agape love He had for humankind. His interactions with the poor, the sinners, the wealthy, and the self-proclaimed pious religious leaders of His time reflected this unprecedented character divine character It is unfortunate man did not recognize this until it was too late. The bible in its entirety contains this message of love and grace to all. However, there is no book in the bible that captures this theme better than Luke and John.
Indeed, the Luke’s underlying message is the good news of a savior who has come to redeem the world from the debris of sin. This is by no political conquest but rather through the paying of the invaluable price that ever was exchanged for anything-the blood of Jesus Christ. Luke captures this message by noting down a parable Jesus gave in one of His earthly sermons. This renowned parable-the Prodigal Son- is interestingly-enough, found in Luke’s gospel only, an emphasis of Luke’s message of love and grace to all. This paper explores the historical context of this parable, its interpretation to people of that day as well as to the contemporary Christian.
It would be appropriate to begin by a short summary of what the parable is all about before embarking on any interpretation of the same to lay a basis for the arguments that will ensue. This parable was a series of the third in a series of three parables Jesus taught to a group of tax collectors, republicans and the Pharisees. The three had a common theme of ‘lost and found’. The other two are the parable of the lost coin and that of the lost sheep. However, Jesus intentionally laid emphasis on the parable of the lost son or the prodigal son as it highlighted His true character and that of His Father.
Its story line is a simple one that has been a frequent subject in many children stories worldwide. In this parable, Jesus narrates of a young man who goes to his wealthy father to be given his share of inheritance. His father does not oblige but gives the young man his rightful share. The lad, on receiving his inheritance, goes to a far country where he squanders it extravagantly and within a short time, he is bankrupt in face of a looming nationwide famine. He takes on any menial jobs that come his way and lastly lands on the task of herding a swine ‘since no one gave him anything to eat (ESV BIBLE, Luke 15:16)’.
With such a humiliating and desperate job, the young man does not have enough to eat and results to sharing the swine’s food. It is now that the young man ‘comes to his senses and decides to go back home to his father. He is prepared to become a servant in his father’s house. He then prepares a speech to deliver on arrival at his father’s home. On arrival, his father does not even, wait for him to deliver his pre-rehearsed speech, he spots him from a distance and goes to embrace and kiss him.
The father is very happy, as he believes that his son was lost and now is found and throws a party for him buy having the fattest calf slain. The older son is not happy with his father’s gesture of celebrating a rebellious son who had squandered the family’s fortune, He complains that he has been obedient to his father all along yet his father has no given him such love. As the parable ends, the father explains to him that all through he has been enjoying the privileges of being in his father’s house yet his younger brother had been dead and now is alive, lost and now is found (ESV. BIBLE Luke 15: 32).
To interpret this parable calls for a historical context of it. It will be paramount to know the circumstances that prompted Jesus to tell it as well as the prevailing norms and customs of the day. The Jewish culture was one with deeply rooted dos and don’ts. It is such norms that saw the Jews -especially the religious leaders -come into open confrontation with Jesus. This is because they were against His primary message to not only them, but also the entire human race (Grace Communion International, 2011).
Many a times Jesus’ teachings contradicted the social values and of the Roman era. In the case of the prodigal son, the Jews had noted that Jesus was freely mingling with the publicans, tax collectors, prostitutes and slaves. Given the highly stratified society of the Jewish culture, it was a sin to freely interact with such people. This agitated the Pharisees, a highly religious class in this society who took the initiative of questioning Jesus’ behavior. They expected Jesus, in His claim to be the Son of God, to have nothing to do with sin and its proprietors, the sinners
Since Jesus knew that this indeed was not only a genuine claim but also a scheme to incriminate Him, He chose not to respond directly as that would have resulted to an open outburst from His enemies. The best alternative was the use of a parable, an option He had always used when such circumstances confronted Him as it would not only proclaim His ministry on earth but also expose the Jews’ self-piousness in the most unsuspicious manner (Talbert, 2002).
Down to the parable itself, several contradictions of that Jewish culture come into perspective. First is the young man’s demand for his inheritance share. According to the Jewish culture, this was an outrageous request. Inheritance held a very central role in the Jewish society. Otherwise, why would Jacob endeavor so much to have the birthright of his brother Esau? The first-born was supposed to get twice as much as any other heir. In addition, the father was supposed to have full control of his wealthy as long as he lived.
A minor was supposed to stay under the custody of his guardians until the time set by his father. All these norms and practices point out to one thing – that the fact of the young man requesting for his inheritance share has no place in his culture. It is also a wish that his father were dead as that is the only status that would have warranted one to have their inheritance. In addition, it was wrong for one to sell their inheritance under any circumstances. The young man not only sold it but also spent it extravagantly. What an abomination to his culture (Tashjian, 2006)!
As if that was not enough to disgust the Jews, Jesus went ahead to reveal yet another unaccepted conduct in the Jewish culture. He narrates of the prodigal son eating the pods that were eaten by the pigs. This was the lowest status one could reach in this culture and it was against the Mosaic laws to commit such an act. In deed, it was regarded as an act of turning down a hospitality offer courteously. Jesus blends the young man’s new social status with a metaphorical drought that had hit the country (Valea, 2011).
This can be well understood in the context of this parable being an allegory as this coincidence would has raised concern from His listeners. Once again, we get a glimpse of the economic organization of the Jewish culture during the time of Jesus. The Israelites were so much dependent on weather condition that a disruption of any kind would have caused a severe food crisis liked witnessed in this parable. It is in this need with every force against him- even nature that causes the young man to come to his senses and seek for a lasting solution to his woes (Roberts, 2007).
The Jewish culture is once again brought into the spotlight when the prodigal son arrives home after his milestone decision. Several features can be insinuated from this homecoming. For one, when his father recognizes him while still at distance, he runs for him and kisses him. In the Jewish context, this was a show of forgiveness and hence even before Jesus gave his audience the interpretation of the parable, the message was already home- that there is need to forgive each other just as our Father is compassion enough to accommodate us despite our shortcomings (Christ Notes, 2011).
Another striking feature of this second part of the story is the older son’s response to his father’s reception of the wayward son. The Jewish society, as afore-mentioned, was a highly stratified one. It respected protocol very much thus the older brother had an obligation to get concerned when he saw is father breaking this norm by calling for a feast, yet another characteristic of the Jewish customs, for his son. Jesus apparently was exposing the weaknesses of the Jewish culture for their harshness on its ‘outcasts’ by highlighting a little bit on its strong points.
The meaning of the parable of the prodigal son to the Jews, therefore, can be taken as a critic to their unending rituals. Jesus blended this with the great message of a heavenly Father who is compassionate. To the Jews, it was supposed to be an opener and an insight to the weaknesses of their culture. A culture that discriminated against its own was a dysfunctional one. A society without any compassion for the poor, the slaves, the prostitutes, the paralytic, the tax collectors and sinners in general missed the point. Jesus explored these flaws in a way that was not only emotional but also educative to serve as a reflection of the pitfalls of the political, judicial and religious systems of His time. Jesus intentionally left out the fact he was their mediator with God -for them to come back to their senses, they had to come to Him to be reconciled to their Heavenly Father. This is because the Jews had yet not accepted Him as their Messiah as they expected a political figure that would conquer the Romans and liberate them.
The parable of the prodigal son is apparently, the most relevant of all the teachings of Jesus to the modern Christian. Its motif and theme of ‘coming into terms with one’s self, repentance’ has been deployed in various works of art among them movies. For instance, Sammy Hung in 1981 directed a kung fu movie going by the same in which a wealthy father, Leung Yee-tai, has being bribing the opponents of his son, Lueng Jan Chang, to feign defeat in order for the son to think that he knows kung fu. This trick does not last long since; one of the son’s opponents turns down the bribe and reveals weakness of Jan Chang. The son finally ‘comes to his senses’ and decides to find a teacher to enable him master his skills. This last decision helps his friend, Yee-tai, overcome a looming defeat and death in the hands of a cruel Lord Ngai Fai (The Prodigal Son, 1981). Away from the fictional world, the parable of the lost son is very applicable to the modern Christian beliefs in a number of ways.
First, the parable exemplifies the undiscriminatory love God has for His people. No matter how they wonder away from Him, He is always a step behind them and it will take only a u-turn to commune with their creator just like the prodigal son was welcomed by his father after a decision to go back to his father to become a slave. The parable also points out the true model of the nature of repentance as should be witnessed among the faithful. Repentance is depicted as being remorseful of your sinful nature and not only languishing in a pitiful state, but also retracing your steps to where it all began and being ready to be the least (MacGregor, 2008). After all, the kingdom of heaven is for the meek- the proud like the elder son have no place. The prodigal son and his elder brother does not stop at a lost sinner versus good son, it includes a sinner who is not saved by his merit, like Christians, and a self righteous brother who thinks his obedience and good works should warrant him a slot in heaven. In deed, this is where the modern Christian is missing the point. They are concentrating so much on their good deeds as if they have saved them and lost the big picture of salvation by grace.