"The prodigal son metaphor" is not only the best known metaphor of Jesus, but it is also the most popular metaphor. Depending on who we consider to be the subject of the metaphor, this metaphor can also be construed as "a waiting father's metaphor" or "the eldest son's metaphor." The three characters in the metaphor are all important; however, it goes without saying that the true message of the metaphor is that patient and ever forgiving God's love is the basis of all things.
Before the prodigal son metaphor surfaces in Luke 15, there are two metaphors that come out at us: The metaphors of a lost sheep and the metaphor of a lost coin. Just as the man who owns a hundred sheep rejoice greatly when he finds the one lost sheep, God rejoices and holds precious, perhaps more than the 99 righteous sons, the one son, or a sinner, who went astray before repenting and finding the true path in God. Just as the woman, who lost one silver coin among ten, searches the entire house with a lamp and rejoices upon finding the lost coin, God is filled with joy when the one sinner, among many who needs no forgiveness, repents.
The metaphors in Luke 15 all focus on finding the lost object. Therefore, the word "lost" appears in Luke 15 eight times. The message is clear: when lost sheep comes back to us, when lost money returns to our wallets, when the lost son comes back to our family, there is nothing that is more joyous. Today we will look at the prodigal son metaphor among the three metaphors; it is curious, however, why Jesus chose such a metaphor in the first place.
In Luke 15, verses 1-2, we can see that before Jesus speaks of the three metaphors that concern finding lost things, the Pharisees and scribes criticize Christ. The primary reason for their denouncement was based on the fact that Jesus 'receives sinners and eats with them.' The sinners in the scripture refer to the tax collector and other such sinners of the day, whom the Pharisees and scribes, who considered themselves classy and pure, looked down upon and discriminated. The fact that Christ called these 'sinners' to his home and socialized and treated them to a meal was a significant news, worthy of reprieve. To these people who criticised His actions, Jesus throws His metaphors at them, expressing in so many simple words the happiness and joy that results when finding things that are lost, and the happiness and joy that results when sinners repent and comes back to God.
Before we correctly understand the prodigal son metaphor, we must first think deeply about the happiness that results when we find things that we deem are lost. Some time ago, in Korea, many viewers shed tears when separated families of North and South Korea met for the first time since the Korean War. We cannot even imagine the happiness and joy in being reunited with a relative--a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a cousin--whom we thought have long deceased. A mother' word, stating that she could die at this moment with no remorse or no regrets, upon meeting her son after fifty years' of separation, give a snapshot of what it would be like to meet a lost relative or a family member.
There are many of us, who after a long trip, had problems remembering where we parked our cars at the airport. We feel a great sense of relief, and joy, upon finding our cars after a long search and memory recollection. Even though trivial and small in scale, finding something after losing it provides us with great relief; imagine what it would be like to find your lost son after fifty years.
First, we need to think about the second son, the prodigal one, when reading the metaphor mentioned in today's scripture. In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 21 verse 17, upon death of the father, the eldest son, by custom, is to receive 2/3 of the father's estate and wealth; the second son receives 1/3. However, the second son in today's scripture, despite the health of liveliness of his father, asks for his share of the wealth before his father's death.
It was very uncommon--unheard of--for sons to ask their fathers for their inheritance before their death. This son, on top of all this, takes his share of inheritance and moves to another country. Leading a decadent lifestyle, this son manages to lose all his wealth, the inheritance that his father has given him, in a short period of time. To fulfill his carnal and visceral desires, he wasted his wealth, and became a pauper almost overnight. Not only did he lose his entire wealth in a foreign country, but at the time, a great drought and famine had struck the region as stated in verse 14, further compounding his problems by adding starvation to his plight.
As stated in verses 15-16, he went to feed the swine in another man's farm, and would have gladly filled his stomach with the food that the pigs ate, but no one offered him even the swine feed. He was in a truly desperate situation. In the book of Leviticus, chapter 11, or Isaiah, chapter 65, it is stated that the Hebrews considered swine as impure and filthy animal, whose flesh was unfit for consumption; the fact that this prodigal son went to feed the swine illustrates that fact that he was no different than many of the unchosen people, who were outside the grace of God. And the pods mentioned in the scripture was hardly considered food fit for human consumption; it was usually reserved for swine or those who were very poor.
This prodigal son, who maltreated his father and led an unfortunate life, was on the verge of death in this foreign land. At this point, the prodigal son makes an important decision. As stated in verses 17-19 of today's scripture, he considers, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you," and decides to go back to his father. The important fact is that this son, although he realized he may have commuted a grave sin against his father and the heavens, decides to go back to his father and die in his home.
Second, we must pay a close attention to the father, who have waited so dearly for his son's return. After his son left home, all this father did was to wait for his son to return. Upon recognizing his son returning, albeit over a long distance, he goes out to greet him, in such a hurry that he did not even stop to put his shoes on, and kisses him on his return. The son, unable to take in his father's welcome with straight heart, says, "father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son" and repents his sins. Despite all this, the father commands to his servants, "bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry." As the reason for this celebration, the father states, in verse 24, "for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
The attitude of the father, who waits for his prodigal son, is similar to the attitude of our Father, our God. Our Lord, our Father, is the One that accepts and welcomes us back, even though we might have gone astray like the prodigal son mentioned in today's scripture.
Lastly, we must pay attention to the eldest son. Upon his return from the fields, the eldest son heard music and dancing. He asked one of the servants what was happening. Upon hearing the servant's answer, the eldest son was greatly angered. In verse 28, it is stated, "but he was angry and would not go in." He explains his reason for not going in verses 29-30, by saying "lo, these many years I have seen serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time' and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of your came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him." It is perfectly reasonable for the eldest son to be upset. However, the father is coercing his eldest son through generosity and love. In verses 31 and 32, it is stated, "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found."
The eldest son is often referred to as the people of Israel. The second son, the prodigal one, symbolizes the foreigners, the vagrants and sinners in the eyes of Israelites, whom they deemed were not chosen by God. The traditionalist Hebrews, like the eldest son, did not like the God to throw parties for the sinners and the outsiders. However, the love of God is same for Jews, sinners, and outsiders alike; the joy and happiness that God feels when one of his sons return to him is not comparable to anything of this world.
I wonder if any of us feel the same type of jealousy, as felt by the eldest son, when one of God's children, one of our neighbors, returns to God and receives, from Him, a great party and blessing. God does not discriminate between us or our lost neighbors who return to Him; however, it is a fact that the joy God feels when one of His lost sheep returns to Him is unlike anything in this world in terms of magnitude.
God is waiting for the prodigal son, the lost sheep, to return to Him even to this day. And when that lost soul, the lost sheep, returns to Him after a long journey astray, he will throw a big party, a welcoming party, for His returning son. Those of us, who have led straight path of life through God, must never complain of God's welcome to the lost souls, and have big enough heart to accept and accompany God in his celebration with the happiest and joyest of hearts. Amen.