Saturday 22 March 2008

The Prodigal Son - An Analysis

The Prodigal Son - An Analysis

The story of the prodigal son is one that strikes a cord with almost everyone who hears it. In a very primal way we can all relate to the story from different points in our lives - being the parent, and one or the other of the two sons. There have been times in my life when I have been the son who squandered it all, at others the father giving to the one who squandered, and the son who stayed at home and did what was to be done, resenting the prodigal's glorious return party.

So from this point I must state that I easily and quickly relate to all three of the main characters in the story, but also to the fourth character - the audience that hears the story for the first time. In my opinion they are the ones whose minds we must really get into. For if we can understand their reactions, we will understand the characters

First, I will look at the aspects of the story that apply to each of the four characters, and then how I relate to each of them. Next, I will attempt to see how each of the characters would have related to the story, and thus hear it through their ears. Finally, I will look at the jokes, puns, put downs and humor in the parable.

However, I would like to look at the story itself first. It is fairly commonly known that in rabbinical schools, instructors would teach in story form. Therefore it is not surprising that Jesus used this format. What is surprising is that he put such deliberate insults and cutting remarks into the story. In Jewish society, the son would have been considered dead after taking his inheritance, and to take the son back would have been an insult done by the father, to the father, as perceived by society. The most obvious cutting remarks made were about the son having worked with pigs, the most unclean animal to the Jewish people. So the question becomes, why did Jesus include such unusual acts in this story?

Jesus uses these unique features in order to stretch and pull the minds of the
listeners then and the readers now. He is checking to see if we grasp the twists and turns within the message. Do we catch on to the fact that the grace given, His grace doesn't make sense? That God is sneaky and mischievous in using what ever it takes to draw us back to Himself?

In considering most of my life, I relate best to the prodigal, who took was coming to him, took it out of turn, then proceeded to run away and squander it. When I entered Queen's university ten years ago, I wanted God's blessing but was unwilling to yield to him all area's of my life. Especially were the areas of my finances, relationships, sexuality, and vocation. I was just unwilling to trust God, and tried to work my own plans. So I took the money God provided and tried to do what I wanted with my life. I took the loot and wasted it, much like the prodigal on wine, women and song. At Queen's I spent more time concerned with being with friends and having a good time, than using the gifts and talents God has given to me. I ended up with a Dean's vacation (at the school's insistence, a year off to consider if I want to be at school). I then found myself getting ready to live on the streets of Ottawa-there was no more money, no work, and no friends left. That was when I finally turned back to God and said "ok I yield, do it your way. What do you want me to do?" Much like the prodigal I
realized my sins were against God and Heaven, as well as against all of those who have tried to help me and been rejected by me. I too found myself coming back begging to be a servant.

And like the Father in this story, my God in heaven welcomed me back, and through me a party. The father in this story is the character I relate to the least. Here he is showing unconditional love to someone who according to Jewish religious customs should be dead to him - the Father should not have even acknowledged him. Yet the father runs out to him, and in a shameful way, welcomes him back - he goes to great length's to show his love and acceptance of his son. He kills the fatted calf, gives him the best robe, a ring, and sandals. This father does not care about convention, customs, or even pride. He throws every thing out the window to embrace the son whom he loves and had thought was dead or thought he would never see again.

Much like this father, I too have been in places of having to do what does not make sense in order to show love. I have a friend who has Multiple Personality Disorder; for whom I have been on support team for a few years now. Time and again, we have watched her throw away her progress and success so that she might gain short-term release through alcohol, sex or drugs. Each time she came back asking for help, and each time we have been there for her; accepting her, loving her, and doing what ever it takes to help her. At one point her body was not getting any rest; the personalities that were children would come out and keep the body up playing all night. In order to help her, I started going to her place each night and reading the Narnia Chronicles to her until the children fell a sleep, then would let myself out. It took time and effort, and doesn't make sense to a lot of people. But it was what needed to be done to help her.

So like the father I was willing to sacrifice my honour and my care for what other's opinions were, to help someone close and dear to me. Now however we must look at the hardest position: that of the elder son. I believe it is the hardest, because we don't want to see ourselves there. We don't want to see when we have been unforgiving, resentful, unyielding or even down right judgmental.

It is very easy for us to think harshly of the older son. To see his anger and think that it is wrong and should not be there. However, we need to realize that for years he had done all that his father had asked. He was not wrong in his reactions; he could just not understand his father's joy over a little brother who has just wasted his father's money and possessions. I too find myself sitting in judgment of others, of those who have been blessed and do not seem to be using their blessing, and also those who seem to forgive too easily. I know that I need to learn to be more like the father and less like the older son. I need to learn how to extend grace and mercy unto others as I would like to receive it from God and others myself.

Yet we have to take into consideration that this older son did the right and good, and was feeling very under appreciated. How many times have we grumbled against the blessings of others? A good example is the case of Jeffery Dalhmer. Prior to his execution he became a Christian, and was involved with an extensive bible study and discipleship by the prison's chaplain. Yet I have heard Christians say "if he is gonna be in heaven I don't want to be there", or they say it was all a show and don't believe that he really became a Christian. It is true, we can never know for certain if someone else is a Christian or whether they are acting, but we do need to give the benefit of the doubt.

This reminds me of a story a pastor told once. A pastor goes into an elder's meeting and says that he knows for certain that someone in the congregation has been committing adultery. He asks the elders what should be done about it, and 11 of the twelve say the man should be put out of the church. The oldest of the elders is sitting there quietly, with tears streaming down his face. The pastor asks him why he is crying, and he responds, "there but by God's grace goes I." That is the man the pastor takes with him to confront the adulterer. The pastor found out which of the elders would be willing to extend grace, and which of them would condemn.

That is how we need to respond to those who have fallen away: with grace and mercy, not just the minimum amount of it. The father in this story could have taken the younger son back as a servant as the son wanted, but he restored him as a son, going as far as he could in extending mercy and love to his son.

In looking at the audience, I am not sure how they would have responded to this message. Some would have assumed it was ramblings and not worth their time. Others who knew their sinfulness would have yearned for a response such as the father gave the son. Yet others still would have felt as if their whole life had been like they had been playing the merciful father, and would do so again and again and again, till the son's and daughters stopped coming home.

The Parable of the Lost Student!
(The assignment to write a modern parable.)

There once was a young man, who had good marks, and good looks and was on his way to success. He knew God had placed a call upon his life, but he tried to go his own way, studying sciences rather than religion. He went off to school, doing "okay" in his first year, but falling heavily into debt. His second year he drank heavily, fell further into debt, with his marks falling again. In his third year he was asked to take time off and see if he really wanted to be at university. He then found that he could not find work, or keep it. So he returned to church and to God and decided to follow him.

And for seven terms in a row God has provided the money for the schooling, and God has blessed him with good marks and continually provided jobs and housing term by term. And now this young man is trying to follow in God's ways.

(First Written for RS206 Jesus Life and Legacy Spring 2000.)
Last Year I reviewed a great book about the Prodigal Son by George Chevrot.

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