The story begins with the account of the younger brother who expressed to his father his desire to gain his freedom from family duties to pursue life in the wild (vv. 11-12). The dissatisfaction of the second son can be documented even today. Tensions can arise at the time of a second child’s birth. An older child, the center of attention in the family until the baby intruded, now has to compete with the baby. As the years pass, the two increasingly find themselves at odds with each other. Visitors in the home still shower attention on the younger while the older can only observe, and seethe.
The younger brother, for his part, saw no future for himself. At the death of his father, control of the family estate would be passed on to the eldest son. Nevertheless, the father honored the request at great sacrifice. There were no banks or investment corporations. He undoubtedly had been a good businessman. He had bought land to care for increases in the number of animals, such as sheep, goats, donkeys and fowl. To grant the boy’s request, he had to convert the holdings into, as we would say, cash, meaning coins of the realm, jewels, gold and silver. He knew what would inevitably happen. A young man with wealth in his bundle of goods would be an easy prey for robbers as well as both women and men who prey on gullible youth with money to burn.
It was not long until the younger brother encountered a healthy dose of reality (vv. 13-16). I am reminded of a young man who grew tired of the restrictions and rules in his family and decided to launch out on his own. You will not believe this, but he joined the Marines. Not surprising to everyone but him, he soon found himself in the brig, where he was when I left that church. He learned the truth about sin the hard way, that it takes you farther than you intended to go, keeps you longer than you intended to stay, and costs you more than you intended to pay. The younger brother in the parable quickly wasted his fortune. What he had not spent on drinking parties was probably stolen from him. In the midst of a mighty famine that devastated the land and economy, he desperately sought for a job. The only opening where he found employment was with a hog farmer.
Imagine a Jewish boy with pork on the forbidden foods list who was assigned to feeding swine. In desperation he was able to sneak some hog feed for himself (v. 16).
Realizing the insanity of the way he was living, he finally came to his senses (vv. 17-19). He compared his present condition with what he had left behind, and decided to go home. He memorized his speech, admitting he had sinned against heaven (God), as well as his father. He was asking only for a job with the servants, not for reinstating the position as his father’s son.
Beyond anything he could have hoped for, his reception by his father was embarrassingly joyful (vv. 20-24). The old man had been watching the roads to the farm. He probably had questioned caravans from Mesopotamia as well as Phoenician sailors, describing his son to all who would listen. He concluded the boy was dead. On one occasion he saw a familiar figure walking down the road. His son was alive! He put on a celebration worthy of a returning hero. Well, almost.
The story concludes with a reference to the elder brother, embittered (vv. 25-32). He was incapable of accepting the value of repentance or the glory of a father’s love. He was a Pharisee in his self-righteousness, incapable of understanding the weaknesses of others. Such people have no vision of what can be achieved in the home or church. At best, they can only be tolerated.
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