Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:
11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
What I am learning:
Many people hold this as one of their favorite texts. We love the grace and compassion of the father, the return of the lost son, and we can all resonate with feeling like the older son once in a while. (One great way to read the Bible is to imagine yourself as each of the characters. How would you feel? What would it be like to be that character?)
If anything, however, Western modernist Christians underestimate the power of this story because we don't understand what is at stake for the father and the eldest son (and eve more so for Jesus) in a first century, Palestinian context.
The Pharisees and the scribes complain to Jesus that he "welcomes sinners and eats with them." From the perspective of the Pharisees and scribes anyone was a sinner who could not afford to pay the temple tax and/or who could not obey all 613 Jewish laws. Most people could not obey all these laws simply because they were poor — they could not afford to observe all the offerings. The term "sinner" did apply to those with significant moral failings but it also applied to someone who could not fulfill all the ritual expectations of the Jewish law. But the Pharisees and scribes considered them sinners anyway. And sinners, by definition, had very low social standing - a very low honor rating or status.
Every male in the first century was engaged in an attempt to protect the honor or status of their family, and even to increase it a little over their lifetimes, according to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh,. If you welcomed or ate with people of lower status than you, you would be lowering your own status. If you welcomed or ate with people of higher status, you would be increasing your own status. Remember that one's status was more important for your every day life than a credit rating is for us.
The so the Pharisees were calling Jesus out by challenging him on welcoming and eating with low-status people saying this meant that he was of low-status too and thus should be ignored.
Jesus does not try to argue about whether or not the people he is eating with are "sinners."
Jesus tries to break down the whole system of honor.
Jesus is a cultural revolutionary.
The younger son has shamed his father and indeed the whole village by asking for his inheritance. He is saying that he wishes his father were dead. He goes off to to live life in a another land until he runs out of money. He ends up feeding pigs - the ultimate shame for a Jewish person. He runs back home, repenting to his father and hoping to be brought on as a servant.
But the father runs out to meet him. Why?
Some have suggested that people in the village, angry at the shame the son has brought to the father and the village, would have stoned him at first sight. This would have restored the family and the village to some of their lost honor. But the father runs out to greet him, puts a robe on him, and the ring of an honored son on his finger.
In doing so the father has forever shamed himself and brought shame on the whole village. Nobody would want to eat a meal with him or his offspring again. The eldest son has a right to be angry. Not just because of the emotional interrelationship issues, or because of birth order issues, but because the honor rating of this family has been eternally damaged. They would never again be able to walk with their heads held high in the village again.
In the story, the father's compassion for his son is infinitely more important than his own honor rating.
I think Jesus' intent here, and in the two stories (lost coin and lost sheep), is to portray God as not giving one hoot about the honor system. And if God, who deserves all honor and glory, who was imagined by everyone in the first century to be the source of the honor system gives up all of God's honor out of compassion then the honor system is finished, it is done, ended, kaput.
No wonder they wanted him dead. He challenged their whole social system. He exposed their competitive righteousness as being a reflection, not of God's compassion, but of the dog-eat-dog domination culture of empire.
Of course we still have our expectations of each other. Our culture puts enormous social pressure on us to live up to these expectations. We still live, with different rules of course, in a domination culture, in an empire. We often find ourselves judging others, and more so ourselves as falling short in the competitive battle for righteousness.
Jesus is inviting us to recognize the social forces of empire that work on us and to experience the freedom of God's love for all people — including ourselves.
Jesus is inviting us to drop our competition for social standing and live into the love of God for everyone even when it makes us look bad.