By Sydney Gautier
As with anything in life, context is very important when we read stories in the Bible. We’ve all had those moments when we catch just one sentence in someone’s conversation or hop in at the end of a conversation and only hear something like “and then the cops pulled up.” Well, if you don’t know the context of this statement you have no idea if this person is getting arrested, if someone was hurt, or if they are on the run from authority. Understanding the context of this story is essential. In this story of the prodigal son, the context is just as important.
Jesus’s audiences when he was telling this story were middle eastern peasants and religious leaders around A.D. 30. In this culture, when the younger brother asks for his inheritance from his father while he was still alive, it was basically like he was saying, “Dad, why don’t you just drop dead and give me what’s mine?” For this culture, the response that the dad gave normally would have been to slap the kid for such a request. Instead, he accepts that his son rejected his love. He gave him his inheritance, so the younger son takes the money and leaves. The boy goes out into the far country, loses all his money, and ends up feeding pigs to survive. Eventually, the boy saw his money issue as the true problem. He decides to go back to his father and work to pay off the debt that he owed. However, the father knew that the true problem wasn’t the money. It was the broken relationship. When the young son returns the Bible tells us that the father runs to him and embraces him to show his love and acceptance, regardless of what he had done. Here the boy also sees that the broken relationship was the problem, and there was nothing he could do to fix it, but he accepts the love and grace of his father and returns with no problems.
With the return of his youngest son, the father throws him a party. However, his older brother has no idea that his younger sibling has returned yet. He had probably written him off as a lost cause. As he approached the house, someone told him that his brother had returned and his father had killed the fattened calf to celebrate his return. In this culture, everything in the house was legally the property of the older brother even though the father remains the head of the house. Everything that was left was pledged to his son, so when the father threw this party for the younger brother, he was using the older brother’s inheritance to do so. Also, in this culture, the father would have been sitting with the guests and the older son would often stand and serve the meal as a sort of “head waiter.” He would engage in conversation with the guests, and he would even have to serve his younger brother. Jesus says that “...he was angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28). He didn’t want to lower himself to such a point as to serve his younger brother. By refusing to enter into the party, the older brother brought shame upon his family just as the younger brother had, and once again we see the father paying the price of reconciliation with one of his sons. Instead of getting angry like society expected him to, the father “...came out and entreated him...” (Luke 15:28). In other words, he came out and tried to reconcile with his son so he could see things from his father’s perspective.
The older son was still angry though. He was full of bitterness, hate, pride, and self-deception. He felt justified in his actions towards his father and brother., yet the father reassures his older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32).
This is where the story ends. We don’t know what happens after that, but in leaving it here, Jesus invited all those hearing the story to come heed the words of the Father.
God was represented by the father in this story, seeking reconciliation with his people. He loves those who have been careless with their lives and have lost everything that has been given to them, as well as those full of pride, bitterness, and hate. We see that the love of God is unfathomable. We see in Christ an example to follow. As Barry said, Jesus, the truly perfect Son of God did not look at us in our sin and failures and pride. Instead, we see the humility of Christ. We are hopeless outside of Christ, and in his love, mercy, and compassion, the Father sent the Son to bear our burdens and take our shame, to make possible reconciliation with the Father. This shows that Gospel is the foundation of our humility. We are to humble ourselves and serve others the way Jesus has. Through faith in Christ, the Spirit lives in us, and gives us what we need to lovingly serve those around us, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. . .” (Galatians 5:22-23). And in Mark 10:45 Jesus tells us that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. Thus we are to follow this example and humbly serve those around us.
“...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)