Jesus used many story telling techniques in his parables. His repertoire included some time-tested devices: a restricted number of characters, exaggerated behavior, and a surprising ending. But he added one of his own: bait and switch.
A parable is a wonderful way to examine salvation by redemption. Salvation is liberation from captivity and redemption is a personal pledge to ransom a kidnapped person or a hostage. Ancient peoples would have understood this without much difficulty. What would have been incomprehensible is that the LORD, an all-powerful deity, would have become human and sacrificed himself to redeem human beings from their own sin. The parable we read today, usually called the prodigal son, is an attempt to show us why God would do such a thing even if we can never completely understand it.
The parable emphasizes God’s love for us with outrageous imagery.
The Father is shown as a great landowner possessing position and wealth. As Luke’s audience was composed of many prosperous people, they would have identified with him. Despite his father’s dignity his youngest son insults him by asking for his inheritance before his natural death. This would have been one third of his wealth and at least implied that he would have preferred him dead.
Not only was the father’s livelihood diminished but also his standing in the community. Perhaps nothing would be said but all would know. Yet his humiliation was just beginning.
When his son returns, the father does not wait for him to come before him. He runs to meet him. Patriarchs did not act in this manner; it was unseemly and far beneath their dignity. He also embraced and kissed him which prevented the youngest son from performing an act of submission, most likely, kissing his feet. It is also unlikely that he saw his son returning from afar by accident but that he often waited and watched for him.
Rather than simply bringing him inside the house as quietly as possible, he called for a celebration, dressed him well and, in an important gesture, put a ring on his finger. Rings on men were not primarily decorative but were signet rings. If someone had your ring they could “sign” and obligate you in a contract. He then had a particularly juicy animal slaughtered and called his community together.
We are meant to feel a bit embarrassed for him, but it gets worse. His older son, hearing what had occurred, sulked outside, and forced his father once again to go a son this time to plead with him to come inside. His eldest then tells him that he had served him out of obedience not love and was now jealous that he was not properly recompensed. A telling remark is that he refers not to “my brother” but to “this son of yours” and accuses him of spending his fortune on prostitutes a detail from his imagination and not the story.
This parable might be better named the prodigal father after the original meaning of prodigal: one who is profligate with his goods. The father is excessively generous with his love for people who do not deserve it. This is the kind of love God has for us whether we resemble the older or younger son.
We have heard this so often that we make take for granted that God loves us and will save us. Those who first heard Jesus and read Luke would have had the more proper reaction of shock: the creator of the universe loved me so much he became one of us and died an agonizing and humiliating death for me. We need to experience this before we can have even an inkling of the meaning of the parable.
A parable changes our view of life and not all in the same way. Their brilliance is that there are many interpretations, and few are wrong. As I read this this year, I have the sinking suspicion that Jesus is telling me that the father in the story may have started out as God the Father but ends as me. It is comforting to know that God loves me with a wild and total love, it is terrifying to discover that he wants me to love others in the same way. Wild abandon to the point of humiliation does not attract me. Thus, bait and switch.
Yet look at the New Testament. The woman in Bethany who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume faced great criticism for it. Jairus the synagogue leader who asked Jesus to cure his sick daughter lost his prestige and position. Daughters were not as socially esteemed as sons and Jairus’ motivation is pure love, itself often a cause of embarrassment. And as always in Luke, we look to Mary the mother of Jesus. She gave a complete yes to the angel on little or no evidence and knew that her reputation would be at least compromised. Having experienced the unreasonable love of God they all knew that a cool, calculating even reasonable response would be ridiculous. These decisions may seem foolish, but the Bible assures us that they did not regret them.
The father says that his son was dead but is now alive. The love of God is so powerful that it can raise the dead, how can we not rejoice? An ounce of joy is worth more than a pound of humiliation. How can we not celebrate? The father does not repair to his room and thank God in private but holds a banquet. This is what we humans give each other here and now and what God, ever the unrestrained lover, has planned for us forever. We celebrate this at Mass the banquet that links past, present and future, time and eternity, the old and new Jerusalems and to which our opening antiphon invites us to rejoice.
Jesus tells us that the proof we have experienced the extravagant prodigal love of the father is to squander our love on those who may not even know they are being loved.