“The Parable of the Lost Sons, Part 2 of 3: The Agony of Rejected Love”
by Rev. James Rausch
As promised, we return to Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Two Lost Sons, in order to learn some of the Middle Eastern customs and perceptions that will help us understand more clearly what Jesus intended to convey in this familiar tale. Rev. Dr. Ken Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for over 40 years, identified a pattern of theology in the messages of Jesus. That pattern is reflected in the graphic in your bulletin. God reaches out in a costly demonstration of unexpected love to sinners who break the law and sinners who keep the law. Those who turn to God to accept God’s gesture have thus repented revealing Jesus’ new definition of repentance. God grants them the state of being righteous, or in right relationship with God. They then respond with gratitude to God.
The story begins with a such a shock to the ancient Middle Eastern mind, that it is totally unique in all of recorded literature up to that time period. It is such a bizarre bombshell situation that it is not found anywhere else. The youngest son requests his inheritance from his father while the father is still alive. This “bomb” that goes off at the beginning of the story is so horrifying, that nobody had ever told a story like this except Jesus of Nazareth. Rev. Dr. Ken Bailey searched for real life examples of this happening in the centuries since, and only found two instances. Why is this so rare and shocking? Well, anywhere in the world, but even more so in the Middle East, to ask such a question is tantamount to saying, “Dad, why don’t you drop dead?”
In one of the real-life instances, the son of a Syrian farmer requested his share of the farm, and his father, according to long-standing cultural customs for egregious insults, struck the son with the back of his hand, and drove him out of the house. In that case it took five years for the brothers to reconcile the father and his estranged son.
The other case Dr. Bailey found was with a Jewish Christian in Teheran, a medical doctor. One night his wife called their pastor, who was a student of Dr. Bailey’s at the time. She was frantically asking the pastor to hurry over because, “Our son wants his father to die.” The pastor rushed over – What happened? Has there been a big fight? Did he pull a gun on you? No. He asked is father for his inheritance. The pastor tried to talk to the father saying, “Look, it’s a different age. These young people don’t think the way we do. I’m sure he doesn’t mean it that way. You mustn’t be so upset. But the father was adamant: “My son wants me to die.” Three months later the man, in previously good health, died of a heart attack. His wife said that he died the night the boy came in and asked for his inheritance.
So, Jesus’ hearers would have found the beginning of this story a shock to their senses. With this enormously explosive bomb, Jesus suggests that humanity, in its sinful state, wants God to be dead, to be non-existent, to have no authority over us. This is deep within the nature of our sin. We want no power or authority over us. My own observations of what the Bible teaches are consistent with this understanding from the very beginning. I believe the brilliant story of Adam and Eve in the Garden tells the story of all of us. God presents them with life and everything they need to live that life abundantly in relationship with God, each other, and all of creation if they will only follow God’s relatively simple plan for them.
Their response is similar to the one we all make in some form or another when we consider living according to God’s plan. “Your way sounds great, and everything, God, but you know we have thought about and have decided we’re going to do things our way instead.”
So back to the parable… In the minds of the hearers, after this shocking request by the son, the story is supposed to explode. The father is supposed to act according to custom, responding to the insult with appropriate outrage and actions that are the father’s right to bring about to his despicable son. He’s supposed to insult his son and drive him out of the house. And, of course, there is no way in which he is going to grant the son’s request. All this would be expected by the hearers of this story according to their well-established customs.
If there is any hope for reconciliation, in their minds, it would fall to the elder son to begin the work of shuttle diplomacy between the father and his younger brother. The elder son is the one who can try to make peace. He’s supposed to go to his father and say, “Look, Dad, the kid’s young and dumb, he’s barely out of diapers, he doesn’t realize what he’s implying, I’m sure he doesn’t mean it.” And then he goes to his brother and says, “No way! We’re never going to accept this. Now you’ve got to apologize to your father.” If the efforts to make peace are successful, there’s a big party. The two embrace one another publicly, and it’s all over. This is what’s supposed to happen in the expectations of the hearers of this story. It doesn’t.
From the very beginning of the story, the hearers who are clued in to what would be expected in such a situation know what all three of the characters are like. You are now clued in, too. So, we know what the younger son is like by the awful thing he asks for. We know what the older son is like by what he does not do. He refuses to be the reconciler. And we know what the father is like by what he grants.
Now, according to first century Jewish law, a father, if he wasn’t under pressure, – if he’s under pressure, it doesn’t count, but if not, he can make an oral will. He can say, “Okay, boys, when I’m gone, you get this, and you get this.” And according to Jewish law, the older son got 2/3, the younger son got 1/3. I’d explain more about this today, but, you know, my wife is timing my sermon… But, if the father made such an oral will, the sons can’t take possession until he’s gone, and thereby they can’t sell any of the property if that’s what they were planning to do. The father still has authority over the estate, and he retains the right of the profits. So, if it’s a farm, the produce is all his, which he can use and spend and give away as he likes. If, at the end of the year there are profits which he has not spent, they become a part of the capital, and he cannot spend them. This is part of the background context of the story which every listener at that time would have understood. This understanding becomes critical at the end.
So, this young son presses not only that there might be a division, that he might be given his share, but he presses for the right to sell, which is the second unheard-of, horrifying request. As William Temple, the former arch-bishop of Canterbury has said, “God grants freedom to humanity, even to reject the love of God, and there is no pain more intense than the agony of rejected love, in which the lover reaches out in love, and in that rejection, there is the deepest suffering of the human spirit.”
The deepest pain of the cross was not the six hours of physical torture. Many, many people in history’s various torture chambers experienced physical pain far longer and more excruciating than the pain of the cross. The real pain of the cross, not discounting its physical side, was the agony of rejected love. This love comes from the father from the beginning of the story, and, by the way, will also be the path by which the son must return. Without that pre-existing path of love, there is no possibility of his even considering returning.
The father, if he chooses, can have a mock funeral, which sometimes people do in the Middle East, bury an empty box, and say to himself, “I no longer have a son.” If he does this, there is no way in which the boy can return.
So, the father, surprisingly in the minds of the hearers, grants the son’s request, and he divides the inheritance between them. The older son gets his share assigned to him, and presumably it is the rest of the estate. Now, he should have spoken up and said, “No, dad, may you live a hundred years! I don’t want it now.” But he doesn’t, therefore we know a great deal about him from the beginning of the story.
Then we’re told that “after not many days” the younger son – as the older translation says, “gathered together what he had.” We now know that this particular Greek verb was a word that bankers used which means “realized” or “turned into cash.” He’s not given his inheritance in stock and bonds and so many such things in a safety deposit box. It’s not a sack of coins. He is given the title deeds to property. This he has to sell, to “realize” it. He can’t take it with him unless he sells it. So, we’re told he does this in a hurry? Why such a hurry?
Well, in the Middle East the sale of property is typically a very long and drawn-out affair. You spend months and sometimes years over the disposal of property. This fellow does it in a hurry. Why? Because the village is mad at him. Okay, someone will buy. That’s true. But as a community, they are very unhappy with him. And every home he goes to and says, “I’ve got the South forty for sale,” throws in his face a response like this: “What? You’re going to sell the orchard that your great-grandfather planted? What’s the matter with you, kid? Don’t you know that you’re selling your own soul? What has happened to you? What is your father going to do? This is his old-age pension!” And on the conversation will go.
So, he has to make the sale and get out of there in a hurry because the heat is intensifying day by day. He’s got to settle quickly at any price and get out, which he does. And he leaves for the far country, where we’re told that he wastes his money in “expensive” living. The words in Greek have no hint of immorality. Popular culture has tried to tell us that he spent that money in an immoral fashion. His brother, at the end of the story, has some ideas about this, but the text itself does not say he spent his money immorally. It merely says he wasted his money in expensive living. It’s important for us to note that.
Okay. Sooner or later the money is all gone. So, now what is he going to do? Well, the obvious thing is, he should pack up and go home. But, you see, now he’s embarrassed and he’s afraid. What is he afraid of? The first thing is that he is ashamed before his father because he has squandered what his father has given him. Secondly, he is afraid of his brother because, if he goes home, he will be eating off the rest of the estate, which has now been legally signed over as the property of his brother. That which he eats is the part which his father has the right to distribute, which if he did not distribute, would be added to the capital at the end of the year and thereby become part of his brother’s portion. So, his brother would have some very choice remarks to make to him at practically every meal.
We know from the story itself that they were not in good relationship at the beginning. Had they been in good relationship, his brother would have accepted the role of reconciler. Alright, but that’s not his worst problem. The biggest problem is that the village is probably going to enact a traditional Middle Eastern ceremony against him.
We know from the Jewish Talmud that in first century Palestine, the Jews had a very specific ceremony called the Kezazah. It translates to “The Punishment Ceremony.” If you, as a Jew living in a Jewish village lost family property to the Gentiles, and if you dared show your face back in your home village, they would take a large earthenware pot filled with things like burned nuts and corn, and they would smash it in front of you while crying out, “So-and-so is cut off from his people.”
Now, we know he’s amongst the gentiles because people are keeping pigs, which Jews did not do. In the minds of Jesus’ hearers, he had likely gone to some Greek village. So, he has clearly done one of the things that will cause the Kezazah ceremony to be enacted if he comes back. This is kind of like the Amish-Dutch “shun,” of Pennsylvania. If you know that community, you know that they have a way of keeping people in line. If you break the rules of the community, then they invoke the shun, which means no one will talk to you, give you a drink, feed you, hire you, sell to you or buy from you… And, as an Amishman, if you have land, it’s kind of like solitary confinement out in the open, but at least you will be able to eat from your own fields.
This kid is coming home with nothing, and if they enact this ceremony, he’s not even going to eat! Curiously, this idea of the breaking of an earthenware pot still exists in the Middle East on two levels. One is if you would like to be rid of some neighbor that you just think is awful – after he leaves to go somewhere, you break a pot, by which you mean, “I hope he never comes back.” Or, in the hospitals, up in the mountains of Lebanon, the peasants, who still preserve the customs of the ancient Middle East, when they go to leave the hospital, the last thing they do is to throw an earthenware pot out of the window, and it goes crashing down onto the sidewalk below. Ken has had the experience of having such pots explode near him. What they are saying is, “I hope I never get sick again, and I hope I never have to come back to the hospital again.” The breaking of a pot signifies a total, final separation.
The people will probably, he thinks, enact this Kezazah ceremony if I go back to my village. Put it this way: Do you imagine yourself going back to the 25th anniversary of your graduating class if you’re on welfare? You know, if you can show up in nice clothes with a good-looking spouse with a decent car sitting outside, and you can talk about how things are going well, you’re glad to go. But if you can only dress in a way that would be seen as shabby, and you had to walk or take the bus, and you’re on welfare and you don’t have a job, you don’t bother to go.
Ken’s Lebanese friends told him that nobody goes back to his village having emigrated to somewhere else in the world unless he “makes it.” You want to be able to talk about your success, and how you’ve built yourself a nice little stone villa for your retirement in the mountains, to show off how successful you are. If you emigrated to Brazil and you didn’t make it, then you’d better stay and beg in Brazil. It’s too humiliating to go back and beg in your own village.
But this fellow has not only gone off into the big, wide world to make his fame and fortune and failed, he has offended the village, he has broken relationships with his family, and he has broken his father’s heart before he left. And now he’s going to go back? Now, keep this in mind, the issue is not the broken law – he hasn’t broken any laws – the issue is the broken relationship! He has broken his father’s heart on a very deep level, because he wanted his father to die.
Okay, so this kid is in the far country and is ready to go and feed pigs because he can’t face returning to the village. But finally, he sees the pigs eating these pods and he says to himself, “Boy, I wish I could eat that stuff,” but he can’t because his stomach won’t take it. So finally, he decides he has to find a way to go home.
So, he prepares a wonderful speech. He says, “I’ll go back to my father, and I’ll say, ‘I have sinned.’” Okay, there’s his confession. And then he will say, “Fashion out of me a craftsman.” Now we’ve translated this as saying, “Make me into a hired servant.” The word for “Hired Servant,” “Misthos,” is different from the ordinary word for a servant, which is “doulos,” or the word for a house servant, which is “diakonos.” Instead, he uses a very special word which Jewish scholarship has identified as meaning, “skilled craftsman.” And when he says, “Make me,” he’s using the same word as the word used in the Bible to say, “God made the world.” Fashion out of me a craftsman.
What’s the point? The point is: I’m still young and strong – Okay, I blew it, but don’t worry, dad. You have me trained to be a good carpenter, and I will save my wages and pay you back little by little, and one of these years I am going to have all of that money paid back, and everything’s going to be square… he thinks.
But you and I know what Jesus knows even though the young son as well as the Pharisees who are listening don’t: that the issue is not the money! The issue is, “Dad, why don’t you drop dead!” Now how much is he going to pay dad to make up for the broken relationship? If it’s a matter of a broken law, he can pay money, but it isn’t. It’s a broken relationship. Now how is this going to be restored? Today, I insult Ethel in public, and tomorrow I say, “Ethel, how much shall I make out the check for to make up for the insult?” And the offer of a check now becomes a deeper insult. You are now rubbing salt into the wounds.
We have broken our relationship with God, and if we care, we keep on coming back asking, “How many brownie points do I have to earn? How many laws do I have to keep? How many services do I have to attend in order to make the account square?” And our very attempt to do this adds greater fuel to the insult! The young son doesn’t understand this yet. In the far country, he’s thinking like a Jew and the popular understanding of repentance. He’s thinking, “I know what is required. I’ve got to confess, and I have to show how I’m going to make up for my sins,(and, of course, as a craftsman, he is an outsider. He will live outside of the village and not at home. And he doesn’t think he’s going to go home until the record is square.) At this point in the story, the Pharisees who are listening begin to applaud! And they start to think to themselves, “Aha! This young rabbi, Jesus, who we thought didn’t understand correct theology, apparently does.”
Jesus did not say at that point in the story, “Now, look fellas, you can’t be too hard on these sinners. They’ve had it rough in life. Don’t you think we can be sympathetic? No. He’s saying, “You think sinners are bad. I think they’re so bad, that they’re like a man who betrays his family, loses his family’s property to the Gentiles, and ends up feeding pigs! That’s what I think!” Now what does he have to do? Well, he’s got to go through the Jewish repentance, says the story, this far. So, at this point in the story we find the Pharisaic audience on a very deep level and saying, “Hey! That’s right! This young carpenter has really got the whole thing all together, and he understands our theology very precisely. And that’s exactly our complaint! The people who he’s welcoming and eating with aren’t doing this!”
“Okay, apparently, he understands. Now let’s see how the story is going to come out. Well, now put yourself into the mind of this young kid who is now starting for home, and he’s steeling his nerves for his entry into that village. The big houses of any Middle Eastern village are in the center for protection reasons. The villages of the ancient Middle Easy usually had walls around them and doors, or gates. Nobody, except very wealthy Greco-Roman landowners, lived on their farm. The Middle Easterners lived in villages up until the 19th century. He knows, the minute he hits the village gate, that the people are going to yell at him and tear his clothes, and they’re going to slap him and insult him: “You who went out of here on your big white horse with your fancy ideas, you who sold the orchard of your great-grandfather, you, Mr. Big, who thought you were going to make it while you left your father to starve in his old age, take this you scoundrel!”
He hopes that when he gets to the gate that he can endure for a time while the crowd sort of softens him up a bit until his father finally appears at which time there will be this ghastly scene in which he will say, “I am unworthy to be your son and I know I can’t come home, but I’ll work as a craftsman to pay you back if you’ll just get me trained.” And maybe, years from now, he might just be able to pay his way back.
But, you see, his dad knows that if the son ever does return, which he never stops longing for, that he’s not going to make it. His dad knows that the village will enact the Kezazah ceremony if they get to him first. So, day after day, the father watches that road for his son, because he would have to intervene before the kid reaches the village gate. Now what does the father do? The minute he sees him “at yet a great distance,” he runs down that village road. Did you ever try to run in a choir robe? The people of the ancient Middle East, and much of the Middle East today, wear long robes. You can’t run long robes until you pull them up. And when you do so in the Middle East, your underwear shows. And the Jews said no man could lift his robes because his legs and underwear would show, and this is considered humiliating. There was even a debate amongst them as to whether or not you dared lift your robe even if there were thorns beside the path. Some of them said, “Well, if your robe is going to get caught in the thorns, then okay, lift them just enough to prevent that but no more.”
Now this man, the father, who would have walked his whole life at the stately pace of a gentleman, (because as Ben Sirach said in 195 B.C., “A gentleman is known by his walk,” and those robes kind of flow along behind you and make a magnificent impression. Now, this man is running down the road with his robe raised in his hands, and all the people in the street mock him saying, “Look at the funny old fool out in the street with his underwear showing.”
And now the son, having steeled his nerves in preparation for the confrontation with his father, sees his father “running the gauntlet” through jeers and humiliation for him. He sees, as do the villagers, the father coming to him in self-emptying love. A very costly demonstration of unexpected love. And when he sees that, he is broken and destroyed, and as they embrace all he can manage to say of his prepared speech is, “I am unworthy to be called your son.” And he is restored by his father’s act of grace even before he can give his repentance speech.
And so, in its clearest fashion, we see the incarnation: the father who comes in humility and becomes a servant, in which we can see overtones of the cross. And in its clearest form we can see the costly demonstration of totally unexpected love which melts the socks off of this kid! He now is shown that the issue is not the money. I can work for this man for a million years and not make up for the pain of his broken heart. If relationship is going to be restored, he’s going to have to do it, and he has offered. Now all I can do is accept. And that’s what he does. And that’s what we do. Amen.