Jesus and Food – The Prodigal Son and the Banquet

Jesus and Food – The Prodigal Son and the Banquet

Jesus and Food – The Prodigal Son and the Banquet.

Please read Luke 15:11-31.

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near Jesus to listen to him teach. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.’ So Jesus told them these parables…” (Luke 15:1-2).

Jesus loved to tell stories. In Luke, you’ll find perhaps his most famous and best-loved story, the parable of the Prodigal Son. At first glance, it looks fairly simple and straightforward. But it is a rich story, and it packs a whallop.

There’s lots to think about with the Prodigal Son story, and there doesn’t seem to be one main point. But maybe that’s up to the hearers and readers to try to figure out. We do know that the Prodigal Son parable was definitely a firecracker told by Jesus and directed to the Pharisees in response to their religious grumbling and judging. Jesus meant for the grousing Pharisees to see themselves in the story. He wants them to take this parable personally.

A lot of research was done in commentaries to try to find out if we could see this story through the eyes of a first century Jew. How would a first century Jew have understand it after hearing Jesus tell it? Will these insights help us live inside the parable, squeezing every last drop of meaning from the story? May these thoughts spark your mind and inspire your faith in the Father, the true hero of the story.

My thoughts on the Prodigal Son story will be divided into three parts. Remember that the main character is the father. Jesus wanted to offer His view of the character of His Father, His personality and love. The first section will be thoughts on the younger brother as the prodigal son; the second part will be thoughts on the elder brother as the actual prodigal son; the third part will be the section “Going Further,” various reflections regarding the parenting of young people, thoughts that were stimulated by this parable. Impressions of the amazing father in the story are woven into all three parts. By the end, I’m hoping we will agree with Charles Dickens, who said that this parable is “the finest short story ever written.”

On the Younger Brother as the Prodigal Son.

  1. For a son to ask for his inheritance while the father is alive is an unheard of, unthinkable insult to the father. It says that money is more important than the father, and amounts to wishing for his father’s death.
  2. The typical response from a wealthy father of this time and place, if it would have happened at all, would be to beat the son and disown him, to literally kick him out of the house. This father’s response to this profound humiliation was to say yes, to respond in love, to absorb the insult and set him free to learn the hard way on his own (the son’s) terms.
  3. He divided his property between them. (v. 12). The father had impartial love to both sons right from the start, and split the inheritance between both sons. Generally, the inheritance would have been split this way: the first born would receive two-thirds, and the younger son one-third. The father would been allowed to live on the property until his death.
  4. To waste an inheritance is seen as a great sin in the eyes of a village community and extended family, as this setting surely was. Once again, it is a great humiliation and sorrow for a father to see his hard-earned money go down the drain. Also, the son now has no money to care for and support his father in his old age. In this story, what made matters even worse was that the money was wasted among the Gentiles, the distant country, which would have greatly offended the family and village. The fact he was feeding pigs, a forbidden animal in Jewish law, the lowest of the low, only added insult to injury. The father’s public humiliation should have been devastating.
  5. The prodigal didn’t really “repent,” since a weaker word was used in the story. He came to his senses, he changed his mind, which implies that the rather weak repentance was due more to his hunger and poverty and having few options left, than to his heart-felt sense of personal sin and guilt. It was a half-baked repentance, which makes his father’s merciful response even more amazing.
  6. This type of youthful sin could have resulted in, upon his return home, everything from being disowned, to public taunts in an official village gauntlet on both sides of the road back home, to serious physical abuse in the gauntlet (hitting, stoning, etc.), to possible capital punishment (stoning or clubbing in the gauntlet to the death).
  7. The father was waiting for the prodigal, and was on a continual lookout for his son’s return. After suffering through one profound rejection and humiliation after another from his renegade son, the father nonetheless kept looking for his son’s return and was continually filled with compassion for him. Pure grace.
  8. The father ran to his son.In the typical Middle Eastern village during this time, important and wealthy men never ran. They always walked, with pomp and self-importance. It was considered undignified, degrading to be seen running anywhere. They all followed the same philosophy as Aristotle: Great men never run in public. The father was willing to degrade himself publically for a rebellious, disrespectful, wasteful son.
  9. The father’s sprint was a part of his calculated plan on how to keep his son from suffering the hostility of the villagers. He wanted to protect the prodigal son from their often cruel, if not fatal gauntlet on the road home. The father still loved his son, and didn’t want to see him abused, or suffer the consequences of his decisions, even if he “deserved” it.
  10. The father threw his arms around him.This is another tangible way to protect his son from the verbal and physical abuse he was no doubt going to suffer, if not in the process of suffering already. This was not merely a tender embrace, this was a protective covering. If the gauntlet had formed, the father himself risked getting hit in the crossfire initially. But once the father embraced the son, the gauntlet would have stopped, since the father was no doubt an important man in the village. Once again, the father humiliated himself, this time coming to the aid of a renegade son who has been publically rejected and judged. This protection was supposed to have been beneath him.
  11. The father aggressively kissed his son again and again, which is a total reversal of what was supposed to happen in this time and place. Usually, a repentant son kissed his father’s feet or hands, as a sign of respect and sorrow. But the father rushed to kiss the son instead, to keep the son from being further humiliated. The father continues to pour out grace and love and acceptance, publically and unapologetically, for a son who rejected him.
  12. The son’s heart has no doubt melted at this point, and his half-baked repentance, based on misery and fear, has turned into a repentance of love in response to sheer mercy.
  13. With great joy the father starts ordering his servants around, publically giving the message that his son, far from being disowned or judged, is restored in full to the family. Love has led to joy.
  14. The best robe was no doubt the father’s own robe reserved for special occasions and feast days. This action confirms that father and son are fully reconciled, that the father is thrilled to be identified with his son, that his son is restored to the honor of full family membership. Normally, no one wears the father’s feast robe but the father. Forgiveness and restoration is complete, in public.
  15. The ring was most likely the signet ring, which contains the family seal. The signet represents the power and authority of the family name. The family rebel has become a family representative. Grace.
  16. Shoes or sandals on the feet distinguished a servant from a free man. Servants generally went barefoot. The father underscores to the son, and to the entire village, that the prodigal is family, free, not a hired servant.
  17. The fatted calf is only offered to honor a most highly respected guest or in a major event, for example a marriage ceremony or a high feast day. Most feasts had sheep or goats. The feast calf is huge, and was meant to feed an entire village of at least 100 people. The father’s feast with the fatted calf was an extraordinary and unexpected gesture of love for the son, and the father intended the banquet to be enjoyed by everyone in the surrounding area. The father’s joy and compassion was great, and all for someone close to his heart who had rejected him profoundly. There is a Middle Eastern saying about banquets: the more confusion, the more enthusiasm; the more enthusiasm, the more of a blessing. This feast was one huge, raucous party, complete with music and dancing and lots of food and very loud fellowship. So they began to celebrate. (v. 24)

On the Elder Brother as the Actual Prodigal Son.

  1. The parables of the “lost things” in Luke 15 spiral down to the final figure who is truly lost. In the first parable there is the lost sheep, 1 out of 100; then there is the lost coin, 1 out of 10; then there is the lost younger son, 1 out of 2; finally, there is the lost older son, 1 out of 1. Everything that Jesus had told with his cluster of “lost” parables seem to point to the really lost one, the self-righteous, self-absorbed, externally religious and dutiful one. The first three parables were told for the benefit of this fourth story. Jesus told these parables to the Pharisees, in response to their judging and grumbling, the story that will, if they are humbly listening, cut to their hearts like a knife, will command their attention like a big firecracker. Jesus meant for the grousing Pharisees to see themselves in the older brother. They are to take this part of the story personally.
  2. The older brother was a lousy excuse for an elder son. The role of the older brother in a family was to serve as a reconciler when disputes arose between parent and children, and to be the moral support for the father. This guy, though, was silent throughout the early scenes; he didn’t try to reconcile the younger brother with the father; he didn’t try to show the brother his foolishness and disrespect. Not only did he allow this terrible humiliation to continue without any attempt to help his father, but the elder actually accepted his portion of the inheritance as well. As the elder son, he inherited twice that of his younger brother. Before we even know much else about him, this guy is already a silent loser, a quiet embarrassment to the family and the village, without a doubt.
  3. The final lost person is outside the banquet, isolated from the celebration, cut off from the joyfulness of the father. He has probably never done anything overtly evil, just doing his duty, and all the while committing sins of omission, and harboring his prideful rebellion in more subtle and respectable ways.
  4. The role of the eldest son at an important function was to serve as the official host. To not do so was a major insult to the father.
  5. Once again, the father does the unexpected. Absorbing another public insult, he actually leaves the feast to search for the older son. Instead of a serious punishment, the father exhibits mercy and active forgiveness to another rebel son, though a more inward one.
  6. The eldest does not respectfully address the father in the formal way expected. He does not show the attitude of a proper son in another important way: He says, I have slaved for you all these years… He is talking like a slave over a wage dispute, not like a son of a loving father. The eldest has clearly not been taking advantage of the relationship offered to him by his father all these years. The sonship has been based, in his mind, on merely keeping the rules and doing his duties, like a slave. His obedience was essentially self-centered. So, the eldest son ended up being just as far from his father as the younger prodigal son, only he never left home. He had been a prodigal of the heart for years. Pharisees, take note.
  7. The eldest does not have much of a relationship with the younger brother either, since he called him your son instead of “my brother.” He also accused his brother of being with prostitutes, when that was not a part of the story earlier. Some have said that this was deliberate distorting of the facts to get his brother into big trouble, since whoring often resulted in capital punishment under the Law.
  8. The eldest accuses his father of favoritism as well, which is another slap in the father’s face. In these patriarchal homes, any attack on the father’s integrity, any questioning of his judgment, was treated seriously and punished.
  9. … could celebrate with my friends. His love for his father and family seems minimal, since all feasts were enjoyed with family first and foremost. All banquets and parties were family-centered, and then spread outward to the village community, depending on the occasion. The eldest wanted to party-down, all right, but only with his friends in the town, away from home. His devotion and loyalty to family is nil, and still the father beckons and pleads out of love.
  10.  There is no ending to this story. Jesus leaves it unfinished for his hearers. He wants each Pharisee, and each of us, to write our ending. Jesus wants the religious, self-righteous ones, who merely do their duties, who seem to think they know everything, to discover their lostness and join the party of love and acceptance. The  elder brother’s heart of smug piety and spiritual arrogance has kept him from the whole point of a faithful life… full participation in the fathers’ love and joy, and deep familial relationship.