Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:
11b “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The 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. 13 A 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So 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. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for 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. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But 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.’”
I read an article a while back about buying steak with food stamps. The author made a compelling case for respecting people for whom such a rare splurge might mean reclaiming a small shred of dignity in the otherwise oppressive and degrading systems of poverty. Despite the fact that the average taxpayer contributes a paltry sum to welfare benefits each year, self-righteous concern over who is entitled to what remains a perennial concern of the welfare debate. This past week’s bill to prohibit the purchase of ‘luxury’ foods with food stamps in New York is only the latest example.
But, then again, Jesus doesn’t seem to think people should buy steak with food stamps either. This week’s parable suggests, rather, that churches should host free steak dinners for them instead! And not using the cheap cuts of meat either: the father in Jesus’ parable kills the ‘fatted calf’ (Luke 15:23) to celebrate the return of his son.
While this story is often labeled the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son,’ the descriptor ‘prodigal,’ with its meaning ‘wastefully extravagant,’ hardly seems to fit the young man we encounter in the bulk of the story. Yes, the boy has made some mistakes. But in one short verse, Luke’s Jesus describes these mistakes—‘he squandered his property in dissolute living’ (15:13). Then the rest of the story is consumed with his return home, following a vivid description of the conditions of squalor to which the boy is subjected on account of not only his mistakes, but also the general condition of ‘severe famine’ that spread across the country in which he was living—beyond his or anyone else’s control (15:14).
The boy worked hard, as a hired hand, for we can only guess how long. But no matter how tirelessly he labored, the famine in the land and his status as a nobody—a foreigner—prevented him from ever getting ahead. We’re told, ‘He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything’ (15:16). Such are hardly the thoughts of someone still engaged in ‘prodigal’ living. Rather, it is the reality of people who—by their own fault or situations outside their control—find themselves stuck in an unmanageable reality.
This is the boy who decides to return home. Who hopes not for his former wealth and riches, but simply the possibility that he might be able to continue his labor as a hired hand on his father’s land, where he knows the workers to have been treated better than he is where he’s at (15:17-19).
But in response to this child—to this young man—who approaches, with nothing, Jesus narrates a reception fit for a king.
But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.—Luke 15:22-23
Culturally, the landowner owes his son nothing. His fatherly obligations were (prematurely) fulfilled when he divided his assets and gave half to the younger son before he set off. In fact, his excited rush towards the boy (his inferior in age, rank, and status) may even have brought shame upon the father in the eyes of any compatriots who may have seen.
Yet, it is in this position of abundance—owing nothing—that Jesus describes a father who embraces his child and gives to him everything. So it is, earlier in the narrative, when Luke’s Jesus declares, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’ (Luke 6:20).
But such blessing is not to be reserved for some unrealized future in heaven. In Luke’s gospel, God’s Kingdom is already breaking into human lives on earth through the person of Jesus. This is why Jesus tells John’s disciples to report that ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them’ (Luke 7:22).
Jesus’ story in Luke 15 confirms this truth. The young man’s father, upon seeing him in his misery, does not celebrate that he has gotten his due. He does not suggest that the boy should wait to receive his redemption in paradise. Rather, he runs and embraces his child in the moment. This is not a parable of prodigal living, but of a hungry son and a generous father.
The social security net in the ancient Mediterranean world was not built on taxes (those were used to build giant monuments and line the pockets of the rich), but, rather, on relationship. People survived through the grace and protection of their family and neighbors.
We can’t really know what Jesus would have to say about the American system of welfare—whether he would be in favor of the New York senator’s bill or not. What we can know is that Jesus would encourage us Christians—us who are in relationship with one another through a shared Creator and Redeemer—not to wait for the tax collectors to come to us, but rather, to welcome our brothers and sisters with open arms. To celebrate them as valued and worthy children of God. To throw a banquet in honor of those brothers and sisters whom life has given a hard lot—for theirs is the Kingdom of God.