If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard the story of the prodigal son about a hundred times in various church services and sermons. Usually, it’s taught as an example of sin, repentance and restoration. But I recently had the opportunity to hear a lecture that made some considerably deeper theological observations.
There are two key things about the story of the prodigal son that we often overlook. First, the context of the story in Luke 15. Jesus tells three parables about repentance: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each story, the lost item does absolutely nothing to be found. Even the prodigal son did nothing to be found, he merely returned home in order to survive. The emphasis in all three stories is the celebration when the items – and the son – are found.
Secondly, we can tend to forget that the Bible was not written to us, it was written for us. The New Testament was written to first Century, middle-eastern farmers, tradesmen, and religious people. Honor and shame were two of the primary values in mid-Easturn culture. Understanding this specific context is important to recognizing the significance of specific story elements. For example, in this culture, telling a father you wanted your inheritance was the equivalent of saying “I wish you would die.” It would bring shame on the family. Jesus’ audience would have great empathy for the Father in the story.
The son spends his inheritance, then “began to be in need.” He began to realize his lostness, and “comes to his senses,” seeing only one way to survive – to return to his father. His father sees him from a long way off, runs to him, hugs and kisses him. In this culture, grown men didn’t run, because it was undignified, and shameful because flying robes could expose ankles and legs. The father embraces his son where he is, without any expression of repentance. Only after the son has already been accepted is his rehearsed statement heard.
This part of the story would be incredibly offensive to Jesus’ audience. The accepted paradigm of repentance was: 1) confess, 2) make restitution, 3) commit not to do it again. But these are all actions – works. Without any of these, the father puts a robe and family ring on his son signifying acceptance and restoration into the family, and calls for a celebration, correlating to the lost sheep and lost coin stories.
Jesus redefined repentance as the awareness of being lost, and the acceptance of being found.