Jesus only needed 22 lines, three archetypal characters who speak, two settings, and three acts to create a literary masterpiece that completely capitulates the entire history of the Bible, religion and the human condition. The Prodigal Son is the one of the most radical stories a liberal ever told. In these heartwarming yet provocative 22 lines, Jesus effectively destroys the temple of the idols of legalism and purism with their negative views of human behavior. He liberally rebuilds a new and more glorious living temple of compassion, love and optimism. And being a creative literary genius, Jesus does it so beautifully that even the hardest of hearts quivers.
The father is God. The Prodigal Son is you and me. The Big Brother is conventional wisdom, the follower of legalism and purism, and a proponent of a negative outlook on human behavior. He is also you and I.
The story begins with a classical opening, set in the paradise of the father's estate. Then the story follows the traditional formula of presenting a problem in paradise, a snake in the garden, a problem that even the dullest can see is going to lead to trouble. In this case, it's the Prodigal Son asking for his share of the inheritance while he's still young. He doesn't want to wait until he's old. He wants to get his fair share while he can enjoy it. Paradise has grown boring to him and he's ready to see the world. Home has become a place of bondage and he's ready for his Exodus to find a better land. He wants to leave the farm and see the bright lights of the big city.
If the Big Brother had overheard the conversation, we can be assured of what he would have said. No doubt that he would have angrily told the Father that it was a bad idea and that his younger brother was a greedy, inconsiderate and insensitive good-for-nothing for even having thought the idea, much less have the gall to ask it of his father. His brother was sinning by dishonoring the father in such a manner. Surely no good could come of such a foolish act as to give wealth to someone irresponsible and selfish, and who had certainly not proven himself. Moreover, the big city was full of impurity. Temptation and sin were openly flaunted in the big city. There was no telling what wickedness the younger brother might fall in with.
In this case, the second act plays by the script. The Son does go to a big city where at first it looks as if the fears of his failure were exaggerated. But then the fears come real with a vengeance. The Son wines and dines with wild women and associates with all types of impure people. He doesn't work and his money runs out. The Son is thrown into the streets. The people in the big city only care about money and what's in it for them. If somebody is out on the streets then it is their fault. They are being punished because they had done something to offend God. Besides, the Prodigal Son was a foreigner. He might have even been an illegal alien.
The Prodigal takes the only job he can, which is tending to the pigs. By this point in the story, any good legalist and purist at the time had to be deeply satisfied at this predictable outcome. The Prodigal Son had been bound for trouble the moment he chose to live among impure people, or ones who didn't follow the law. But to have to make a living off feeding the filthiest, most impure animal of all, was truly to be cursed by God for violating the laws of purity.
One day out in the pig pen, the Prodigal starts thinking of where he had come from and how good it had been. He decides that although he is a miserable failure, an impure sinner unworthy of bearing the family name that he will return home to beg his father to hire him as a laborer. Jesus didn't say that the Prodigal prayed for deliverance. Nor does the Prodigal go through any rites of purification or atonement. He simply arises out of the mud and walked home.
More remarkably, the Father doesn't observe any rites of purification either. By strict and literal interpretation of the law, the Father sins when he embraces his dirty and impure son. Indeed, the son has been a drunkard, a whoremonger, disobedient and rebellious. According to the law found at Deuteronomy 21: 19 "then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate . . . Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst and all Israel shall hear, and fear."
But the Father doesn't even verbally condemn his son. He doesn't even judge him. When the Prodigal tries to pull away from the Father's loving embrace in protest that he is not worthy of his father's love, the Father cuts him off and only then tells the servants to draw a bath for him and to lay out the finest clothes and jewelry. The bath is not an act of ritual purification but a thoroughly relaxing bath like one at the end of a long and trying day. Nothing the Son has done can diminish his Father's love for him. He has committed all manners of sins, broke all kinds of purity requirements and stinks like a hog but his Father's love is unconditional and endless. The Father fully accepts him back without demanding any conditions, confessions or promises. The Father even throws him a party!
However, Jesus didn't stop at what would appear to be the perfect ending point. He still wanted to drive home his point that God is neither a legalist nor purist but is instead the ultimate loving liberal optimist. So Jesus reintroduces tension to what appears to be paradise regained. Big Brother makes his appearance, fresh from the fields where has been working all day long just like he has done every workday. He's up at the same time each morning and works the livelong day. Big Brother is a good man, well respected in the community and a leader in the house of worship. No one can question his commitment to duty. He has stayed there all those years his brother has been off partying and squandering the family fortune. He has put up with his Father's ways but he would never let anybody know it.
When Big Brother hears a party going on, he's upset right away because he had not planned a party. Big Brother loves control and doesn't like surprises. Life is dangerous and has to be very firmly handled or else it will handle you. Salvation comes from discipline, will and strict adherence to a firm set of rules and regulations. Carefree and impulsive partying is wasteful and senseless. But it is enraging when the party is a feast for your good-for-nothing little brother who has come home only because he wasted all the wealth that had been given to him.
Certainly Big Brother has every right to feel that he is better than his brother. He has every right to be mad at his father and wonder if he should have his father declared senile and incompetent. If the father was going to do anything it would be to praise the Big Brother for being such a faithful, obedient and practical son and hold him as a role model of what the Prodigal should have been. But the Father didn't even consult with the Big Brother. Nor had the Father done anything a sane man would have done like required some plan of how the son was going to change and do better with his life. What was his plan for clearing up his sins? What was he going to do to wipe away the tarnish forever stained onto the family name because of his shame? As shameful as the Prodigal had come home, Big Brother thinks the Father's welcome is even more shameful.
Big Brother is like a lot of people who are mad at God. They don't like how things are going and want to go ahead and do the right thing as they see it. After all, they reason, what they are doing is only what God would be doing if he could take the time to examine the facts of the matter. Jesus is telling us in the Prodigal Son that God as the Father is looking very closely at the matter. Jesus lets us know that love and compassion are far more important than concepts of purity and duty. Jesus is saying that no matter how badly we may be doing, even if we are in the filth of filth, that God has so much faith in us that God still completely and unconditionally loves us. For an optimistic liberal, we can never be too bad for God. For a negative purist, we can never be good enough.
Jesus was a Liberal