And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
This first part talks about the utter depths of depravity the son fell into. Remembering the background that led Jesus to tell these parables (sinners coming to Jesus in repentance, the Pharisees resenting it), it's obvious who this represents: the repentant tax collectors and sinners. Jesus describes this son in a way that would paint him in about the most wicked way possible. Consider:
- He asked for his inheritance when his father was still alive. In other words, "Dad, I wish you were dead. Give me money." Lovely chap, no?
- He immediately sold whatever land he'd received. Compare this attitude to, say, Naboth in 1 Kings 21. In Israel the land of inheritance was to be greatly esteemed; the law had very detailed rules about how it could be sold and how it must be returned to the original family eventually. For him to sell it off so quickly (and probably for a very low price) shows how much he despised his father (who represents Jesus).
- He fled to a far country. In other words, to live among Gentiles. Not only despising his father and family, but his entire Jewish heritage.
- What he had, he wasted on wild, sinful living.
- When he was broke and in severe desperation from the famine, he went to work for one of the Gentiles (possibly a "friend" he made while wasting his money). The guy obviously wanted nothing to do with him, and gave him the lowest of low jobs, most likely as an insult. He put him in charge of feeding pigs, a task so menial almost anyone could do it, and one that would keep him far, far away. You don't tend to keep the pigs very close if your nose is at all functional.
- Did I mention he was a Jew who now lived and worked among pigs?
- He was so desperate, he wanted the pods from the seeds the pigs ate. Now, remembering it's a famine, it's not like the pigs were eating high-quality food. They were probably eating stuff that wasn't edible for humans, and this guy was hoping for the scrap from it.
It'd be tough to get any lower, no? This is what makes his repentance and his father's acceptance so spectacular. But more on that later. For now, I want to say what has really hit me about this part recently. For years, it's been very easy for me to visualize this parable using my brother as the younger son. He's certainly got a record which closely approximates this son. So when reading through this story and visualizing a horrible sinner coming to repentance, it's been very easy to think about him and some of the things he's done, and what it would look like if he ever truly repented.
Which is, of course, to miss the point. See, the description here is not of the worst of sinners. It's a description of every single one of us. If you're in Christ, the prodigal son is you. The prodigal son is me. It's not like he's an uber-sinner that only a few, like the tax collectors and prostitutes of Luke 15, can relate to. No, if you are human, a child of Adam, you are every bit as depraved as this son. The only question is, have you been brought to your senses and returned home? Or are you content to die in the pig pen?
When I read about this son now, I pray that I will no longer visualize someone else. It's about me. I am the one who despised Jesus, who fled from his love as fast as I could and embraced sin wholeheartedly until I was on the verge of death. And I must never forget how amazing it is that he made me alive, and brought me to repentance, and brought me home.