No Bible story is self contained. It is helpful to remember that Jesus announced, "The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good News." Repentance is a major component of Jewish and Christian religion. In today's Morning Prayer reading from Jeremiah 18 (The potter and clay), God declares, "...but if the nation...turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring upon it." This is an endless theme of the Scriptures of the Ancient Covenant (the New, too!) IF we turn back, then God will turn back. Repentance is the proper response to God's gracious mercy. It is also necessary. But believing the Good News is central, too. And the Prodigal Father is very good news...
In the Prodigal Son (or Father!) parable, the boy does not seem to 'repent' as much as figure out a way to get food. He has blown the money, about 1/3rd of his father's total holdings. (Deuteronomy 21:17 says the oldest son gets a double portion). The substantial financial blow to the estate, however, was nothing compared to the shame the son has brought on his father in this culture. The father was being told, "I wish you were dead, I cannot wait, give me mine." Such dishonor in Jesus' culture is unfathomable. We can not miss this and understand anything of Jesus' point. Neither can we overlook that both sons got their inheritance on the spot. For Jesus' listeners this would have been shameful folly and offensively uncharacteristic of the culture. (In reading we often overlook that the older son has also brought shame on the father in accepting his inheritance.)
The lad goes to a far off country. This, too, is shameful. He leaves the homeland to live among Gentiles, where his newfound wealth is eventually dissipated in the party lifestyle. The boy wakes up one day with nothing, a foreigner in a strange land without connections or family. He goes to work on the lowest level of the social order, a day laborer. Working with (ritually unclean) pigs makes him a total loss in Jewish eyes, probably ours as well. Jesus paints a picture of absolute desolation for His Jewish hearers. The villagers in his father's town would have viewed him as a pariah and may will have killed him given a chance. [This story would produce in Jesus' listeners the emotional equivalent to using the foulest language with church going grandma's; sheer horror.]
The boy does not voice any sense of repentance for shaming his father or the hurt he has casused. Self-centered to the end, he figures being a servant for his dad would be a better life for himself. He is all about "me." He rehearses his confession. What is not made clear: does what he "says" reflect an interior disposition? Or is he merely playing a role. Obviously, in that culture, he could not make any claims on the Father. By taking the inheritance he has renounced sonship and declared void his relationship with his father. (In our own day, long influenced by this story, we assume, even presum upon, the Father's mercy. We cannot feel the horror Jesus' listeners felt)
The boy does "turn back" and go home. Perhaps, this is enough conversion. Perhaps the return home (from exile), which is the central story of the Tanak (Jewish Bible), focuses as much on external behavior as interior disposition? Jesus does not make a comment, but it is noticable that the boy's integrity is never established. Any parent with a wayward child can testify, the "coming home" is usually only "partial" and is less likely to be motivated by a change of heart than it is a change in circumstances (for the worse). However, it seems to be enough for the dad, who runs to his returning son. This implies a few things. One, the boy is far off, so how does the father see him? Probably, the father scans the horizon regularly. He has lost his son and longs to have him back (remember the last post made issue of the context, the two previous parables about lost things). One gets a glimpse into the father's heart knowing he gazes each day hoping. Another significant point, men do not run in this culture. It is disrespectful, yet the father does run. In the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptics (Malina & Rohrbaugh) we read that the father runs to save his son's life. In the village, the returning miscreant would have been viewed with violent disdain. (Wouldn't want his abhorable example around) By gathering the boy in his arms, and then throwing a party, the father made clear that this is his son. The identity as son has been restored. This restoration is, in fact, a model of Israel-God and echoes many a Bible story. Lost and restored sonship is a model for expressing what salvation really is.
Certainly, the focus is not on the son's repentance, it is on the father's reckless, socially intolerable, illogical and unwarranted grace. Jesus speaks hard words on a repenting life elsewhere. Here He shines the light on the father (and by extension, The Father). Here He makes clear that the reality of God's heart trumps our human sin and sinfulness. Being home (i.e., returning to the community; or church) is where the mercy is received and the process of reintegration begins. Jesus wants his listeners to know this. The older son (church leaders?) has also broken faith with the father. He took his inheritance. He was angry and sullen, considering himself a slave (while working on his own land). The listeners of Jesus saw themselves the same way. Slaves of God, while Jesus is offering sonship to all, even sinners (even sinners motivated by empty bellies and miserable lives). Such amazing grace is frightening to trust. Like the villagers of Jesus' day we know that it is dangerous. A graciousness so profound can be abused, allowing sons (and daughters) to waste everything, to make all manner of insult and insolent disrespect. It could lead to anarachy.
Perhaps we understand that we are not worthy of the name son/daughter. Perhaps we see ourselve in both boys, wasting our lives in heated dissolute living and cold-bearted anger and resentment. Perhaps, now, we are ready to understand that the true Older Brother (Jesus) does not begrudge our return nor our reception of status as son. In fact, like a good shepherd, our older brother, Jesus, goes in search of the lost sheep, not waiting for us to come to our senses. And this is the mission of the church: call people home to the Father.