Today's Gospel http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+15&version=NKJV, the Prodigal Son, is among the more well known parables of Jesus. It is probably a story which most of us connect to at some level. From the On-line dictionary I lifted this definition of the word prodigal as used as an adjective:
1. Rashly or wastefully extravagant: prodigal expenditures on unneeded weaponry; a prodigal life.
2. Giving or given in abundance; lavish or profuse: prodigal praise.
In the past, the focus had been on the younger son's wastefulness and, hence, thestory was called "The Prodigal Son." However, the second meaning is equally applicable to the Father, who abundantly gives and lavishly bestows his blessings. Both father and son are prodigal; though in very different ways.
The story itself is found only in Luke. One would think that a story of such depth, power and popularity would be found over and again in the various soruces. Luke has set the telling of this parable within a conflict with Pharisees and Scribes. This is no doubt reasonable, though one assumes it is a story which Jesus told more than once in a variety of settings. (I hope so, it is worth repeating!)
I firmly believe that one must always interpret a text in context. Luke has placed this parable as the culmination of three parables (the other two are about finding something which has been missing, too: Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin) The ultimate context, an address to His opponents (15:2), is the proper "lense" through which to interpret this story. What is Jesus trying to tell his accusers? (They are angry He spends time with sinners and tax collectors.) I think, clearly, that He is inviting them to a mission mentality. He is telling them how God operates.
Most "devout" people identify with the older brother. I must confess that I found Jesus' trreatment of sinners most confusing when I was in seminary and a young priest. While always aware of my sin (Guilt) I was also trying really hard to be faithful. It seemed to me that all my efforts, all that I was giving up and all that I was trying to do meant nothing to God. I felt like I was rejected by God because He was too interested in people who were not at all interested in Him. I was confused and thought that maybe I needed to just go sin so I could come back and God would like me more. Eventually, I kind of figured it out. I am more inclined to see myself as the wasteful son than I do the industrious one. I also have come to see that the Father is good and both boys are not. I have also passed from judging the prodigal son, through judging the older brother, to just revelling in the Father.
See, in church circles, we tend to judge. Usually, we judge the prodigals who like to spend their money on drinking, partying and loose living. It is, after all, offensive to our values. It is also a waste of life. People who squander everything and end up in dead end jobs (like feeding pigs) are a drain on society at large. Outside of church circles, however, judgment is just as common. Most people, therefore, who count themselves among the NON-churchy types see this parable as a condemnation of churchiness. And "the setting," Jesus addressing a bunch of grumpy, judgmental Pharisees and Scribes, seems to confirm that.
But look at the parable again. Jesus does not condemn anyone. He does not condemn either son. What He says is actually quite different. He provides a model for understanding God which focuses on His desire to draw everyone in. It also makes clear that all of us need to convert. The younger brother, who returns home for selfish reasons (to eat) and the older son (full of anger and resentment) are both blind to the father's kindness. There is no "rest of the story" from Jesus, but based on my experience dealing with "wayward" youth, the little brother probably found it difficult to adjust again to life in the big house. His nature had not changed, his situation did. The younger son has no inheritance and he was going to need to make serious ammends with his older brother who, after all, had not blown his inheritance. The party life still beckons the younger man. My guess is there is a real good chance that this story would end in tragedy for him, as his lower desires tried to get control of him again. Meanwhile, the older boy has a choice to make as well. Will he acknowledge the love and grace of his father? His insult to his dad is a grave sin in the ancient world, punishable by death in some quarters. Can a man so full of anger and resentment ever find peace?
One could write a very long book on this parable. There is so much there. Clearly, we do well to read it for what is there (and what isn't) to hear the authentic voice of Jesus and to catch a glimpse of the God who saves.