I've been thinking a lot about the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) lately, and the problems that humanity at large and Christians in particular have with it. I reimagined the story in a way that would be more palatable and less scandalous for us. If you'll forgive a bit of artistic license, I promise to bring this back to what the Bible actually says:
*edit: this turned out a bit longer than I thought it would. If you're strapped for time and know the story, skip to the section under the ***.
The young man looked at the creatures in front of him. All his life he'd been told they were unclean for his people, the Jews. Now broke and starving, he was reduced to feeding these pigs before him, reduced to serving the animals once too disgusting for him to be near. He'd brought this upon himself and he knew it.
"Father, I can't take it anymore. I hate it here, you never let me have any fun. Why don't you give me my inheritance now while I'm still young enough to enjoy it?" His words still rang in his ears. They had been so full of righteous indignation at the time, and now only embarrassed him to remember. He had to admit, he'd been quite shocked when his father had actually listened to him and gave him the money. The freedom and riches he'd been given so easily had emboldened him. Money easily obtained tends to be easily lost, especially in a land with women so beautiful and food so rich.
The entire country, riding on an abundant harvest and plentiful trade, seemed to be in a reverie that year. There was excess everywhere, pleasure everywhere, the kind of fun he'd never been able to have, everywhere. The only problem he had was his abundance of silver weighing him down from chasing after all his thrills. So he let himself part with some money, and found that all his desires were within arm's reach.
One thing he had not anticipated was that once he had a taste of sensual things, he wouldn't be able to get enough. He began to grow concerned over the months as his money flowed more freely than he'd have liked. His father hadn't left him without an education, and he knew he'd have to do something about his money situation to make the good times last.
He looked at a snorting pig through his sunken, tired eyes. It had only been three months ago when disaster had struck. He had woken up that morning with the intention of buying a large local field and some slaves. He would have a more modest household than his father, but if he started young he'd be able to one day be the wealthiest man in the area. He left the house he was staying in and immediately heard the panic in the streets. "The crops have failed! There will be no harvest!"
As he scattered feed for the filthy creatures, he remembered how the past weeks had happened so quickly, while he was unable to do anything about it. The price of food had doubled, then tripled, then continued to rise until he could no longer afford his delicacies. There was no more thought of buying a field, now only holding himself over until the next harvest. But then the ships stopped coming into the harbor. Outside merchants wanted nothing to do with a country that had nothing to trade. The food situation became dire, and the young man found himself living more and more modestly. He found that the locals had no love for rich foreigners, and no tolerance whatsoever for poor foreigners like he now was. He remembered the look on the man's face as he was forced to pay more than double the current rate for barley. His last silver pieces went to food he didn't even enjoy, and he nearly gagged as he ate it, weeping bitterly.
"This is outrageous," he thought to himself while sitting on a rock. "Even the lowest workers in my father's house live and eat better than I do now!" He looked around and started crying. He knew he'd never truly be welcomed home as a son, but maybe his father could use someone that'd learned a lesson about hard work and had some knowledge of farming. He stood up, and started walking. Considering the wages he was earning, his employer had probably been expecting him to starve to death anyway. He headed down to the harbor to see if any ships had been foolish enough to stop in that cursed, starving land.
The next three weeks passed like a blur. He had been able to find a ship heading to Israel, and though it cost him his family ring to board, he was happy to find a way home. He finally landed in a familiar city, and started walking in the direction he remembered so well. The last time he had traveled this path, he had been a rich young man, a bold young man. Now he was broken. He had stolen some bread from a vendor in the town, and had used up more strength than he thought he had left to run away.
A mile out from his old home, he rehearsed his lines in his head one more time. Tears started running down his face, creating mud with the dust that had caked there. He looked miserable, and would barely be recognizable to his own family. "Maybe that's a good thing," he chuckled darkly. "If they don't realize it's me they might be more merciful." His father's house was looming over him now, larger, more intimidating than he'd remembered it being. He saw the shape of his father standing in front of the house, directing servants to the fields. He almost turned around, but pressed on. "If he has me stoned, at least I'll have tried for a better life," he thought. He walked through the gates, and his father turned and saw him.
The young man stood there awkwardly. The old man stood there awkwardly. Neither moved. The old man's jaw opened, and he took a step back, hand clutching his chest. The young man, with more boldness than he'd had since the famine struck, stepped up to his father and flung himself on the ground weeping. The old man was stunned, tears ran down his wrinkled face. He tried to speak but his voice cracked.
"Father!" the young man wailed. "Father I have sinned against heaven and before you! I am no longer worthy to be called a son. I only ask that you would look at me with mercy, and let me live as a servant in your house. Father I have embarrassed your house and your name, only let me have a place among your hired hands!"
The old man, falling to pieces in front of the crowd of stunned servants and friends, ran inside the house. The young man, unable to stand, stayed on the ground weeping. His cries were unable to drown out the sounds of the servants speaking, though. "Who does he think he is?" "After everything he put his father through, he thinks he can come home!?" "This is an outrage! He must be stoned, surely everyone sees this."
The commotion brought the young man's brother from the field to see what was happening. When he saw his disgraceful brother on the ground he ran up to him, full of fury. "How dare you show your face here!?" he screamed. He sprinted to his prostrate brother and began kicking his ribs as he lay there, stunned.
"Enough!" the young men looked up at the sound of their father's voice as he emerged from the house. He walked up to the young men and took a deep breath saying, "My heart was broken but you were young and stupid. You disgraced my entire household, treating me as though I were nothing to you, taking your inheritance as though I were dead. But you still came back, knowing I am a gracious man that tries to act in kindness to the downtrodden. You most certainly are downtrodden now. Though you don't deserve it, and you know it, I will let you work here. Go to the servants' quarters, they will give you a new tunic and some lentils. Get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, you will start working in the south field for your keep."
The young man stood up, hardly believing his good fortune. His father would certainly expect a lot from him as a worker, but now he would always be treated fairly, and always have food in his belly. He was safe. His brother, indignant, marched up to his father and exclaimed, "Father, he disgraced us, how can you give him a home?"
"Son, look at the poor man. He's a wretch. How can I turn him away? he's clearly learned his lesson. Besides, now his education won't go to waste. He could be a tremendous asset for our household."
The next five years passed happily for the young man. He rose quickly in his father's house, until he was chief among his father's servants. He had a keen eye for land, and the vineyards he planted yielded the best wine. After five years of gainful toil, and honest work, his father became sick. On his deathbed, he summoned the young men.
"You left my house after plundering your inheritance as a son. You returned as a servant and increased greatly my estate. Well done, you good and faithful servant. Because of your great heart and work for my house, I will reinstate you as a son. I always loved you, and I am so proud to call you son once more.What do you think about this," he said turning to the older son.
"I was reluctant at first to accept him father, but he has earned it. I am happy to call him brother once more." The trio started weeping joyfully as they realized all had been forgiven. Though the young man had caused so much pain, all had been righted. They were a family once more. When the old man died, they mourned him as a family. The young man, with his new inheritance, bought land near his brother and both prospered greatly. For the next decades the surrounding people loved to tell the story of the son that ran away, and the father that let him come home to earn his keep.
This is what we want. It really is. The scandal of salvation is that it's simply too easy for the dirty, malicious sinner to obtain. If God were to allow us to earn our salvation, we would positively leap at the chance, and set our hands to the plow to work hard. We love working hard as it is, thinking it's really something when we're able to do good.
We don't like a prodigal son that's given everything the second he shows his face. We don't like the father that disgraces himself to run to embrace and reinstate his horrible son. We don't like a grace that's too free and a salvation that's so easy.
The problem is, that's the grace we need. We have a God the looked down from His holy habitation, a God that ran to the sinner that despised Him. If He wasn't that kind of God, we'd die in the foreign country, unable to fix our own situation. The simple fact is, we are dead in our transgressions apart from Him, totally separated from the life that is in Him. But being great in mercy and rich in love, He is the God that dies to make things right with us, then give us that right standing freely (literally). It is only through grace that we are saved, through faith. Our works amount to nothing, we are made sons because of who He is.
Therefore, I say today that I am a son. I am, before God, the very righteousness of Christ. I can say this confidently because he gave it to me. I have confidence in His gift, not my ability, confidence in His love, not mine, confidence in Christ's blood, not my sweat.