The younger son is clearly disobedient, stubborn, rebellious, and seeks to get as far away from his father as possible. After implying that his father should die, he takes his assets and quickly converts them into cash, and travels to a country that is as far away from home as possible.
For the original audience hearing this parable, the son's behavior would have been viewed as reprehensible and perhaps even unthinkable. A severe punishment or a complete rejection of the ungrateful son would be understandable. But this is not what the father does in Y'shua's story. Instead, the audience is going to be overwhelmed by the compassion of the father.
The father divides the inheritance between his two sons. The elder son quietly, without protest, receives his share while the younger liquidates his portion. The younger takes his money and wastes his inheritance, determined to go his own way. He lives the fast life of a playboy until the money runs out and a famine sweeps across the land. Far from home, the son soon begins to realize his mistake and to feel the weight of his broken relationship with his father. He is soon reduced to abject poverty.
The boy ingratiates himself to a wealthy landowner in hopes of receiving food in return. The landowner sends him to feed pigs, possibly understanding how offensive that would be to a Jew, and so the formerly privileged son of a landowner is reduced to feeding swine. The text tells us that no one gave the young man anything, and that the landowner begrudges the boy even one morsel of food. It is more important to insure that the pigs are fed and the boy soon longs to fill his belly with the pigs' fodder.
This fodder is usually identified as the pods of a carob tree which are sometimes described as the food of the poor. It is interesting to note that in Jewish literature the Sages made a play on words between the Hebrew terms for sword, choreb, in Isaiah 1:21 and carob pod charob, the food of the poor. When times are prosperous, it is easy to forget G-d, however, when people are in need and lack food, they repent and seek Him. When the people become desperate, they will even seek a carob to survive.
Leviticus Rabbah 35:6
This may be deduced from the Bible text, "If you be willing and obedient you shall eat of the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword" [or eat carob]. R' Acha said Israel needs carob [i.e. poverty] to be forced to repentance [i.e. only when Israel are reduced to such a state of poverty that they must eat carob do they repent of their evil ways].
So, in the minds of the Sages, it was possible that poverty could lead a man to recognize their need for G-d and to seek Him. The younger son, when he finally comes to his senses, begins to realize his responsibility for his wrongdoing and even desires to make matters right and pay back what has been lost. It is not a theological epiphany or revelation, but a desire born out his own personal need. It's just the beginning, but a very necessary one. The way back begins with this realization and a sense of shame for the wrongs he has committed against G-d and His father.
In the parable, the younger boy declares that he has "sinned against heaven" i.e. G-d Himself. "Heaven" is a common Jewish circumlocution for "G-d" and is recognized widely in Jewish literature and so is indicative of the Jewish background of the boy. He is ashamed of his wrongs and his sense of shame makes him feel that he is no longer worthy to be treated as his father's son. In a Hebrew setting of first century Israel, the boy's action presents a vivid picture of repentance against the backdrop of a dramatic family crisis.
He had committed a serious wrong against his father. His father even referred to him as "dead" and "lost." His greatest sin was his broken relationship with his father, the root of all the wrongdoing and rebellion in his life. It is imperative that he go back and make matters right with his father.
The Elder Son
This son is no less lost to his father than the rebellious and profligate younger son. Both boys are lost to their father, but in different ways. The older son the is the picture of obedience and doing good. His conduct is right and proper, and yet his relationship with both his father and his younger brother is fractured, and this is evident from the very beginning of the parable. The elder brother's silence in the face of his younger brother's "request" is deafening and would not have been lost on Y'shua's audience. The elder brother seems to care very little for his father, let alone his father's honor.
The elder brother's view of his father was wrong. He viewed his father as an employer who must simply be obeyed rather than a father who must be loved as well. The elder son boasts about his faithful service to his father and declares that he deserves a reward for all his labor and years of loyal service. Note his reaction when he discovers that his brother has returned home: "Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command" (v. 29). Both sons had the same problem, but their problems just manifested themselves in different ways.
The broken relationships become clear in the older son's speech to his father in the courtyard. He does not address his father with a title of honor nor does he acknowledge any family ties with his brother, referring to him as "this son of yours." He laments the fact that he has never been honored by a feast with his friends. All the while, the community is rejoicing with the father, but all the older son can manage to do is insult his father and the guests by his refusal to join in the festivities.
There is a profound theological idea present in the story that has deep roots in Judaism: the idea that one does not serve G-d merely for the sake of personal benefit or the possibility of receiving a reward or avoiding punishment. Antigonus of Socho (2nd century BCE) said: "Be not like slaves that serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like slaves that serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward and let the fear of Heaven (i.e. G-d) be upon you" (Avot 1:3). G-d is not an employer who pays a wage but a father who desires a proper relationship with His children and Who should be served out of love.
The parable contrasts two seemingly different sons who are very much the same: both are in desperate need of a meaningful relationship with their father.
(To be continued . . .)