Prodigals, Famine and the Point of the Story

We are all familiar with this story.

In Luke 15:11-32, we have the familiar story of the prodigal son, who demanded his inheritance and went off into a different land.

We know this story, where the son demands, takes, and squanders.

I thought I knew this story too.

In my third quarter in seminary, I wrote a paper on this parable, and glossed over an important part, an important part that other writers had noticed. These writers were from Africa, and these commentators put their finger on something I had glossed over.

The word λιμὸς (“famine”) is used in 15:14. This word refers to famine, or hunger, or starvation. It speaks of deprivation, of rumbling stomachs, of a society that is known as barren and lost.

Paul uses the term in that famous “golden chain” in Romans 8, where he speaks about τίς ἡμᾶς χωρίσει ἀπὸ τῆς ἀγάπης τοῦ Χριστοῦ; θλῖψις ἢ στενοχωρία ἢ διωγμὸς ἢ λιμὸς ἢ γυμνότης ἢ κίνδυνος ἢ μάχαιρα – “what will separate us from the love of Christ? Oppression or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”

These are not distant realities in the ancient world. If there were a Palestinian Times or a Roman York Post, these realities would be front and center. Reports at 11.

Paul’s intent is to assert the base obviousness of the world of destitution, that is, a world oppressed by Sin and Death, utterly unmoored from God and God’s love.

Of course, Jesus does not tell us where this country is, or what it symbolizes. We can all imagine what kind of country he is using.

In ancient mythology, one could speculate that the famine is because of God’s judgment. Or because of bad luck, or blind determinism or fate. In any sense, λιμὸς signifies those who are destitute, or hungry, or trapped in a situation that signifies the inevitability of death.

Luke tells us that after he had squandered everything, he was the first to be destitute (ἤρξατο ὑστερεῖσθαι). A foreigner, presumably, is the first person amongst the naturalized citizens to be without something.

To put it colloquially, the son “pissed away” his wealth, and then the entire country began to enter a famine.

In other texts in the New Testament, λιμὸς is often connected with the word for “nakedness” (γυμνότης), which drives home the image of being entirely without protection, care, or community (cf. 2 Cor. 11:27; Rev. 3:18). The adjective γυμνὸς occurs more often.

I don’t make much, and Allison does not either. We make enough to eat, sleep and turn on the AC once in a while. But we have never been without something.

So this text is pushing the image of destitution, of communal despondency. As in, they did not give him anything (15:16). They had nothing to spare themselves.

Part of me really hates this prodigal son, particularly because of his wealth and seeming disinterest in his community. He looks like the type of rich kid who has everything he or she has ever wanted, and has never seen pain or sorrow.

Part of me is grateful they never have.

But the point of this story is not the son.

The point is the generosity of the father. The use of the aorist middle verb ἤρξαντο occurs both in vv.14 and 24, first on the lips of Jesus (the narrator) and once on the lips of the father.

This story is not about the prodigal who was first to be destitute in a strange and oppressed land, himself likely a figure of high status and caliber; rather it is about the father who describes his prodigal as ἤρξαντο εὐφραίνεσθαι (“first to be found”). 

This parable displays the character of the father toward the prodigal, who even though he squandered the life’s wealth of the father, is still considered family.

He brings his son in, and clothes him, feeds him, honors him.

On the one hand, it feels simple, even trite.

But to those who have sinned in a catastrophic manner, it may mean the world.

To those who are hungry, a loving father is willing to still give, even after being taken advantage of.

It is not an act of grace; it is an act of Christ.

For those who are prodigals, in the midst of famine, sometimes Christ shows up even in the midst of parables written thousands of years ago.

Sometimes stories about pain, oppression and suffering are what is needed to paint a picture of a reality that is missed or forgotten.

The point of this story is not the son.