Jesus tells three stories in Luke 15. The first is about a guy who has one of his hundred sheep wander off. He’s still got 99, but he can’t stand to lose that one, so he goes after it and, when he finds it, he throws a party to celebrate.
The second story is about a woman who has ten denarii – a denarii was worth one day’s wages – and she loses one of them. She’s still got nine but she can’t stand to lose that one, so she goes looking for it until she finds it and then throws a party.
The third story, the jewel in the crown, is about a dad who has two sons. Notice how the stakes get higher with each story. One out of a hundred. One out of ten. This time one out of two. One of his sons leaves, goes out into the world, and gets terribly lost.
(By the way, the word lost is one of the key terms in these stories: it occurs 8 times in its noun and verb forms. The religious leaders would have said, “People are lost,” and Jesus would have agreed. Forget fourth level, E-Flight, 64th position. That’s not how God thinks of us. We’re either lost because we are away from him, which is a grief, even to God, or we’re found, because we’ve come back, which is reason to throw the biggest party ever. Jesus would have agreed with the Pharisees that people are lost but, unlike the Pharisees, he knew that God loves people whether they’re lost or found. And he loves finding them.
The rabbis had a saying: “God rejoices over the downfall of the godless.” When the Pharisees heard that, they nodded their heads in agreement, but Jesus emphatically shook his in disagreement. That is not what his Father is like.)
Now, Jesus adds a lot of color to this story – more than usual. He gives us details. The lost son pulls a Louie Zamperini on his dad. He knows his dad doesn’t want him to go, but he says (in effect), “I hate my life with you and I can’t wait to get out of here.” He doesn’t care about his dad. Doesn’t care about his family. He sells his share of the farm out from under them, takes the cash, and takes off.
Now, if you are a Pharisee listening to this story, you know exactly how the dad feels. He is madder than a wet hen. Madder than a hornet – than a nest of hornets. And you know exactly what that dad would do: hold a ketsssatsah, aceremony in which his son is declared dead. Not MIA but KIA; not missing but dead. As far as that dad was concerned, his boy died and any relationship they’d had died with him.
Jesus, being the greatest storyteller ever, leaves the dad right there and follows the son. And here is where the details come in. The son blows through his money in no time. He’s out there partying, telling himself he should have done this long ago, that this is the life. He knows it can’t go on forever, but he’ll worry about that when the time comes. Then one morning he wakes up with a hangover and discovers the time has come. (Our modern translations say something like, he “squandered his wealth” in verse 13, but the original language could be translated, “he squandered his being.” He thought he was spending his money. He was really spending himself.)
And then life got really bad really fast. Circumstances went against him. Unemployment soared. His friends all left – Jesus says, “no one gave him anything.” Not able to find a job, he did the last thing any self-respecting Jew would do: he went to work for a Gentile pig farmer. He sank so low he wanted to eat the pig’s food.
Jesus has a reason for telling us these details – one that we might miss. Feeding pigs was shameful for a Jew. The Mishnah said, “None may rear swine anywhere” and “Cursed is the man who rears swine.” Just hearing this part of the story would make a Pharisee sick to his stomach. It was disgusting. And that Pharisee would be thinking, “He got what he deserves. If he is going to act like a pig, he should live with the pigs.”
If I were a first century Jewish father, and my son Joel (I’ll pick on him because he is our only son with a Hebrew name) went to work for a pig farmer, I would be mortified. I would be shamed before the entire community. People would look at me differently, call me a failure, talk behind my back. And shaming one’s father was, in that time and place, just about the worst thing a person could do.