The New Testament passage often known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” includes some of the harsh realities that are often associated with rejection and isolation. One can examine this well-known parable and consider how to more faithfully extend hospitality to those so often excluded in our society.
As Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32) reminds us, the youngest of two sons asked for an early inheritance from his father, received it, and then traveled to a “distant country” where he “… squandered his property in dissolute living.” As the term “dissolute” typically intends to describe degenerate and/or sinful behavior, we often conclude that the youngest son was deeply immersed in immorality, thus we find it difficult to feel sympathy when he later falls into the depths of poverty. We tend to perceive the so-called prodigal son as someone who got what he deserved, for as the parable seems to illustrate, not only did he waste the inheritance received from his father, but he did so through an assortment of choices that brought deep dishonor to his family. To this day the very term “prodigal” denotes an association with those who waste their resources through irresponsible actions.
While some biblical translations use “dissolute” (New Revised Standard Version) to describe the younger son’s behavior (Luke 15:13), others use terms such as “riotous” (King James Version), “loose” (Revised Standard Version), or even “wild” (New International Version). However, the Greek word originally used, ἀσώτως (transliteration: asōtōs), does not necessarily mean any of these translation options, as asōtōs means “expensive” or “without saving.” And so, we see that the accusations surrounding prostitution (Luke 15:30) may not be grounded in factual evidence, but they could be manufactured by the older (and spiteful) brother. Upon further evaluation, Luke’s Gospel does not confirm or deny anything about the younger son actually engaging with prostitutes or even spending the inheritance through immoral means. As a result, while the younger son should be held accountable for his lack of fiscal discipline, we should recognize that several factors outside of his personal control may have contributed to his impoverished state.
While the younger son is shown to be an unskilled financial manager, his poverty is also due to various circumstances that continue to impair the socially excluded in our current day and age. For example, Luke’s Gospel shares that “… a severe famine took place throughout the country,” which shows an ecological reality that surely had an impact on those most vulnerable. We also learn of the youngest son being taken advantage of by an exploitative employer who seized the opportunity to abuse a cheap employee. In striking and disturbing fashion, both of these realities – ecological instability and economic exploitation – are present today, which leads us to believe that the parable is about more than the common interpretations passed down through the generations. More specifically, the parable is not merely about the morality of a so-called prodigal son, but about the discrimination of a prodigal public that refused to care for a vulnerable and lonely traveler, for as we read in Luke 15:16, when the youngest son was at risk and in need, “… no one gave him anything.”
While the parable of Luke 15:11-32 is about many things (and it is filled with countless lessons), one can argue that it is ultimately a homily about the Good News of hospitality. As the youngest son’s father graciously embraced him (Luke 15:20), we are shown how God accepts us regardless of our many faults and imperfections. Furthermore, we are also shown how to express open hospitality toward others, especially those most vulnerable and so often hidden from the popular lenses of public view. In light of our contemporary ecological hardships and ongoing debates surrounding economic opportunity, people of Christian faith are distinctively called to extend such open and inclusive hospitality as a clear and direct expression of the Gospel of Jesus.
While many of our contemporary concerns have no easy solutions, the Christian response is ultimately the same for any matter the world is currently facing: love God and love others. To the best of our abilities. Regardless of the cost. Always. The particular responsibility to welcome the isolated and excluded into full participation through our diverse communities, with inclusive and equitable access to opportunity, maintains the biblical proclamation of God’s abundance and amazing grace. Which further means, as an expression of Gospel values and resistance to hostile fears, we who identity as people of Christian faith are called to accompany – through mutuality and solidarity – those whom our world finds it so easy to forget. Such a commitment to inclusion is by no means easy, practical, efficient, or even widely popular. However, such hospitality, especially when the public is most prodigal, is Good News for us all.