There is hardly anyone who is unfamiliar with the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s a prominent parable from the Christian Bible about a man with two sons. The younger son decides he can’t wait for dear old dad to die and asks for his inheritance now. The father, although crushed at his son’s request which was tantamount to wishing him dead, gave him his portion.
The son was thrilled. As any young person who comes into money, he was excited to enjoy his new wealth. He left home for far off lands and promptly began to squander his inheritance on women, fine food, and loose living. At the rate he was spending, it wasn’t long before his fortune was gone. A famine hit the country where he was living and so he hired himself out to a farmer. His job was to go into the fields and feed pigs. With nothing to eat, he found himself craving the pigs’ swill because no one gave him anything. It was at this low point he thought to himself how much better off even his father’s hired servants were.
In Ki Teitzei this week we read about the rules regarding the rebellious or wayward son:
"If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them; then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him, and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place; and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’ And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shall you put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear." Deuteronomy 21:18-21
It’s a shocking passage. Imagine parents who in their frustration and anger over their son’s behavior give him up to the city elders to be executed. Despite your progeny’s behavior, can you think of anyone who would find this as the solution? It sounds horrifying.
Rashi’s commentary lays out what the offending crimes of gluttony and drunkenness include. He says that the parents first must warn their son in the presence of at least two witnesses and have him flogged in the presence of three judges. The son incurs this punishment only if he steals from his father, consumes excessive amounts of meat and drinks too much wine. Rashi says that the unbelievably harsh punishment is executed because of what the son will become in the end. He will squander his father’s money, seek what he has become accustomed to, not find it, and stand at the crossroads and rob people—killing them for what they have and thus deserving the death penalty himself.
The Talmud in the same section that describes the above “crimes” and punishments also says that such an instance never occurred in all of Jewish history. It’s pure hypothesis.No parents ever actually brought their child forth to be executed. The reason we have this commandment in Torah—according to the Talmud—is so we might “study it and receive reward.”
Surely there is a lesson for us too. How about this? The wayward son, according to the Sages, is us. Specifically, the Sages say it refers to the Jewish people, but can’t we all see ourselves in this? We are supposed to be in relationship with God. We are to be sons of God, endowed with the spark of His presence, living because He breathes life into us.
Jews bear a greater responsibility for sure as our nation was singled out for spiritual greatness. Our burden is that we are to be a light to the other nations. How are the Jews doing with that? Frankly, how are any of us doing with that? Do you look around at the world today and think, “Wow, we’re doing great! What a moral, just, and spiritual society we have created and are living in!”?
Most of us, if given the choice, will opt for pleasure and ease over commitment and sacrifice. We’re not really very interested in what we see as a constrained life of obedience. We take all that the Father has given us and squander it on profligate living. We are the wayward son and we allow ourselves to be rules by our basest desires rather than our spiritual nature. Does this mean we ought to shut ourselves away and not participate in world? To the Monastery, everyone! We have become so focused on self that we use that word to encompass everything: self-esteem, self identity, self-made, self-love, self-confidence, and the mother of them all, selfy. We believe we don’t need His help or guidance. We refer to His Torah—true translation being “instruction”—as law and for some people, completely unnecessary and inapplicable to our lives. Instead of listening to His voice, reading and adhering to His word, we tell Him what we need and want and arrogantly advise Him how to conduct His affairs in this world. When things don’t go as we’d like, we shake our fists at the sky and blame Him. If only He’d listen to us. We know better.
God has given us all things to enjoy from fine food and wine to relationships with others to the grandeur of the world He created. We know what we ought to do, but instant gratification is far more—well, instant and that’s what we like.
The lesson of the wayward child is supposed to help us see ourselves. It’s meant to help us understand what the ultimate result is if we refuse to return to the Father. Death is not just about a physical ending. There can be spiritual death. Teshuvah does not mean putting our passions aside, but correcting our behavior. And God doesn’t just demand improvement, He supplies the power to change.
If we go back to the Talmud’s reason for the story of the wayward son to “study it and receive reward,” we might realize that the ultimate reward for us is a changed life. We might see that our Father in heaven is more than willing to welcome us back. That’s what happens at the end of the story of the Prodigal Son. He returns to his father, repentant and ready to be nothing more than a servant. The father, thrilled to have him home, welcomes him with open arms, places his ring on his finger and throws a party.
Who is the wayward son? We are. You and me. We have wandered far from His plans for us, squandered the riches of talent, family, and wealth on temporal things. What we need to remember is that He welcomes us back with open arms. We are His children, His prodigals. But His love for us is what is truly prodigal, which means extravagant, lavish, profuse, given in abundance.
May we recognize the waywardness of our own souls and turn back to Him for forgiveness and mercy.