Thursday, February 17, 2011

Production and The Prodigal Son

I recently taught a series of Sunday school lessons on the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is found in Luke chapter 15. The Sunday school material I used began by observing how deeply ingrained the parable of the Prodigal Son is in our Spiritual and literary traditions. It was noted that Shakespeare used plot points from the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Merchant of Venice and in Henry IV. Country music singer Hank Williams recorded a song called the Prodigal Son comparing the Prodigal's homecoming to the joys of heaven. The world's great Art museums contain many works featuring scenes from the Prodigal Son's experience. Of course we recognize terms like a wayward child being referred to as a prodigal son or daughter and we hear people talk about killing the fattened calf or riotous living. So the stories and the ideas of the prodigal son are very familiar in our traditions, culture and language.

In addition one can argue that this parable is the most richly detailed and personal of all the parables of Jesus. It is safe to say that everyone can relate to at least one of the three characters in the parable at sometime in their life.

Because of the details in this parable, many people seek complex symbolism, layers of meaning or hidden lessons which bend the rules of interpretation. We want to be very careful to focus on the plain meaning of Scripture and not invent our own meaning for the parable.

Our goal then, is to read the parable and observe the details that provide the framework for the story, so that we can understand the plain meaning of the passage. As I began to prepare my Sunday school lesson, a new facet of the details of the story came into my view. I noticed that there were many terms which were directly related to production. So class began with the study of how production fits into the parable. Our first task was to agree on a definition of production.

Production: Labor and resources combined to provide for needs and wants.

It was easy for us to recognize and agree that production is some form of gain or increase. Next we went through a series of questions to see if production was reasonable to consider in studying our Bible lesson. First we asked "Since people eat food and use things, do people depend on production?" The answer is obviously yes. Next we asked "Does our dependence on production influence our decisions?" Again the obvious answer is yes, with a good example being that we often go to work because we want to have food, clothing and shelter. Next we asked "Does our dependence on production challenge our morals?" Again the obvious answer was yes. Then we asked "As Christians, does our dependence on production challenge our obedience?" Again the clear answer was yes. Finally we asked "Who made us dependent on production?" As Christians we believe that God is our Creator, which means that God made us dependent on production.

So let's think about what we just observed. People eat food and use things which means that people depend on production. Our dependence on production influences our decisions, challenges our morals, challenges our obedience - all because God made things that way. (For those who do not believe that there is a creator, please explain how nothing and no one produced everything. I enjoy that debate.) There is no question that thinking about production while studying Scripture is a good idea.

There are more than 50 terms in the parable of the prodigal son which are related to production. In the passage which is pasted below you will see various terms in bold. These are terms related to production. For example the term give is meaningless unless there is something to give. The term share is meaningless unless there is something to divide. The term estate obviously refers to the property of the father. The term everything refers to all of the property belonging to the son. Journey is a term indirectly related to production because in order to take a journey one must have the resources to do so. Think of your vacation. Loose living is a term related to production, as we see in the parable when his resources are gone. Then we have the term enough bread. Bread is clearly related to production and enough communicates a quantity of production. Further down we see the terms music and dancing. Music flows from an instrument which would've been produced from profits which belonged to a producer. He was willing to use these profits to create a musical instrument because his more immediate needs of food shelter and clothing had been met. And of course dancing is something that typically involves music and is something that occurs among people who are in good spirits with full stomachs. We could go on and on looking at the terms, but we have sufficiently illustrated the reason that various terms are considered to be related to production.

Luke 15:11-32 And He said, “A man had two sons. “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. “And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. “Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. “And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” ’ “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ ” NASB95

As written above, I noticed that there were several terms related to production in the story of the prodigal son. After I went through the passage marking the terms that were related to production, it became clear that if these terms were removed there would be no story. So now we have this richly detailed parable which influences our traditions and culture and art, and which is meaningful to nearly every person in some way at some point in their life, and we find that if we remove terms related to production the story falls apart. To be very clear, I'm not saying that the truth of the story is lost, because truth exists apart from the story and apart from the framework used to tell the story. However, this parable relies heavily on the concepts of production to convey certain truth.

Our country today is sometimes called a welfare state, which means that there is a significant portion of our population that depends on welfare for food shelter and clothing. If the story of the prodigal son were told today in our country, it would go a little bit differently. After the younger son had squandered his wealth on loose living, he would've gone to the welfare office and signed up for his welfare check and food stamps. This would have kept him from "coming to his senses", thinking about the condition of the hired help on his father's estate, recognizing the error of his ways, repenting of his bad choices and bad attitude, confessing these to his father and ultimately being received back into the family.

The parable of the prodigal son tells us things about God the Father, about Jesus as Savior, about Christians as prodigal sons and daughters and about the religious people like the scribes and the Pharisees who approach God based on their works and confidence in themselves. This parable also tells us something about how God's natural order and natural law is used to draw people to truth.

A Christian is supposed to be led by the Spirit, not by the flesh. According to the Christian worldview, an unsaved person is led by the flesh rather than by the spirit.

A person who understands spiritual truth will filter the desires of his flesh through spiritual understanding. If a person who is led by the flesh is going to learn spiritual truth, his flesh sometimes has a role in leading him there. The parable of the prodigal son is an excellent example of how a hungry belly will bring a person to his senses. Therefore whether the flesh leads the spirit or the spirit leads the flesh, it is important that the flesh and the spirit move in the same direction and work together. With that thought in mind let's consider what happens if the flesh and the spirit go in different directions.

Based on my Christian worldview I believe that the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe and everything in it. I also believe that God is the ultimate producer, even going beyond production to the act of creation. I also believe that man is created in the image of God and, because God is a producer by nature, we also are producers by nature. However not everyone produces. So the question is, if people are by nature producers but are not always productive, how does a person feel when they are not productive? I agree that there are many people who are lazy and unproductive and have no desire to change, but what is going on inside? Consider the drug addict who is destroying his body. He is choosing temporary pleasure over the immediate and long-term health of his body. Likewise, people will choose to be lazy and unproductive even at the expense of the immediate and long-term effect on their spirit or the inner man.

When a person lives in such a way that he squanders the property that he has and does not work to replace it, he faces poverty and hunger. Poverty and hunger led the prodigal son back to his senses. If the prodigal son had been given just a little food and clothing and enough shelter to survive, chances are he would not have come to his senses, repented, confessed and been reconciled to his family. His inner man would've become corrupt and undergone decay, rather than healing.

Therefore if a Christian really loves other people he will never do anything to support the physical man in a way that will ultimately harm the spiritual man. Let's consider the passages from Scripture that will guide us in best serving the physical and the spiritual man.

2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

Proverbs 16:25-26 There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. 26 The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.

I want to consider one other point the parable. When the young son returned, his father hugged him around the neck and commanded his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals for his young son. Each of these gifts has a significant meaning, but we are going to focus on the ring right now. In those days, that ring would have been a signet ring which gave the possessor a right called usufruct. Usufruct is a Latin term that literally means "use of the fruits" and it describes the legal right to use someone else's property at no cost, while reaping the fruits as though the property were your own. We can see that the young son lost his right to any further inheritance, but while his father was alive he was able to use a portion of his father's property in order to produce and begin building sufficient wealth to take care of his own future family. Scripture records that God told the children of Israel that the land was His and they were tenants. With a little thought we can see the similarity between the Garden of Eden as the father's estate and Adam and Eve being evicted, but given the right to use God's property to satisfy their needs and some of their wants.

In summary, we find that the parable of the prodigal son is heavily dependent on terms related to production. We observed that our decisions are influenced by our dependence on production and that our morals and obedience are challenged by our dependence on production. We also see the God made us dependent on production and that God's natural order will cause a hungry man to lead his inner man toward right-thinking, restoration and productive life. An empty belly can get the attention of a stubborn will when no amount of persuasion will work. This means that if we support a hungry man who is unwilling to work, we have set in motion an internal decay that cannot be halted or reversed, except if we get out of the way and let the physical man once again be subject to the natural order and his dependence on production.

If we subsidize bad behavior, we will get more of it. If we penalize production, we will get less of it. Bad behavior is destructive and unfruitful. People depend on production. Following is a chart that I've shared in other places which compares and contrasts the biblical social model and the social model we use today in our country. Compare the chart to what we have discovered about the prodigal son.

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