And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. -Luke 15:14-16
The parable of the prodigal son is one that many people know even if they are not a part of a bible-believing church. The idea of a child not appreciating what they have, throwing it away or taking it for granted, only to return as a humbled adult with a better sense of self makes for a wonderful story. And when it ends with a happily-ever-after, what’s not to love?
I want happily-ever-after for our story.
Unfortunately, in most modern-day tellings, the audience is brought in at the moment where the protagonist is about to make that fateful turn for good. Luke records it in vv 17-20a. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ We love that moment. We cheer and weep and wonder at the mercy of God to turn the hearts of sons back to their fathers.
We forget that in order for them to come home they first went to the pigs.
Pigs are unclean animals for Jews. There is no room for consideration of this point. If you are a Torah-following Jew, then you refrain from eating or even touching any pork. In the ancient world, swine were even more abhorrent. The best way Antiochus IV of Syria could display his revulsion for God’s people was to sacrifice pigs on the temple’s altar when he invaded Jerusalem in 168 BC. For this reason, there is no doubt that Jesus chose to use pigs as his example of ultimate humiliation in the parable of the prodigal son to underscore the point that our pride is often broken only after we reach the very bottom of the pit. When the young man in Jesus’ story was willing to eat the garbage that a ceremonially unclean animal was eating, he knew he was finished running.
Pigs are still essentially the same creatures as they were 2000 year ago when Jesus taught this lesson. They are scavengers by nature, which means that they will eat almost anything, including rotten food, feces, urine, carcasses and even cancerous growths. We are not Jewish, and we do enjoy pork. But the point of the parable is that the son was willing to eat what the pigs ate. In fact, he longed for it.
Asher is preparing to eat with the pigs. He longs for the garbage.
Now, the father in the parable is an interesting figure. He clearly represents God and the merciful kindness of a Creator who welcomes home the wayward child. But He also shows us exactly what it looks like to bear real love for someone who is making poor choices. The father was vigilant in his watchfulness, but he did not leave home to traipse across the ancient world begging his son to make better choices. The father waited for the son to return to him. He waited with mercy in his heart, but he waited nonetheless.
I imagine that in the story of the prodigal son, people probably knew the father. He was clearly a wealthy man and capable of providing his son with an inheritance before his own death. How much of the son’s behaviors made their way back to the father’s ear? How many people stopped by the father’s tent and asked awkward questions about the decision to allow his son to carouse and squander his inheritance?
In Asher’s rehabilitation program, the leaders require the inmates to memorize several behaviors and their corresponding definitions. Fronting is one such behavior. It involves the creation of an identity or background that is false but will provide the user with attention. Asher, plagued with insecurity and self-loathing, is languishing in a fronting scheme that labels Joseph and I as cruel, physically and emotionally abusive, and neglectful.
The first time we were asked about the charges of abuse and neglect put forth by Asher, I was stunned. His probation officer gently informed me of what my son was claiming and apologized as he asked if, indeed, we were guilty of child abuse. The stories had just enough fact in them to be grounded in reality but veered wildly away from the truth. And they painted us in the worst possible light.
Asher longs for acceptance from his peers who mostly come from dysfunctional, addiction-prone, abusive environments, and his own story of origin just isn’t enough. Rather than turn and run for the love and grace being offered to him by his father, he chooses to claim the pigs as his inheritance. He is lying about our character, denying that we love him, claiming that our involvement in his case is all just an act to make people think we are caring parents when, in reality, we only want to hurt him.
Like the prodigal son, his choices and appetites are lies in the face of his upbringing and the character of his father.
And so we wait.