Act I: The Younger Son
Dad is well off. He is a gentleman farmer who owns considerable land. The younger son gets bored and wants to take off. You have known people like this; they have to live fast. Morning chores will never hold them to the farm. This guy must get out of here. Leave home--hit the road.
He demands his half of the inheritance and goes to live where life is fast and loud and busy. Usually a father must die for an inheritance to pass on, but the younger son breaks the old man's heart by saying, in essence, "You are dead to me; I'll take mine now."
With a broken heart, the old man hands over the enormous check.
Free at last! Money in his pocket and big cities to visit. Wine, women, and song. Late nights in clubs and slow, slow mornings, but he is living large.
"Prodigal" does not mean "nasty" or "sinful," but "one who spends or gives lavishly, one who is foolishly extravagant." He moves far from home where nobody knows him, where he can be reckless without restraint. Spending like there's no tomorrow, he is having a ball. He loves life as long as the drinks keep coming and the jazz band plays. As long as he is anesthetized to the ache in his soul and can stay out where the lights are flashing and pleasure comes cheap.
It is only when the noise stops that he knows but fights back the longing for home.
But the unexpected happened--famine. The market crashed, the jobs were scarce, the spender was spent. He had run through the bankroll, the economy had spiraled, he was left with no cash and no connections. With jobs so hard to find, he ends up taking a minimum wage job slopping hogs. Here he is, life of the party and now he is feeding pigs. What would people back home think? And again he thinks of home.
He comes from a religious tradition that won't have anything to do with pigs so he has surely hit bottom. He wants to eat what he is feeding the hogs, and in his tradition the pigs are ceremonially unclean. He is now aware that they are literally unclean too.
"I'll bet the hired hands at Dad's place are eating better than this," he finally starts to realize. He is living outside the feast of forgiveness. He is living outside the promises of home and takes the first, most feeble step back toward his father. He does not express sorrow for his choices, but is only concerned with his next meal, but it is first one step toward home.
Act II: The Father
Every morning he takes his breakfast on the porch with half of his attention looking down the long dirt road that leads to and from his place. The greatest pain in his life was the day that the child he loves chose to walk away with clenched fist and full pockets to pursue his own way.
He gave him the money when he left. He would do that again; it was not the money. The painful part is knowing that this child whom he loves is waging war against the world on his own. He was resistant to his father's guidance and embrace. He chose not to live with all the forgiving, loving benefits of home.
However, this father is not coercive. He knows that there is no such thing as a forced love. He decides to love both of his boys with as much lavish affection and blessing as he can. They will either respond to his love and love back or they will choose paths that are not love-filled.
He looks down the dirt road and his heart aches. He would trade all the cattle and barns and land if his son would just walk back down that road, back down the road of estrangement and turn it into a road of reconciliation.
He sits on the porch. Never giving up, the father always catches himself looking down the dirt road and hoping for return.
Then, one morning, over the top of his breakfast he sees a distant figure kicking up dust at the end of the long road that leads home.
The younger son was shuffling, head down, and rehearsing.
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you: I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
"Father, I have sinned against...."
And then the father saw who it was, it was not his face, but from the distance he saw the familiar gait.
And up from the porch--spilled coffee--overturned chair. He leaps down the porch steps, lifts the long robe with both hands and runs like a young man down the road.
Head down, the younger rehearses, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you...."
And as the father gets closer, running full speed and seeing only the fuzzy form created by tear-filled eyes, he gets close enough to see and hear the plea of his son,
"Father, I have sinned against...." But all other words muffled into the chest of a crying, embracing dad.
He yells back to the big house, "Get him a brand new suit and a nice ring. Put new shoes on his feet. Get the best champagne from the cellar and put the best beef we have on the grill. Call everyone in.
Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate."
Act III: The Older Son
The party has started. Inside there are festive lights and music. On the porch people stand around talking and laughing. Glasses clink. Out in the dark, out beyond the house, is the older son. The older son hates parties anyway but this is intolerable. The party is for his wasteful, selfish, good-for-nothing brother. The older brother is the one Mark Twain describes as "a good man in the worst sense of the word." He is responsible, upstanding. He is up early, fit in every way to inherit the farm, but he is a bitter man. He has never been able to celebrate what it means to be a child of a loving and giving father. He has never walked the property with joy in his heart knowing that it will all be his and that he can be the same agent of blessing that he has seen his father be. He has overlooked his blessings. His appreciation has turned dull. He has kept the rules and worked hard and feels like he deserves what's coming to him. And here he is...outside beyond the lights of the porch, and no one is giving him any attention. His weariness turns to rage, and he yells back toward the noise--he yells insults at his dad and brother.
He does what he is supposed to do and no one is throwing a party for him. "Do you not understand, they are in there dancing and celebrating a guy who hurt dad more than anybody's ever hurt dad. He was not around to do chores. He did not help build that fence. He was out spending money, living large, and now they are throwing a party for HIM? He's lived a party and now they are throwing him another one."
Act IV: The Father
The father stepped out onto the porch, looked around. Behind him you can hear the music--another cork popping--see the festive lights. But he was looking into the darkness for another son who, in his own way, had also rejected the father's love. So hardened by life that he couldn't even smile much, much less dance with the others, the father had an idea he would find him out beyond the house, pouting.
The father walked down the porch steps that he leapt earlier in the day. He started down the same dusty trail where his love had taken him earlier that day and there he found his older son.
"Come on, son, join the party. Life is about abundance and forgiveness and joy and love and blessing and you are missing it. You only see life as a set of rules...those who are in favor and those who are out. You think in terms of who deserves what and getting your due. Come on, enjoy this wonderful life."
"But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him.'"
With love for this older son, he took his hard face into his hands and looked through tears and said,
"Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
Come on. Join the party. Come home.
The author Frederick Beuchner says, with parables and jokes both, if you have to have it explained, don't bother.
Come on. Join the party. Come home.