“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13). What a turn in life and fortune Jesus captured in these few words. The young man had more than most of the world could dream of owning. After converting flocks or grain, possessions and property, he owned 1/3 of a wealthy estate. To a world populated primarily by slaves and impoverished serfs, such a man was standing at the top of the social ladder. Given the popular belief of the day that wealth is proof of divine favor, this man has been blessed by heaven and earth.
But not for long. He left his Palestinian home to see the larger world. And it saw him coming. Soon he “squandered” his wealth—the word means to scatter in various directions (Rienecker 186). Jesus used the same word in Matthew 25.24: “gathering where you have not scattered seed” (Robertson 208). Picture a farmer throwing his seed to the wind, and you see the younger brother at work. His father’s lifetime of earning and savings was nothing to him. Easy come, easy go.
Had he invested poorly, we would criticize his foolishness but not his goals. But no: he squandered his wealth in “wild living.” The word means to “live prodigally,” to engage in debauched living (Rienecker 186). It stands for reckless waste with free reign given to every passion, the height of undisciplined freedom (Bruce 580), the “limit of sinful excesses” (Robertson 208). This word, found here only in the New Testament, names its owner for all time as the “prodigal son.”
What happened next is the way of our fallen world: “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need” (v. 14). Famines were common in the ancient Near East. They were caused by crop failures, want of rain, strong sun, or prevalence of plagues or pestilence (Barnes 102). At the worst possible moment, such a famine struck the “whole country” where he now lived. The young man had lost all he owned, and now had no way to earn it back.
So he stepped from the immoral to the unthinkable: “he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs” (v. 15). “Hired himself” means to glue together, to join. He appears that he forced himself on a citizen of that country (Rienecker 187; Bruce 580). And not just any citizen—a pig owner, thus a Gentile. Remember that the Jews were taught to believe that God made Gentiles only so there would be firewood in hell. No self-respecting Jew would go into a Gentile home, or touch Gentile possessions. And above all, no Jewish boy would feed a pig.
Pig herding was the most degrading occupation known to the Jews (Rienecker 187). Pigs were “unclean” for the people (Leviticus 11.7); they were “not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses” (Deuteronomy 14.8). One of the rabbis said, “Cursed be the man who raises pigs” (quoted by Fitzmyer 1088).
Barnes gives us the spiritual sense of Jesus’ picture: “The object of this image, as used by the Savior in the parable, is to show the loathsome employments and the deep degradation to which sin leads men, and no circumstance could possibly illustrate it in a more striking manner than he has done here. Sin and its results everywhere have the same relation to that which is noble and great, which the feeding of swine had, in the estimation of a Jew, to an honorable and dignified employment (103).
The “prodigal” has taken his father’s estate as though he were dead. He has left his home for the “far country.” He has “squandered” possessions his father spent a lifetime earning. Now he has forced himself on a Gentile to feed pigs. But there is one step lower into the abyss: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (v. 16).
These “pods” were horn-shaped parts of the carob tree (Bruce 580), sometimes called “Saint John’s Bread” from the notion that the Baptist ate them in the wilderness (Robertson 209; cf. Barnes 103). Some read the text to suggest that the prodigal could eat these but nothing more (Bruce 581). But the more likely meaning is that he could not have even these (Barnes 103). In such depressed times of famine, this food had been measured out for the swine and there was nothing to spare.
Here is what it is like to leave the home of grace. It is to refuse your Father’s plans and purposes, dreams and goals for your life. To take gifts, abilities, possessions and opportunities which he intends to be used for his glory and your good, and use them for your own selfish ends. To waste them. To give yourself to people or purposes which demean him as your Father, and dishonor his family and you. To find yourself starved and abandoned alone.
It is your story and it is mine. It is the story of every person who rejects the love of God, who leaves the home of grace. But the story didn’t end there. It never does.
Coming home to grace
“When he came to his senses” (v. 17a)—the second chance of grace. The Greek says literally, “coming to himself.” It can mean that he realized his situation, but more likely it indicates that he came to “his true self, his sane mind” (Bruce 581). The phrase was commonly applied to one who had been deranged but recovered his mind (Barnes 103). In this case, his soul.
No matter where you find yourself today, it’s not too late. You can stop feeding the pigs, and craving their food. You can stop working for the pig owners. You can come to yourself. You can come home to grace.