Redemption is a very appealing concept to most people, it infers rising above one’s current state, acceptance despite failure. Recognizing the difficulty most humans have with forgiving each other, Luke relates three parables about redemption, focusing on the joy of the redeemer rather than the redeemed. I believe this is an attempt to say “You might not quite understand this, but God still loves you”.
The first parable, “The parable of the lost sheep”, appears in both Luke and Matthew. In this parable, a shepherd with one hundred sheep loses one, and leaves the other ninety nine while he searches for the missing sheep. When he finds it he is filled with joy.
In case one might think there was something special about that individual sheep, Luke follows with the parable of the lost coin, in which the subject sheep are replaced with coins, ten pieces of silver, of which one is lost.
Luke completes the series with the most popular parable, “The prodigal son“, possibly because it is more complete in its explanation, and possibly because while many of us might not own one hundred sheep or even ten pieces of silver, we can all understand the concept of a stray child.
“Prodigal” does not refer “Prodigy”, its meaning translates to “wasteful” in modern English. The prodigal son is the younger of two, and requests his inheritance while his father is still alive. In a world in which actions had deeper meanings, asking your parent to just go ahead and give you your inheritance is similar to saying “You’re dead to me”. Back when words had deeper meanings, that was as severe an insult as you might hear.
The elder son stayed with the father and family, working the land, and the younger son took his inheritance to a foreign land, where he wasted his money on “riotous” living. Some translations mention prostitutes. After he had spent all he had, the land fell on hard times and famine, keeping in mind this is a parable, it is possible to translate this to mean the younger son himself was the source of “wealth” in his self imposed exile. The young son found himself working as a swineherd (remembering the Jewish aversion to pork, this is an incredibly low position) and envying the pigs their food. He decides to return home and repent to his father, asking only that he be allowed to work for him, because his father’s servants had never gone hungry. But his father saw him approaching.
The father ran to him, embraced him, and clothed him in a fine robe and sandals, and called for a feast to celebrate his son’s return, killing the fatted calf for the feast. And here, the most important verse.
“24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”.
Take this point. When the son requested his inheritance, not only had he removed his father’s presence from his life, he had ended his own life in his father’s eyes. This was not an issue of the father’s anger, but of the grace the father displayed by letting the son go.
The older son wasn’t quite as understanding, and upon returning from the fields refused to enter the feast, so that his father had to invite him in, and the son was still reluctant to enter, “29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf”.
Humorous aside. While checking various translations, one read “You never gave me a goat to party with friends”. Just places a strange image in the mind.
The father responds to the elder son that he (the son) is always with him (the father), and all the father has is the son’s, going on to reprise “32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found”.
The idea that the “righteous” might be jealous of those that strayed and returned is also reflected in Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1-16, in which a man promises to pay workers to harvest grapes, and as the day passes he hires more workers, offering higher wages. At the end of the day those that had worked the longest received the least, and those workers who had worked all day complained, but the man responded “did I not pay you what I promised?”.
Heaven is all the reward waiting. There are no first class suites, no steerage compartments, and our father is happy to bring us on board anytime before the boat sails. None of us are more valuable to him than any other, our works are either good or they are not, we either enter heaven, or we do not. “Purgatory” is not a Christian concept, and seeing that the idea predates Christ its absence from the New Testament is telling.
Life is purgatory. Be the best you are capable of, your time here is fleeting and without schedule.