In applying a first-century Jewish mindset to the parables, one would view the parable of the “prodigal son” as read in Matthew 21:28-32 in a much different light. In its original setting and context this parable would be a shocking story about the mercy of a father toward his sons.
When the first son demands his share of the inheritance, he is essentially saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” This would be a shocking statement in the Oriental world of the ancient near east. The fact that the second brother accepted his share of the estate would be equally as horrifying and shocking to a first century Jewish audience. There have been two actual instances of this type of situation happening in recent history in the middle east, and in one instance the father died of a heart attack after his son’s request upset him so much.
When the wayward son returns, the Father has a shocking amount of mercy on his son, and everyone (except the older brother) celebrates and participates in the happy reunion. Shalom is restored, and everyone rejoices. It’s interesting that the Hebrew word for “forgive” comes from the same root word as the word “dance.” Forgiveness and reconciliation should ultimately cause rejoicing and dancing, if you ask me.
Luke 15: 11-31: The Parable of the Merciful Father (Prodigal Son)
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “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. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”