I have spent a lot of time in the past thinking about the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32), and it came back to mind this past weekend. It's a precious story even just on the surface - a son who makes some big mistakes, and a generous father who forgives. But it's only when you start to listen to the story with the mindset of those who would have heard it directly from Jesus that you really appreciate some of the even more incredible nuggets of fabulousness in it!
The prodigal son starts off in an amazing place of understanding about his position in the family - he knows he is a son and therefore an heir, so there is an inheritance to come. He's entitled to it and he's not embarrassed or ashamed about it -in fact, in this case he's so clear on this that in our terms he gets a little ahead of himself, by asking for his share whilst his father is still living and well! But hold that thought, we'll come back to this again shortly.....
And then there's what he gets up to with said inheritance. Well, some things never change - just as then, excessive drink and sleeping around with a multitude of women were as frowned upon in new testament Israel as they are by most today. So no great revalations there. But then the money runs out, and he has no place to go, and no-one to turn to. So this young man - and remember who was hearing this story - ended up feeding pigs. That's right, unclean animals - both in a physical and Old-Testament-Commandment sense of the word. Which means that, whatever you look at in terms of his life up to that point, he was now also unclean - he had committed adultery, effectively been caught up in idolatry in terms of his 'worship' of drink and women, loved everything and anyone but God and his family, so in body, mind and spirit this was one filthy man.
So what would Jesus' audience have been thinking about -certainly that Jesus was going to keep in line with Old Testament law, which probably left only a couple of likely options for this story's ending. Either he would tell them of how this man was now damned, because of the amount of sin over his life. Or, if there was redemption, he would explain that it would only be through great quantities of animal sacrifices and other rituals made on behalf of himself and his family, during which time he would probably be considered unclean and untouchable by anyone, until the process was complete.
But Jesus doesn't tell this story. Imagine the shock, confusion, hope, fear, uncertainty, wonderment - so many emotions -going through their minds, when they heard about the father who had constantly kept watching, trusting his son would finally make his way home. A father whose love for his son was so intense, so fierce, that his first thoughts were not about rituals and sacrifice, but about running to and passionately hugging his son. What was this? How would the Jewish audience have received this - not easily, I'm guessing, because it fundamentally challenged everything they had been told to believe. But it was, too, such a message of hope and grace - that a new covenant was on its way, where God's love for His children meant that He would ignore any barriers and run straight towards them, the moment they turned to Him. That's why the later tearing of the Temple curtain (when Jesus died) was so important - the barrier between the Holy of Holies, the central place in the Temple where God dwelt had been removed. Furthermore, this was not about us being able to now enter that place, although we now could, but more about how God was breaking out and running towards His people to embrace them - His Kingdom come, His will being done, now on Earth as it had previously only been done in Heaven!
Oh, and that inheritance I mentioned at the beginning..... well, although what he did with the inheritance wasn't great, there's still something to be learnt by Christians from this. At no point does the story suggest that asking for the inheritance early was wrong. It doesn't fit with our understanding of when an inheritance is received, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't have asked. In fact, the Father is quite clear to the other son, who remained behind, that 'all I have is yours' - the second son was welcome to ask at any time for part or all of his inheritance, in fact, he is effectively rebuked by his Father for behaving like a servant instead of a son and heir. 'Why didn't you ask me, son? All you had to do was say, you are a son and you are entitled to all that you see.....'. We need to understand that we don't have to wait to receive our inheritance. Instead we should start asking our Father-Daddy for what we want, not being reticent, or stingy with our requests, but instead being outrageous - 'Daddy I want it all, everything I'm entitled to!'. When we begin to get our head around the idea that we are sons and heirs, not servants and slaves, we are set free to enjoy the table of good things that God has set before us (Psalm 23) - it's our right, and we don't have to wait until heaven to get it!