Janelle Gregory serves on the Resurrection staff as a Human Resources Specialist.
If someone were to ask me to tell them the story of the prodigal son, I would tell them all about the son who asked for his father’s inheritance, squandered it, hit rock bottom, decided to come home where his father ran to greet him with open arms and threw him a huge party (in my head, I picture a Mariachi band). Does that tell the story? Yes. Does it tell the whole story? Nope. In addition to the historical inaccuracy of the Mariachi band and leaving out all of the dynamics with the older brother, it skips over a few important verses.
Let’s start with verse 14. This is post-squander/pre-Mariachi band.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
And then verse 16:
He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
Here is this son who came from an affluent family, and now it’s not just that his stomach is growling. No, he’s longing to fill his stomach with the food he’s throwing to the pigs.
Unfortunately, most of us are not able to grasp the severity of this verse. We get that this son is starved, so he’s eager to eat some pods. It doesn’t sound appetizing, but it’s not that big of a deal. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve walked past a bakery for dogs and drooled a little. If I was hungry enough, I might long for the pods too.
But wait. We’re forgetting the context of the story. We don’t get it, because the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan makes most of us giddy. But those hearing this story from the mouth of Christ saw something entirely different. We forget that during this time, pigs were considered unclean. Those listening were disgusted when they heard that this son worked on a pig farm. Longing to eat what the swine ate, was just putrid.
To put this in today’s perspective, what if I told you that I told you that I was hungry, starving really? And so when I saw my neighbor take out his trash, I went over to the bin and started searching through it. In the midst of the used tissues, old socks and cat litter was the discarded heel of a loaf of bread. As soon as I spotted it, I was ecstatic! I longed to sink my teeth into it and feel it hit the bottom of my empty stomach. I wanted to reach through the wads of hair and bloody bandages just to put my hands on it.
Is the picture any clearer now?
Good, because we miss an important part of the parable if we don’t understand or skip over verse 16. Though it makes us uneasy, we must find our own story in this verse. Just like the son, we long to be filled. Though God would gladly pour into us, we find ourselves longing for the pods that the pigs were eating, for the heel of bread under the used tissues.
Any time we turn to be filled with something other than God, this is exactly what we’re doing. Our heel of bread in the trash might look like a forbidden relationship or the next drug fix. Or maybe the heel we’re hoping to fill us is more socially acceptable: public recognition, power, a sense of control, more money, a spouse, a child.
Verse 16 challenges us to recognize our humanly desires. It opens our eyes to see them for what they really are, to see them as the heel of bread under the cat litter. Verse 16 is significant to our faith… but we mustn’t get stuck there.
We must continue to verse 17:
“When he came to his senses… “
This son, wanting desperately to be filled, eventually came to his senses. He recognized what was happening, what he needed to do. He was not going to be satisfied by the pods. He had to go home. Just as verse 16 is a challenge for us, verse 17 can be even more so. We must see the heel in the trash for what it is, and then we must come to our senses!
For when we do just that, we find ourselves in the midst of verse 20:
“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.”
Verses 16, 17 and 20 are our story. They are crux of who we are as children of God. As Brennan Manning puts it, “To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.”
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions.