Most have heard reference to the biblical story of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15. Many years ago I become fascinated with this parable and researched all that it represents. I found the story of the Prodigal Son maps out the road for recovery. It parallels the concepts of the 12 Steps.
This teaching story—parable– was originally told by Jesus to a crowd that included two main audiences. One group—Pharisees–were harsh, legalistic religious leaders that believed Jesus should have taught people that they needed to live by strict rules and laws with continual judgment and consequences hanging over them for every mistake they made. This mind set still exists. Jesus disagreed. The other group was common folks and hurting people—like most of us—who knew we mess up on a regular basis.
Jesus used the parable to present to both groups the true nature of God. God knows we mess up. God’s nature provides a path of forgiveness, restoration and recovery.
In our time and culture, we miss many details the first audience heard. The parable starts with the younger of two sons coming to his father and asking for his half of the inheritance. In that culture the younger son’s portion of inheritance was not set until his Father’s death as un-married daughters and even relatives could have legitimate claim against any portion due the second son at the time of the Father’s death. On the other hand, the oldest Son was always entitled to half as he was automatically appointed caretaker and protector over all of the estate. Pharisees represented the elder son in the parable.
To make the point that God runs God’s business—not religious leaders—Jesus’ story has the Father (God) giving the young son what he asks for—half the estate. The kid blows it on wine women and song. When his money runs out; so does his friends. The Prodigal in desperation gets a job with a pig farmer which pays so little that he must eat and sleep in the pig pen.
The original audience knew that this added insult to injury for the Pharisee listeners as their religious laws said pigs were un-clean animals. The Prodigal comes to hate living in the pigpen. He chooses to go home and beg Dad to let him be a servant.
The prodigal’s retracing his footsteps back to his Father paints that cultures picture of the biblical notion of repentance—retracing our steps that led us to our mistakes (sins) in the opposite direction. Their culture was structured around the notion of “guilt and shame”. Cultural rules set out strict standards. Family members bringing shame would be disowned in severe cases. The Prodigals abuse of family resources would be such a case. The older son had a cultural right to take offense at his brother’s antics. Under any circumstance the shaming offender would have to approach the Father in his tent and beg forgiveness.
The parable tells a different story. The Father sees the Prodigal afar off and runs to meet him. The Prodigal begs to be accepted back as a servant. Instead, the Father orders his servants to bring the Prodigal a robe, a ring and sandals—all articles that were used then to identify family members. Dad plans a “blow out” party to celebrate the Prodigal’s return.
This makes the older son [think harsh judgmental religious people] fume. He complains to Dad that this kid should be kicked to the curb for bringing shame to the family and wasting the family resources. The Dad (God) reminds the elder that it is his place to make such decisions and he chooses to celebrate that his Prodigal who was once lost is now found. The Father’s nature (God) includes forgiveness and restoration once the Prodigal chose to leave the pigpen and head home. The Prodigal felt he had no right to once again be part of the family and would need to humble himself and ask for forgiveness. To his surprise, his Father was happy to give it when the Prodigal asked.
That’s the Recovery Road. A Twelve Step journey starts by requiring we admit—not deny—we got ourselves living in a pigpen and we want out ( Step 1). Steps 2-11 instruct us that we will need some assistance climbing out of the pigpens mire. We need to find a family that welcomes us back [think Celebrate Recovery, AA, caring recovery centers, etc.]—not a den of Pharisees wanting to see us punished. We have to choose to start the recovery journey. We need to ask forgiveness from those we have hurt and then accept that forgiveness or we can’t be restored. Many times we won’t forgive ourselves. This blocks recovery. In time, we also need to take our place in the family and be a family advocate (Step 12).
As a Christian, I have come to know and trust this parable as revealing the true nature of God. Many have not. That does not change the path that recovery rides on—the path so clearly outlined in this little parable. The Twelve Steps, which reflect this same path, have served as the road for recovery for millions—many who identify themselves as Christian but many who do not.
Even though there are many reasons to know your car is a Ford and follow the Ford operator’s manual, a Ford car will take you where it is driven whether you acknowledge it is a Ford or not! This Recovery Road will take you to recovery if you get on it and keep going whether you acknowledge God as its source or not. We say it differently in Twelve Step circles: “Keep coming back. It works if you work it”!