The human community exists in perpetual motion; migration is a constant feature of our local and global reality. According to the International Organization for Migration, the total of international migrants increased from an estimated 150 million in 2000 to about 214 million in 2010, and the number of internal migrants (those who move within the borders of a given country) is about 750 million. These relocations are often related to the harsh consequences of war, environmental destruction, and economic downturn. As a result, those engaged in migration often do so for the sake of safety and opportunity, yet these potential rewards are sought in spite of deep personal and financial risk.
While the rates appear to be on the rise, the phenomenon as a whole is by no means exclusive to the present. The New Testament passage often known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” includes some of the harsh realities that are often associated with migration. One can examine this well-known parable through the lenses of migration, and in doing so, we are given insights in how to more faithfully extend hospitality to such strangers.
As Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32) reminds us, the youngest of two sons asked for an early inheritance from his father, received it, and then traveled to a “distant country” where he “… squandered his property in dissolute living.” As the term “dissolute” typically intends to describe degenerate and/or sinful behavior, we often conclude that the youngest son was deeply immersed in immorality, thus we find it difficult to feel sympathy when he later falls into the depths of poverty. We tend to perceive the prodigal son as someone who got what he deserved, for as the parable seems to illustrate, not only did he waste the inheritance received from his father, but he did so through sinful choices that brought deep dishonor to his family.
While some biblical translations use “dissolute” (New Revised Standard Version) to describe the younger son’s behavior (Luke 15:13), others use terms such as “riotous” (King James Version), “loose” (Revised Standard Version), or even “wild” (New International Version). However, the Greek word originally used, ἀσώτως (transliteration: asōtōs), does not necessarily mean any of these translation options, as asōtōsmeans “expensive” or “without saving.” And so, we see that the accusations surrounding prostitution (Luke 15:30) may not be grounded in factual evidence, but they could be manufactured by the older (and spiteful) brother. Upon further review, Luke’s Gospel does not confirm or deny anything about the younger son actually sleeping with prostitutes or even spending the inheritance through immoral means. As a result, while the younger son should be held accountable for his lack of fiscal discipline, we should recognize that factors outside of his personal decisions may have led to his impoverished state.
While the younger son is shown to be an unskilled financial manager, his poverty is also due to various circumstances that continue to impair countless migrants in our current day and age. For example, Luke’s Gospel shares that “… a severe famine took place throughout the country,” which shows an economic downturn that surely had an impact on those most vulnerable (such as migrants). We also learn of the youngest son being taken advantage of by an exploitative employer who recognized the opportunity to hire a cheap employee. In striking fashion, both of these realities – economic stagnation and the exploitation of migrant labor – are present today, which leads us to believe that the parable is about more than the common interpretations passed down through the generations. The parable is not merely about a prodigal son, but about a prodigal public that did not care for a vulnerable and lonely stranger, for as we read in Luke 15:16, when the youngest son was at risk and in need, “… no one gave him anything.”
As “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is recorded by Luke as being told by Jesus, and because Jesus himself was influenced by a Jewish tradition that sought to bring dignity to migrants (“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” – Exodus 22:21; “The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” – Leviticus 19:34), one may argue that Jesus could have crafted his parable fully aware of the migratory context. And so, as we in the U.S. hear this parable about passage to a distant land, we recognize that most of us are descendants of women and men who made similar choices. Because the flow of immigration continues to this day, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” can be read as an important lesson for how we in the U.S. receive those who leave their familiar surroundings, risk their lives, and come into our midst for the sake of safety and opportunity.
While the parable of Luke 15:11-32 is about many things (and it is filled with countless lessons), one can argue that it is about the restoration of community through radical hospitality. As the youngest son’s father graciously welcomed him (Luke 15:20), we are shown how God accepts us regardless of our many faults and imperfections, but we are also shown how to express hospitality toward others, especially those most vulnerable.
If our core unity as human beings takes precedence over national identity, ethnic heritage, and/or economic self-interest, the result is a society that is more willing to advocate for the needs of others rather than exploit others for purposes of personal gain. And so, instead of living as a prodigal public that too often wastes the hopes and dreams of those seeking a better life, the time is upon us to welcome the various strangers of our world into our midst, extend the radical hospitality of Jesus, and in doing so restore communities into the redemptive vision that God has placed before us.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa.).
Photo: Father and son, Suzanne Tucker  / Shutterstock.com