Lent Reflection: A Strong Famine

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. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

– Luke 15.14-16

I’ve found it interesting reflecting on this next stage of the story.

First, the Son has set his heart on independence and freedom from his family.
He despises his Father and asks for his inheritance.
Once this is done, he heads off to a far off land which seems to represent freedom and happiness to him.
There, he squandered his wealth and enjoyed his new-found freedom.

However, this freedom was not to last.

The money runs out.
The partying, socialising, feasting and extravagance came to an end.

And ‘there was a severe famine in that whole country’.

Famines and disease and war were often used throughout the Old Testament as a sign of God’s judgement on a nation. Some might suggest that the famine is a direct judgement on the Prodigal Son, however any sense of judgement seems to me to be secondary. Even where it’s applicable, it would be fairer to say that the entire culture of extravagance and the celebration of material wealth, which has been so attractive to the Prodigal Son, was the subject of any judgement here.

When I think on this part of the story, I’m not drawn so much to the concept of Judgement, but rather to the idea of Freedom.

The younger Son wanted to be free of his family and the family obligations. Given that this story is being told by Jesus as a parable different people are intended to identify with different aspects. I’ve mentioned before that the younger son is a sinner just like the tax collectors and sinners. Perhaps, without being overly dogmatic in the allegorical comparisons, the son’s Father and his household represent the Jewish culture and tradition, including the practice of following the Law of Moses.

In this case, perhaps he thought that by ‘escaping’ his family he could live without the demands of the Law resting upon him. He thought he could be free. 

Yet for all his independence and self-sufficiency he finds himself in a situation which is so much greater than just him. This is a national crisis. His significance comes not from his wealth, but simply by virtue of being the subject of the story Jesus is telling. In that place, during that strong famine no one gave two hoots about him. They gave him nothing.

He left behind the duties of the Law of Moses. He left behind his family, his people and his culture. He tries to stick to his guns. He’s going to be okay because look, here’s someone who’s hiring. It’s to feed pigs, but he’s a free man. His old culture and his family, stuck with the burden of those petty rules and laws wouldn’t dream of working with pigs because they were considered unclean. But a job is a job and a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do to survive.

Thus, the younger son set off to the land of the free to enjoy life and his wealth. Instead he finds himself as a person of no consequence and in the eyes of the only people in the world who might still care for him he’s a disgrace, a failure and, worst of all, unclean.

It’s in this context that the sheer joy and freedom of verse 20 and verse 24 seem so ridiculously extravagant and free – but in such a different way!

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 round him and kissed him.

…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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.

– Luke 15.20,22-24

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