Early on in this study of the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons, I suggested reading the parable and inserting yourself into the story as one of the characters, the one with whom you are most able to relate or identify. Since then I have intimated that it might be good to move into other characters of the dramatis personae. Today I want to explore the role of the hired hands, sometimes called servants, and slaves, and see if I can discover something about myself and this tale of woe and redemption.
Hired hands in New Testament days were not so different from today. They work for a wage, which we might infer from other parables was paid in those days to some day laborers each day. The workers in Father’s household may either be of the day laborer variety or of the permanent staff sort. When Younger Brother comes to his senses while he is slopping the hogs, he speaks of the hired hands who dine sumptuously, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare….” It may be that Father is paying his servants more than the usual going rate, indicating a generosity of spirit. Of course, perhaps from the starvation situation of the pig sty, even a day’s wage would seem more than abundant.
A linguistic difficulty is that there also appear to be slaves in the household. Both the Father and Older Brother call slaves (douloi) to do their bidding. Father orders a slave to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals to dress Younger Brother; Older Brother demands from a slave an account of the music and dancing. The Greek is quite explicit in these two cases that these are slaves and not hired hands. Nouwen’s translation of the parable ( The Return of the Prodigal Son, pages 1-2) calls them servants, as do some other versions, perhaps to soften the relationship of the family with their workers.
Whether day laborers, servants or even slaves, I believe Jesus is offering us a picture of workers that are well cared for by the household. There is nothing intrinsic in the story, save the comment of Younger Son in the piggery, that indicates a close relationship between any of the family and any of the servants. From that one comment, however, I infer that he might have had conversations with some of the workers. It may well be that as he was growing up, he got to know hired hands and played with their children. It is even likely that the slaves and servants were involved in the rearing of the boys and that Younger Brother had some affinity with them as well.
I have to admit a bias: I am guessing that Older Brother, although raised by servants and slaves, always saw himself as “above” the hired hands and slaves, and even their children, as he was to be the one to inherit the majority of the estate, including servants and slaves. Could it be possible that part of Younger Brother’s departure was to get away from the insufferable arrogance of his elder sibling? Who knows?
It is easy to read an excitement in the slave’s relating the story of the return of the profligate son to Older Brother. The excitement might simply be the joy at having a feast in which all might have a portion, but I read a deep relief that the lost child has returned, perhaps a friendship to be rekindled even with the slaves/servants.
I am aware that I am eisegeting (eisegesis: reading into the text what I want to read, as opposed to exegesis which is reading out of the text what is intrinsically there) but I believe that the parable from Jesus offers me the opportunity to see myself in His words.
The hired hands-servants-slaves of this household are a part of the community. If the parable is about the Kingdom, if this entire chapter is about lost and found, if for Jesus absolutely everyone is invited into the Kingdom, does this not also include the least of the household? I can see the joy of the hired hands and the slaves as a relief, not just for the grieving Father, but for themselves as well. They have lost a friend, and now he has returned. Yes, they will dine well, even if it is only the leftovers from the feast they have slaved to prepare. They too are partakers in the revelry, the feasting, the elation that one who was lost is found, one who was as dead that is now alive.
I encourage you to make the remainder of Advent an opportunity to engage with those who serve us without much thanks: store clerks, public servants, even the Salvation Army bell ringers, some of whom are homeless and earning minimum wage by working at what may seem like a menial task. Thank those folk for being present in your life. Remember the Baptismal Covenant question, “Will you seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” (emphasis added). Help me find ways to live that promise daily.