A pair of small lamps illuminated Peter’s house, producing shadows on the walls. That night, like almost every night, we stayed after dinner talking, and Jesus told us the story of old Ephraim.
Jesus: …Yes, that man had a heart as huge as this lake. His name was Ephraim and he had six children. The first four were girls and the other two were boys. His wife died when the last child was born. Ephraim became a widower and had to work very hard to raise his six children. He had a small piece of land at the right side of the hill of Nazareth. There he sweated it out from morning till night, plowing and sowing. He worked like an old mule to provide them with their daily bread.
Jesus: The years passed and his daughters got married. Ephraim was left with his two sons: Reuben, the elder one, and Nico, the youngest….
Neighbor: Good morning, Ephraim!… How’s life treating you, neighbor?
Ephraim: Well, as you can see my friend, working very hard!
Neighbor: But your sons are already helping you, aren’t they?
Ephraim: Of course. Right now, the elder one is plowing one side of the field… It’s almost sowing time for us, my neighbor.
Neighbor: Ah, that son of yours, Reuben, is a grand boy, yes sir. He’s very dependable… but your other son… he’s something else!
Ephraim: Poor Nico…
Neighbor: Don’t defend him, Ephraim, ’cuz every one here knows your son’s misadventures. All he does is run after the girls. He’s a bum, that’s what he is. You gotta talk to him, Ephraim. Correct him while there’s still time. He isn’t growing up properly.
Ephraim: This boy grew up without a mother, neighbor. I had to be mother and father to him, do you under¬stand? I know him quite well. He isn’t a shameless guy, definitely not. He’s just a little confused….
Jesus: That night, Nico, the youngest son, came home very late….
Ephraim: Where could he’ve gone?… This is strange because your brother always comes home to eat….
Reuben: Oh yes; if only for this, he knows how to come on time… How brazen can he get… He doesn’t even bend his back to work, but you should see him eat… Oh, Papa, I’m done… I’m going to bed now.
Ephraim: I can’t sleep until he comes home, son. I’ll wait for him.
Jesus: Nico came home past midnight. The old man, Ephraim, was waiting for him….
Nico: Cheers to life, cheers to love…! Hic! Hey, Papa, you’re still up..? Hic…!
Ephraim: Son, why did you come home so late? I was worried about you….
Nico: Old man, life must be lived! Hic!… I was with some friends… We have some plans, you know. We’re leaving this little town… It’s so boring here, Papa… I’m bored to death here, and I can’t stand it anymore.
Ephraim: But son, what’re you talking about?
Nico: I’m leaving. Tomorrow I’ll be off. I don’t wanna stay here stagnating. I wanna see the world….
Ephraim: Nico, my son, you’re drunk. You dunno what you’re saying….
Nico: Listen, Papa. I know you’re keeping some money from the previous harvest… Gimme what’s due me… I’m gonna enjoy life… Cheers to life, cheers to love…!
Jesus: The next morning, old Ephraim took from a hole in the yard the money he had been saving from the last harvest, and gave his son what was due him. He was old enough to claim his inheritance. He wrapped the money in a piece of handkerchief and gave it to him hoping, up to the last minute, that his son wouldn’t go away…
Ephraim: Well son, if that’s your decision….
Nico: Hey old man, stop being sentimental…. Money’s supposed to be enjoyed and not kept….
Ephraim: And… where are you going?
Nico: Anywhere I can have some fun…!
Ephraim: Son, send me news about yourself through the traders coming here….
Nico: Nobody ever comes here, Papa, because this is a dead town. I’m sick and tired of everything and everyone here…. I’m going now, Papa, goodbye!
Jesus: Ephraim saw his son off as he disappeared down the road without even looking back. The father followed him with tear-laden eyes until he was lost on the horizon, among the olive trees along the road….
Reuben: Damn him, Papa! Why did he get the money he didn’t earn?
Ephraim: Your brother is free, son. If he wanted to leave…. I’ll not tie him up like a donkey. He isn’t my slave either…. He’s my son…
Jesus: At the port of Japhia, Nico started to squander the money he got from his father. Months passed by. He was in the company of women, got himself drunk or would simply gamble… All the money that Ephraim had saved by working like an old mule was squandered in a short time… Meanwhile, in Nazareth, his father never stopped thinking of him….
Neighbor: How’s life with you, Ephraim… just like any other day?
Ephraim: Yes, my neighbor, here I am still waiting…. The caravans from the South pass at this time. My son could be in any one of them…
Neighbor: He’s not coming back, Ephraim, after having been given such a large amount….
Ephraim: I don’t know anything about him. It’s as if he died.
Neighbor: Exactly. Consider him dead and suffer no more. Forget about him. You have five others left and they’re good. Forget about this black sheep….
Jesus: But how can a mother or father ever forget the child they’ve brought up? How can they cease worrying about the child who’s part of their guts?…
Though his son forgot him, Ephraim never forgot his son….
Nico: Hey, potbelly, bring me another jug over here; my throat’s so dry! Hik!… Besides, my girlfriend here, also wants to have a shot!… Isn’t that right, precious one?…. Ha, ha, ha…!
Jesus: Another month passed and another… Nico continued to squander his money. One day he bet all he had left and lost.
Nico: Damn the luck!… What the hell can I do now?
Jesus: He then looked for a job but found none. Things did not go well in Japhi. The harvest had been poor because of the drought that year. Money was scarce and there was hunger everywhere… Finally, after several days, a man contracted him to work on a pig farm in exchange for a measly salary….
Nico: What a miserable life! I’d gladly eat those carob beans instead of the pigs… but if the owner sees me, he’s gonna kill me with a beating… By the horns of Beelzebub, I’ve never felt so starved before!
Jesus: So weeks passed. Nico was dying of hunger while the pigs all got fat. He was filthy, stinking even more than the pigs, and he did nothing but complain….
Nico: Here I am, a shabby and miserable man, while at home they’re probably enjoying a nice and hearty meal…. They may be poor there, but they always have something to eat. I gotta return… I can’t bear this anymore…. I’m gonna tell the old man: Look, Papa, I’m sorry, I was wrong, things have been bad for me. Say whatever you want; yell at me; do anything you please; but please, help me. I’m sure the old man will soften up and will give me some money…. Yes, I must return….
Jesus: And so he decided to return….
Ephraim: It’s been more than 3 years since your brother went away….
Reuben: He’s your son, and not my brother. For me, it’s like a hundred years ago….
Ephraim: If I only knew where he was, I’d look for him…
Reuben: You could use up 10 sandals and still not find him. This son of yours is dead. Forget about him once and for all, Papa….
Jesus: That morning, like all mornings for more than 3 years, Ephraim went out to the road during the passage of caravans from the south, hoping to get some news from his son…. When the sun peeped over the horizon and illuminated the road, the poor father saw something coming from afar. Someone coming near. His heart told him it was his son, and old Ephraim, like a child, ran to receive him….
Ephraim: My son, my son!
Jesus: He embraced and kissed his son….
Ephraim: My son, you’ve returned…!
Nico: Papa, look, I’ll explain….
Ephraim: There’s no need to explain. You’ve returned and that’s enough! Come, let’s go…. Neighbor, help me bring me the best suit in the chest and get me the wedding ring of his mother for him to put on, and a pair of new sandals too…. My son’s in tatters…. You, servant, bring the fat calf and roast it fast…. My son’s hungry and he’s so thin, he has to eat well… He isn’t dead! He’s alive!… He was lost, but I’ve found him!
Jesus: Soon, the whole of Nazareth was in Ephraim’s house. The old man told the whole town that Nico, his son, had returned. He was home again….
Woman Neighbor: Where have you been, you rascal? Here we thought you had left the country….
Another Woman: How many girlfriends did you have?… See how happy your father is today. Look, he’s dancing with Susana!…
Nico: The truth is I’ve never seen him so happy.
Woman Neighbor: Ever since you left, he’s been waiting for you everyday. He always said you’d come back.
Another Neighbor: You did come back, young man! Come, let us dance to that!
Jesus: At noontime, Reuben, the older brother came back from work on the farm. As he approached the house, he heard the music playing and he wondered….
Reuben: Hey, you, what’s all the noise in the house?
Neighbor: Why, didn’t you know? Your brother Nico’s back! There is a big feast goin’ on in your house. Your father even ordered the slaughter of the fattened calf for the celebration. Run and catch up!
Jesus: The elder brother was enraged when he heard this and didn’t want to enter the house. Old Ephraim was informed what happened and he ran to look for his older son…
Ephraim: Reuben, my son, Reuben… your brother’s back! He’s back safe and sound! Come inside, we’ve been waiting for you…
Reuben: But Papa, you knew very well how this bastard squandered your money in wine and with whores. Now you offered him the fattened calf for his food and party…. You’re outta your mind, Papa!
Ephraim: Yes, my son: I’m crazy. I’m mad with joy. I was told that your brother was dead, but as you can see, he’s back with us. We’d lost him, yet we’ve found him. How can I not be happy? If I only had three calves, I would have killed all of them so we could have even a better celebration!
Reuben: Of course. I have spent my whole life with you, working and obeying you every time, yet you’ve never offered me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends….
Ephraim: Why didn’t you tell me, son? …You know fully well that what’s mine is yours. You know how I love the two of you….
Jesus: The old Ephraim embraced his older son with the same joy with which he embraced Nico. Then they went inside the house. Reuben embraced Nico and smiled. He hadn’t smiled for a long time…. After a few days, when his daughters and their families went to Nazareth for a visit, Ephraim had his two sons seated around the table, and everyone in the family was there.
That is the story of old Ephraim, that old father whose heart is as big as the lake. If you understand, then you understand our Lord…
It was Jesus who taught us how to love God as our Father.
The parable of “The Prodigal Son” should have been entitled “The Parable of the Good Father” because it is he who is the real protagonist in Jesus’ story. This is one of those parables used by Jesus to teach those who listened, how God is. Ephraim’s character – that of generosity, patience and infinite capacity to forgive – best describes the greatness of God’s heart.
In his talks, Jesus did not resort to abstract language in expressing concepts and ideas. He used concrete images. In this parable – without naming it – he tells how God can forgive. He describes it with various symbolism. When Ephraim found his lost son, he clothed him with a new tunic. In the Orient, such a presentation of a new dress is a gesture of great appreciation and in biblical language it symbolizes the coming of salvation. The father also gave him a ring and a pair of sandals to wear. The ring typifies the full trust one gives to another, while the sandals represent a free person (the slaves never wore them). Lastly, the banquet; meat was eaten only on special occasions. To partake of a meal together at the same table was indicative of the forgotten past and a sign of complete communion. In presenting these images, Jesus tells us how God can be forgiving to one who repents and goes back to Him.
The parable consists of two parts; it tells about the two types of attitude shown to God by the two sons. For them, the father is the same: understanding and easy to forgive with open arms. But the older son does not share in the joy. He has done no wrong all his life but neither has he understood who the father is. Here, Jesus invites those who are “good and just” to share in the joy of seeing those who were lost – the less fortunate – also seated at the table and participating in the banquet. For people like the older brother, the gospel always turns out to be scandalous. Because of their merits accumulated in the course of time – prayers, observance of the commandments and sacrifices – they not only wanted the Lord to reward them with heaven, but also wished to deprive the rest, particularly the sinners, of the same blessings. Sadly enough, this attitude is common among a great number of people who call themselves Christians.
In this story, Jesus compared God to the father with the big heart. He taught his disciples to call on God “the Father” as he always did. In all the books of the Old Testament, it is said that God treats His children as “a Father” but on no occasion did anyone address Him as “my Father.” (The invocation “Our Father” is used in collective prayers, in the name of the whole community). The immense trust with which Jesus addressed the Lord as “father”, as “Papa” (“abba”), the Aramaic word affectionately used to mean father, is an outstanding characteristic of his personality. In the whole literature of prayers in ancient Judaism, not a single prayer is found invoking God as “Abba,” not even in the liturgical or private prayers. At this point, Jesus was not heir to the tradition of his ancestors. Instead, he opened a new road unknown to anyone and replete with theological consequences which enabled us to get to know him more profoundly. Thus, through him, we definitely come to know God as our “Father.”