I have never liked the parable of the prodigal son.Posted: March 13, 2012
“Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best-loved stories in the entire Bible. Throughout the ages, Christians have viewed the tale as a profound allegory of God’s long-suffering and ever-compassionate nature, so willing to forgive an errant child who squanders life and resources in pursuit of selfish pleasures. It is such a beautiful story, so rich in theological meaning, so reassuring to all who have ever sought divine forgiveness. The parable of the Prodigal Son — I hate it.” – Professor Mark W. Muesse, explorefaith.org
I think I’m starting to understand it. But in my not-so-humble opinion big bro got a raw deal, Dad is a weenie and an enabler, and little bro should have had the snot beat out of him.
We will share from The Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 11 through 32, New Century Version. Please read silently while I read aloud:
11 Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Give me my share of the property.’ So the father divided the property between his two sons.
Wait, wut?! “Fork over my share of YOUR MONEY, pops, I’m gettin’ the hell out of Dodge.” Like a snotty college freshman home at break: “Screw you, Dad, I reject your middle-class values. By the way, pass the roast beef…” Already I don’t like this kid.
According to New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine from Georgetown, little bro’s demand for “his share” is flat-out rude. He’s acting as though Dad’s already dead, and treating the family’s wealth cavalierly. And according to Hamp Keathley at bible.org, most readers don’t appreciate the gravity of little bro’s request. He as much as tells Dad that he wishes he were dead. Dissing Dad AND the family name. And Dad shells out the dough anyway. No questions asked. Wow.
13 Then the younger son gathered up all that was his and traveled far away to another country. There he wasted his money in foolish living. 14 After he had spent everything, a time came when there was no food anywhere in the country, and the son was poor and hungry.15 So he got a job with one of the citizens there who sent the son into the fields to feed pigs.16 The son was so hungry that he wanted to eat the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
Geez, there’s a shocker. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that coming. Right down Broadway. Dude, karma’s a beeyotch. You buttered your bread, now lie in it. Actions, consequences. So presently little bro gets a flash of inspiration:
17 When he realized what he was doing, he thought, ‘All of my father’s servants have plenty of food. But I am here, almost dying with hunger. 18 I will leave and return to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but let me be like one of your servants.” ‘ 20 So the son left and went to his father.
See where this is going? Little bro, the screw-up, demands “his share” of dad’s dough, then goes out and spends it like a drunken sailor. Eventually has to feed pigs to survive, not exactly a primo gig in New Testament times. Figures out he can get three hots and a cot if he goes back and hits up the old man again. Wasn’t even planning to apologize or repent.
“Every priest I’ve asked about this has told me that this is about real repentance. This isn’t real repentance; this is ‘how do I get food in my stomach because I was enough of a dumbass not to set some money aside to earn interest?’ If it were real repentance, occasioned when he was rich and in the midst of bounty, I’d have sympathy.”
So he drags his sorry butt home, to beg daddy to take him in as one of the help.
“While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt sorry for his son. So the father ran to him and hugged and kissed him. 21 The son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him. Also, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23 And get our fat calf and kill it so we can have a feast and celebrate. 24 My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!’ So they began to celebrate.
Okay, that’s just swell. Instead of a boot in the ass, Daddy-o gives little bro a new wardrobe and throws a shindig for him. Reason? He was so overjoyed that little bro managed not to off himself. Really?! Seriously?! That’s the point system here?! That’s where the high-jump bar is set?! No apology, no repentance?! That’s a pretty forgiving dad. One might even say “enabling.”
But now the plot thickens:
25 “The older son was in the field, and as he came closer to the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. 26 So he called to one of the servants and asked what all this meant.27 The servant said, ‘Your brother has come back, and your father killed the fat calf, because your brother came home safely.’28 The older son was angry and would not go in to the feast.
I wouldn’t go in either. Since little bro blew his bankroll the slaughtered calf, beautiful robe, and other lovely accessories will come out of big bro’s share. Screw that.
So his father went out and begged him to come in.29 But the older son said to his father, ‘I have served you like a slave for many years and have always obeyed your commands. But you never gave me even a young goat to have at a feast with my friends.30 But your other son, who wasted all your money on prostitutes, comes home, and you kill the fat calf for him!’
See what I mean? Raw deal. Little bro demands “his share” of daddy’s bread, goes out and pisses it all away, then drags his bad self home begging for a handout. Outcome = new threads, big par-tay. Big bro sticks around, works like a rented mule to keep the home fires burning. Outcome = errr, notsomuch. And he even has to pony up for little bro’s lovely consolation prizes.
31 The father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate and be happy because your brother was dead, but now he is alive. He was lost, but now he is found.'”
Wait, wut?! Not exactly a stirring justification. From Prof. Muesse:
“No wonder he raises hell when the reprobate shows up one day seeking to get back into the father’s good graces. We dutiful older sons know it’s just not fair. What’s the point of always doing what you’re supposed to do if it doesn’t earn you a few advantages? … It might be nice to imagine that the father’s words console the elder brother and convince him to join the party, but I don’t think so. The little speech is pretty lame. It reflects a father’s point of view, not that of a dutiful son. Do our parents really expect us to love our siblings as much as they do? It is easy for me to imagine the elder’s anguish stretching into weeks, months, and maybe years, renewed every time he sees his worthless brother strutting around in his new robe and flashing his fancy ring.”
And from Irim again:
“Time after time, I see people like the eldest son get taken for granted – the people who are quiet, dependable, always there. The father can claim that ‘what’s mine is yours,’ blah blah, but he appears to have a very poor understanding of human nature. His eldest, the steady, dependable one, needs OVERT appreciation as much as the younger wayward son needs to be welcomed back to the family. And what does the younger son learn by this huge feast? Go squander your life and come back home – not only will Dad welcome you back, he’ll kill the most valuable animal for you… Welcome him back with a low-key family dinner, let his brother have a go, really bring him home. Then set him to work the next morning. He’s home and is always welcome there, but being high-maintenance and high-drama will get him no more attention than that.”
A friend’s take on it was that big bro didn’t have anything to bitch about. After all, my friend said, Dad divided his property between the two. Big bro could have done the same thing little bro did. My reply, though, is that he DIDN’T. He stuck around to hold down the fort. Little bro wouldn’t even have had a place to come back TO if big bro hadn’t hung in there with Dad. And yet, big bro gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. The message seems to be, “Blessed are the screw-ups, the slackers, and the party animals, for they will be rewarded once they crawl back home.” See why I don’t like this story?
Like I said, I’m starting to understand this one better. I don’t see that it’s about repentance, because I don’t see where little bro did any actual repenting. Instead I’ve decided that partially it’s about doing something with what you’ve been given. Not sitting on your duff and letting opportunity go by. No matter what you think of little bro’s choices, you can’t deny that he made the most out of his share. Big bro got a share too, but chose to stay home instead. While that’s probably commendable and virtuous, and certainly safer, he didn’t take a chance with the windfall he’d been given. I believe part of the message is that God doesn’t want us to live timidly. I still think big bro got a raw deal, but I see where they’re going with that.
The other take on it came from Prof. Levine who agrees that it’s not about repentance. She points out that Jesus told this parable as the last of a set of three. He didn’t pick his set list by accident; if he told the three of them together, there was a lesson in common. The parable of the lost sheep, found in Luke 15:4-6, told of a shepherd who abandoned 99 sheep to search for one gone missing. The parable concludes with the shepherd calling his friends and inviting them to celebrate with him. (No word on whether lamb chops were on the dinner menu.) Then the parable of the lost coin, in Luke 15:8-9, tells of a woman who has 10 coins, loses one and devotes time to finding it, calling her friends to rejoice with her afterward. Prof. Levine concludes:
“If lost sheep and lost coin are about the coming together of a group that had been separated and is now whole, perhaps that should be the model by which we understand the prodigal son… That son may be no more repentant than a sheep and a coin. The important thing is that dad feels that somehow the family has become whole again and wants to bring that wholeness together.”
It’s interesting how even people who dislike this parable get something out of it. It’s a testament to the chord it strikes in us all. Again from Prof. Muesse:
“Forgiveness of a child comes fairly easy for a parent. What loving father would not forgive a wayward son who returns home penitential and humble, no matter how wasteful he has been? There is nothing remarkable in that. The real story of forgiveness in the parable comes into focus when we consider the older son. He too must forgive the younger son, and it will be far harder for him than for the father. And, what’s more, he may also have to forgive his father.”
“It’s wonderful to be the younger son. However, we often find ourselves in the place of the older son, don’t we? It’s this twist that makes this story in all its simplicity very complex. That’s what makes this story so difficult and why I’m convinced so many of us just don’t like it very much. What we must never forget is this. When we are in the place of the older son, as terrible as it feels, the story is not over. The father is still there with his arm around us, filled with love for us, begging us to come to the party. The question we are left with as we stand outside is this: ‘Will you come in and party with the brother you don’t like very much?'”
And a different take from Irim:
“So let this be a lesson to us all: turn and thank those who are always there for you – dependable, strong, those you almost take for granted. They’re your real treasures, the ones who will always be there when you need them.”
So I still don’t like the parable, but have tumbled onto some takeaways:
- Forgiveness doesn’t benefit the person we forgive; it’s for us. For-giving. Even when the person doesn’t deserve it, or doesn’t regret his actions.
- Live boldly. Don’t waste your share in life by retreating from it, especially if it’s going to cause you to resent those who DO go out after it.
- We are better together as a group. It is worth the effort to seek a loved one who is lost, to reach out, to welcome him back when he returns.
- However: thank and appreciate the ones who don’t stray, the ones who stand by you and give of themselves through thick and thin.
I will never stop thinking big bro got a raw deal. This one’s been tumbling around in my head for a long time, though, and I’d appreciate your take on it.