There are a lot of things going on in today’s gospel story. Did you notice some of them?
Disgruntlement with Jesus
Legal proceedings and inheritance law
Disagreements about money
Famine and poverty
Works righteousness and radical forgiveness
Equality and equity
Love and honesty
It does not surprise me that this parable is one of the most well known in our culture, even outside of Christian stories. It speaks to us; it speaks to something true about our human experience, even if we take it out of the Gospel context and simply read it as a proverb. So let’s start there.
Have you ever disrespected your parents? Lied to them? Asked them for something that was not yours to have? Did you fight with them growing up?
What about your children, if you have any? Have they done any of those things to you?
What about those with different family systems? Did you challenge your elders growing up? Did you deal with pain and separation, if you did not know your parents, or if you lost your parents at a young age? For those who do not have children; have you ever felt estranged from your spouse, or your friends? Have you ever been left behind in a relationship, with no one to help you pick up the pieces?
I ask all these questions, some of them painful, because the Prodigal son story begs us to ask them. The one question that hits me every time I hear this story is “which one am I?”
Which one am I?
Which one are you?
And we have to ask the question; because, I suspect, we fall into one of the two roles. We either see ourselves as the Prodigal, or as the Elder son. (and if you see yourself as the father, just hold on there for a second. we’ll get there).
The prodigal son story is designed to shock and awe us; let me show you why.
First, the son asks for half of his inheritance. In those days, kids didn’t get cars, they didn’t get checking accounts; they didn’t get the college savings to go off to school. They got to work with the family, usually on the land or doing the family trade, until they inherited it from their parents. There was no early inheritance; the family wealth, if any, was not mobile. It wasn’t like the father wired over half his savings. As a landowner, his money was in land. He walked himself to court, got the surveyors, and sold half of his property, half of his livestock, etc. It was a public humiliation, just like selling land is always a matter of public record. Not only that, he sold it to give it to his son who wasn’t satisfied working with his family, and staying on his farm. He wasn’t patient enough to at least let his father die. No, he wanted out, and in doing so, he is essentially saying, I’d rather you be dead.
Now, dissolute living aside, even if he had been successful, the prodigal son has blown up his family, broken his father’s heart, and left his hometown goodbye. One who handles things that way doesn’t exactly get a warm welcome when they come back a success; much less a failure. and oh, how he failed. He spends all his money. He spends his emergency fund. A famine strikes the land and he hires himself out— now, remember, he’s a good Jewish boy— to a PIG farmer? Not only does he make himself “unclean” by his religious laws but he desires, he craves the very slop the pigs consume. More uncleanliness both literally, not just figuratively. This is shock and awe- it’s not your average family dysfunction, but dysfunction magnified to a terrible degree.
Now the gospel does not spell out all these gasp-worthy moments; but it does spell out the last one; it spells it out with the elder son’s reaction. The older brother, watching all of this take place, experiences jealousy. He experiences anger. He experiences frustration we all do when those who do the wrong things, in our eyes, are rewarded. and this is the part where, if we are still looking at this story as a proverb, not a parable, it all starts to fall apart. Reading this story outside of the gospel, it is nice, but it doesn’t make any sense.
The father’s forgiveness is nice, right? but it’s not fair to the older brother. Where is his fun? Where is his reward for all his loyalty and labor? Where is the justice for the way the prodigal treated his Dad? What about how he made his brother feel, when he left the whole family behind?
The scandalous, upside-down nature of this parable is that Jesus tells it to inform us this is exactly how God is. God is the father who gave us the world. We are the ones who, as our Eucharistic prayer says “You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.” God’s good news is that no matter who you are, no matter where you’ve gone wrong, when we return home, God is waiting— not just waiting— RUNNING to embrace us.
Now of course it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair for those who worked hard, who stayed the course. But the parable is clear— God loves them too! They’ve always been with God; they’ve always possessed the things that the father offered; his love is theirs. What we miss is that God rejoicing over those who are lost does not take away from our own love, our own joy, as if there was only so much to go around. Property, money, even sin and death are finite things in this story; yet the father’s joy is infinite. The father’s love is plenty. There is enough love for those within the fold, as well as those without.
We may see ourselves in different roles in the story at different points in our lives. We may feel lost; we may feel undeserving, we may feel like we must take back control and make it up to God for our transgressions. We may also feel frustrated; jealous of those who seem to get off easy when we’ve worked so hard to be good. Finally, we may feel lost, abandoned, and scorned; only to rejoice when the one whom we lost returns to us. May we rejoice, as those in heaven rejoice, when any person repents. May we weep, as those in heaven weep, when any person falls from the fold. and finally, may we all join in that final feast at God’s table, when we join in God’s heavenly kingdom at the end of the age. Amen.