The Prodigal Son is one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. The word prodigal has taken on a negative meaning because of this story. Think of the word prodigy- which we use to describe someone like a child prodigy, who has a special talent or gift. The gift was his share of the family fortune, but we might also say he had the gift of nerve. Can you imagine asking for your share of the estate, whatever would be left to you, before the parent died?
The younger son set off for the world beyond the farm, and squandered his inheritance on everything they write country songs about. Parties, intoxication, wild and dangerous living. I like the way this version of the Bible, the Message puts it, “undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.”
This is when he saw how good he had it on the farm. He started the journey home, and on the way rehearsed how he would plead for forgiveness. “Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.”
His father welcomed him back with joy and celebration. He did not listen to the rehearsed speech. He asked his servants to bring fresh clothes and sandals for his son, and to place the family ring on his finger. He called for a heifer to be slaughtered and roasted for a feast. A big party, and a good time, was planned for all. Those who were ready to have a good time, would have a good time. The older brother was not inclined to celebrate. He said to his dad:
‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’
31-32 “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”
The older brother had a serious case of sibling rivalry. He resented his brother’s hold on their father’s heart. This theme of 2 brothers vying for their father’s affection appears in many stories Jesus and his audience would have heard around the synagogue.
Cain and Abel had a serious case of sibling rivalry- so much so that Cain actually killed his brother Abel. Cain was a farmer, and Abel was a shepherd. Cain was tied to one place, tending his crops, while Abel would wander with the flocks, going where they went to graze. One son stayed close to home, and the other who followed wild wandering paths. They were rivals in the way they lived, and in competition for their father’s favour.
Cain and Abel each prepared a meal for their father. Adam liked the mutton Abel served, but was less excited about the vegetables and grain Cain offered. Cain was disappointed by his failure, and in his anger, killed his brother. As punishment he was banished from his father’s lands, and could never be a farmer again. He became the wanderer. The story says that God placed a mark, the mark of Cain on him, so no one who found him would harm him, but he could still never go home.
The prodigal’s older brother may have wanted to be rid of his brother, but did not kill him. In this story the wanderer came home, and the father, and older brother had to find a way to live with him. The father seems open-hearted, and so relieved to see his son again that rose above any feelings he might have about being poorly used. The older brother seems less charitable, but we might hope things would improve with time.
Part of why there are many Bible stories about families, is we can relate to them. For good or not, we all come from families, and like Cain, bear the mark of our families. How we grow up shapes us. The strengths and the wounds of family life form our character. Our own experience of family might lead us to ask some questions of the story.
Why did the younger son, the prodigal, leave home in the first place? Was he raised in a way that led to him feeling privileged, but also babied? Did he feel he had to leave to actually stand on his own? Did he grow up feeling the resentment of his older brother, and get to the point where he just needed out?
How about the older brother? He seemed so hurt by his dad’s willingness to be generous and forgiving to the younger son. Did he grow up always wondering if he was really loved? Did he have this idea the younger one was always the favourite?
How about the father? We like what we see at the end of the story, when he welcomed the prodigal back with open arms and a party. But do we really agree with his decision at the beginning of the story- to give the boy his inheritance and set him free? Was that really the loving thing to do? He could probably have guessed that the prodigal would crash and burn.
I talked about this story at the Queens Avenue residence this week. The residents often help me figure out my sermons. One woman asked why we never hear anything from the mother in the story. What an excellent question! The Bible is a product of a male-dominated, patriarchal culture, and most often the main characters, and usually the ones with speaking parts, are men. Even in the Genesis story, the main characters are Adam, Cain and Abel. Eve bears the children, but has no voice in how they are raised. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we can’t even tell if the mother is still alive. We might imagine a different story, and a different kind of family, if the wife had a voice.
One way this story has been interpreted is to say the father represents God, who is always forgiving, and always ready to welcome us home. I like the forgiveness part of this picture of God. I am less sure about God as a parent who gives in to the child’s wishes, even when they know it won’t be good for them.
I think God is at work in the story, inside, and all around each of the characters. God is at work, constantly, actively, passionately loving each character in the story, even if they have trouble loving themselves. The spark of love provides the hope in the youngest son’s heart that he might dare come home, and receive mercy, even though he is having trouble feeling kind or forgiving towards himself. He still believes love, and life, might be possible beyond his time in the depths.
Love is at work in the heart of the father, who is grateful his child found his way back, but who is also pained at the rivalry and rift between his sons. Love points him towards the hope of family harmony, despite past problems.
Love is at work in the older brother, who is resentful of his brother, and quick to anger, but who is also protective of his father, and hated seeing him so poorly treated. He does not feel ready to join the big party, but he does not leave the farm. He has not given up either.
Love is always in the background, as a possibility in every human story. Love is there when we are hard on ourselves, and on others, gently pointing us to a better way. Love is there beyond the harshness of momentary anger, and beyond the judging words that come out. Love holds out the hope that we can get over ourselves.
Jesus ended his parable before getting to the happy ending we might imagine and hope for, with all the family members in a tearful embrace. Maybe he did that to remind us of our own broken lives, and challenging relationships, inside and outside of family. We all have need of love, and forgiveness and reconciliation. Our desire to see the prodigal’s family reunited in love is a powerful reminder to us of how important it is to let love work in our own lives. Amen