How many of you remember watching as your parents let a sibling get away with things they would never have permitted you, or seemed to treat them better, more lovingly than they treated you? How many of you parents have had the experience of loving one child just a little bit more than your other children? Or at work, watching as a co-worker received special, and undeserved treatment while you had to stay late, or failed to get the credit, or the promotion, you deserved?
It’s a story as old as humanity. In scripture, it goes back to Cain and Abel, when the sacrifice Abel offered was pleasing to God, while the Cain’s sacrifice was rejected. It led Cain to kill his brother. Later, we read about the younger brother Jacob who is preferred to Esau; Jacob himself preferring Joseph to his ten older brothers; or when Samuel was told to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king, the first six passed by before God selecting the youngest, David.
These dynamics of parental and divine preference might help us read the parable we just heard with new eyes. It is one of Jesus’ most familiar and most-beloved parables. Full of drama and emotion, for those of us who know it well, it has helped to shape our experience and understanding of God. To confront the depths of one’s sinfulness, to repent and seek God’s forgiveness, to be embraced by God’s love and grace, that not only describes the experiences, indeed the very Christian life, that many us have lived, it is also played out dramatically in this little story.
And yet, as powerful the story and our experiences may be, ultimately, like all such stories, this parable eludes our grasp and can continue to challenge us in new ways, and invite us into new experiences and new understandings of God. In fact, often our or the church’s traditional interpretation of a parable can prevent us from encountering its full range of meaning. That may be most true of the most familiar and beloved parables. It’s hard not to read it as an allegory of God’s grace and forgiveness, to see ourselves in the younger son, God as the forgiving father, and as our lectionary prompts us, to see in the resentful son, the scribes and Pharisees, or perhaps more broadly, all of the Jewish community throughout history who have rejected Jesus and God’s forgiving grace. Above all, in the traditional understanding, it’s a story of repentance and forgiveness, although I would point out that the word “repentance” never appears in the story.
So let’s go back to the beginning. I called it a parable. It’s a word the gospels themselves use of the stories Jesus told. They are stories, using examples from daily life, that Jesus used to describe the kingdom or reign of God. Their meaning or interpretation can be obvious, but it is also the case that Jesus used parables to conceal the meaning of God’s reign. Sometimes they are meant to confuse. Indeed, as I’ve said before, many of Jesus’ parables function like zen koans—you know, a famous one like, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Parables are meant to shock and surprise us, to subvert our ordinary expectations and world view, and to open up to us new possibilities of meaning, new ways of thinking about God. Our temptation when exploring the parables is to interpret them as allegories, but in many cases, the allegorical interpretation that is provided in the gospel itself is a later attempt to fix the meaning of a parable. What’s earlier, closer to Jesus’ own words is the more puzzling, the more enigmatic, the story itself.
First of all, the title itself. The story is known as “The Prodigal Son” and to call it that is already to impose a certain interpretation on it. In fact, who’s the main character? Who is the story about? It begins quite simply, “A man had two sons.” That ought to suggest to us that the father is the main character, not the younger son. Seen in that light, perhaps our focus should be on his actions, not on those of either son.
Let’s look for a moment at the younger son. He is seen as a figure of repentance but let’s look a little more closely at it. He’s selfish. He demands his share of the inheritance, an unheard of thing in the ancient world. One’s property was disposed of only at death, and for a child to demand his share of it before his father’s death is sort of like telling your father, “You’re dead to me.” Presumably, the property, in this case the land, would have been sold. It’s easy to imagine what both father and elder son thought whenever they passed by the property they had once owned and watched the new owners working it. It would probably also have meant loss of income.
So he’s cut himself off from his family, damaged their standing in the community and perhaps their livelihoods, and wastes all of that inheritance in dissolute living. He ends up eating hog fodder. And then Jesus says, “he comes to himself.” This is usually interpreted as his conversion experience, but what if he does in fact come to himself. What we know of him is that he is a selfish, self-centered person, interested in his own well-being. Maybe, instead of conversion, he decides to work an angle. I’m struck that while he’s there with the pigs, he rehearses his lines, he plans out how he will approach his father. He knows what strings to pull to manipulate his father. And when he returns, in spite of his father’s embrace, he makes sure he says exactly what he had rehearsed. Maybe, he’s still working an angle.
And maybe the older son sees right through him. After all, who’s a better judge of character than a sibling who watched his brother grow up for all those years, a brother who had to deal with all of his younger brother’s schemes, who watched him manipulate his father, a brother who in the end went off with half the family’s money and wasted it all? Maybe it’s not just resentment that dad threw a party for his younger brother and didn’t bother letting him know about it but left him out working in the fields.
I said earlier that the parables are meant to shock and surprise us. One of exploring is to ask where we see unexpected, shocking, surprising behavior. Once again, that question centers our attention on the father. His behavior is shocking in two ways. First, when he consents to the property division and second, when he welcomes and embraces his returning son. By allowing the division of property, he essentially allowed his son to treat him as if he were dead. Running out to greet him upon his return would have been seen as shameful, humiliating in ancient Palestinian culture. Respectable men didn’t behave that way in public. They didn’t display affection in that way; they certainly didn’t kiss a son publicly. He’s acting more like a mother than a father, and his behavior is inappropriate.
Our traditional interpretation easily fits into our expectations and notions of God. We can easily fit the parable into our understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness, our sinfulness and need for repentance. And in the elder son, we’re even given example of how not to behave. But what if the younger son is still working an angle, gaming the system, trying to manipulate his father? What if the father is himself acting shamefully, subverting norms of behavior? What then? What might we learn about ourselves and about God by telling the story this way?
Two things, I think. First, that God doesn’t behave according to our expectations. Sure, God loves and forgives us when we repent and return to the Lord. But perhaps God loves and forgives us even when we don’t repent, even when we try to game the system or manipulate God. And maybe, just maybe, we are more like the older son than we want to admit—resentful at the extent and depth of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness, wanting it all for ourselves and wanting to prevent others from experiencing it.
If we can or should see ourselves in the two sons, perhaps we also need to imagine ourselves in the father’s position. Where might we need to offer the joy of forgiveness to someone we encounter in our daily life? Who might we encounter who is in as deep need of forgiveness and love as the younger son in this parable? To offer that forgiveness, to offer the joy of God’s love to someone who feels unable to receive it on their own, may be the greatest gift we can give and is certainly one way to share the good news of Jesus Christ.