In the book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, & Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner writes that parables like The Prodigal Son can be viewed as comedy. So here’s a little video clip to get us started on this biblical tale of two bratty brothers. Smothers Brothers clip
Like comedy bits, parables can be funny. Last week when we read the Parable of the Unproductive Fig Tree, I said that parables can be curious. But mainly, I said, the real purpose of the parables of Jesus is to provoke us. If we’re not challenged or moved out of our comfort zone, then the parable hasn’t done its job.
And to be perfectly honest, the Parable of the Prodigal Son does indeed provoke me. In my opinion, the father is a foolish enabler. I mean, didn’t he ever hear of tough love? And I’m not so sure that the younger son ever really did repent. He realized he could eat better back home than in the pigpen, so he rehearses a good line for dad, who he already knows to be a pushover, and off he goes on his self-serving way.
Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, who is Jewish and writes extensively on how Jesus’ first century audiences would have heard these stories, has said, “I should admit right up front: I don’t like this kid” – the kid being the prodigal son.
So I should admit right up front, too: I don’t like him either. OK, maybe it’s because I’m the eldest child in my family of origin, but I identify with the elder brother: hardworking, responsible, always trying to do the right thing. Frankly, the whole scenario with the father gushing over the wastrel younger son pushes a whole lot of my buttons. It’s just not fair.
Over the years, I’ve read commentaries and heard sermons praising the father for his generous, unconditional love and forgiveness, applauding the younger son for coming to his senses and humbly crawling back home, and chastising the older brother. Then we’re asked to think about which brother we identify with, presumably not the resentful, churlish one. Needless to say, I have always been provoked.
I remember well during my long-ago internship year arguing with my supervisor about his sermon, which went on and on criticizing the older brother. At the next meeting of my support committee, I was griping about it. And the next week a wonderful elderly woman (whose name I wish I could remember) brought me an article from a journal called Daughters of Sarah, an early Christian feminist journal. It was called The Parable of the Elder Daughter. And it talked about the experience of many women as the caregivers of the family, who were expected to put aside any personal ambition in favor of supporting others.
Although feminist theology / biblical studies had been around for a while, they hadn’t gotten too far yet into seminary curricula or congregational preaching, so I was absolutely delighted to discover this way of looking at the parable. The article not only validated me and my experience, it also taught me to not stop at the surface of the parable, at what seems to be the obvious. It said that it’s not only OK to be provoked by the parable, but one should be annoyed enough to dig more deeply into it.
So now when I read this story, I see two siblings. They could be brothers or sisters; it doesn’t matter because the point of the parable isn’t who dad (or mom) loved best. It’s about coming home, about being at home. And by ‘home,’ I don’t mean a geographical place, but a spiritual one in which we are at home with ourselves and in harmony with the One who created us. In this story it’s the father, but it could just as easily be the mother – or both parents.
We were created to be in right relationship with God. But instead of abiding in the unconditional love, peace, and fulfillment of that relationship, we become alienated –not only from God, but also from our true nature. Often, instead of living out of the golden core of Divine love planted within us, we allow the layers of wounding experiences, negative messages, mistakes, shame, failures, and all kinds of things alienate us from our true selves. Often, instead of being centered in Divine Love and seeking after Divine Wisdom, we follow our egos into ventures that promise wealth, security, fame – none of these bad in their own right. But by investing solely in our accomplishments, we become alienated from the true center of our being.
The younger son became an alien by leaving his home, by leaving behind a relationship of such generosity that we can hardly imagine it. We tend to compare the extravagance of God to our human parents and it’s too much. You know, one definition of ‘prodigal’ is one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly. In this sense, it’s the father who is the prodigal. It’s God who lavishes love on us – even when we think we’re undeserving or beyond redemption. Maybe the kid didn’t really repent. Maybe his motives weren’t entirely pure. Maybe he would break his father’s heart again some day. But it didn’t matter. There was way more than enough love to welcome him home that day.
And what of the older brother? He was alienated, too, even though he stayed home. He believed that his worth was tied to what he did. As long as he took care of his father’s business, he could justify his existence. But imagine if for some reason he became unable to continue to be productive, how would he have reacted? Probably the same way we do when we place all of our worth in what we do. By clinging to his belief that he had to be the responsible one, that if he didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done right, he alienated himself from his inheritance of unconditional love and acceptance based, not on his productivity, but simply on his belovedness. By staying away from the party and refusing to be reconciled with his brother, he remained alienated from his true self.
But this is not an either/or story. We can be both of these brothers at different times in our lives, when we turn away from God until we feel the longing to go back home, into the welcoming embrace of Holy Love. I love the way that the late Bishop John Shelby Spong describes life as prodigals who have returned home. He says:“We are resurrected when we learn that God is present –when we live fully, love wastefully and become all that we are capable of being.”
The parable doesn’t tell us if either brother learned this or became this. It doesn’t tell us if the younger brother learned his lesson and never took his father’s generosity for granted again. It doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever got over his bitterness, and it doesn’t tell us if the members of this family ever became reconciled to one another. But the point Jesus was trying to make was not about them, but about us.
As we move through this Lenten season and ever closer to the celebration of Easter, the parable asks us in what ways we feel alienated: from loves ones, from life, from what’s going on around us, from God, from our true selves as unconditionally loved. It asks how might we have contributed to our alienation? What decisions that we’ve made might be reconsidered? What attitudes could be reevaluated?
Our alienation is part of our human condition, our sinfulness, if you will. This is why Lent is a time of repentance, that is, of turning back to God, our Source of Life, Love, and Being. Our Lenten journey through the wilderness is about finding our way home again. Our spiritual practices are meant to help draw us into the center, past the layers of experiences and the needs of the ego. If they are not helping, perhaps we need to try something else. Without living from the center of Divine Grace within us, how could we ever learn how to live fully and become all that we are capable of being – let alone love wastefully?
In the parable, it’s the father who does all of the saving action – embracing, welcoming, preparing a celebration. Going back to Frederick Buechner who said that parables like The Prodigal Son can be viewed as comedy. He continued:
I think that these parables can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people.
Well, thank God for that. I know I can be impossible at times, how about you? And I am grateful for the times that God has done the impossible with me and for the times I’ve seen the impossible happen in the lives of others as well.
As we live out our own versions of the Parable of the Prodigal, may we feel the outlandish, extravagant, unconditional love that comes to us, not only from the outside through Word and Sacrament, but also from within as our Source of Life and Love and Being works in and through us for the healing and wholeness of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our world.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Meanwhile, the tax collectors and the “sinners” were all gathering around Jesus to listen to his teaching, At which the Pharisees and the religious scholars murmured, “This person welcomes sinners and eats with them!”
Jesus then addressed this parable to them:
“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to their father, ‘Give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’
So the father divided up the property between them. Some days later, the younger son gathered up his belongings and went off to a distant land. Here he squandered all his money on loose living. After everything was spent, a great famine broke out in the land, and the son was in great need. So he went to a landowner, who sent him to a farm to take care of the pigs. The son was so hungry that he could have eaten the husks that were fodder for the pigs, but no one made a move to give him anything.
Coming to his senses at last, he said, ‘How many hired hands at my father’s house have more than enough to eat, while here I am starving! I will quit and go back home and say, “I have sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called one of your children. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
With that, the younger son set off for home. While still a long way off, the father caught sight of the returning child and was deeply moved. The father ran out to meet him, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, ‘I have sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called one of your children.’
But his father said to one of the workers, ‘Quick! Bring out the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Take the calf we’ve been fattening and butcher it. Let’s eat and celebrate! This son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found!’
And the celebration began.
“Meanwhile the elder son had been out in the field. As he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the workers and asked what was happening. The worker answered, ‘Your brother is home, and the fatted calf has been killed because your father has him back safe and sound.’
“The son got angry at this and refused to go in to the party, but his father came out and pleaded with him.
The older son replied, ‘Look! for years now I’ve done every single thing you asked me to do. I never disobeyed even one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. But then this son of yours comes home after going through your money with prostitutes, and you kill the fatted calf for him!’
The father said, “But my child! You’re with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found.’”
JESUS MAFA. Prodigal Son, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54662[retrieved March 27, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).
Bratislava, Slovakia. 2018/5/22. A relief sculpture of Jesus Christ embracing a person. Made out of modelling clay by Lubo Michalko. Displayed in the Quo Vadis Catholic House.
“The Prodigal Son” by f_snarfel is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.