In this week’s reflection, Kevin Hargaden considers the well-loved parable of the Prodigal Son and wonders if we really know it as well as we think. The tale, like many others in the Bible, offers no hard and fast answers and is more likely to perplex than clarify.
Read Luke 15:11-32
The parable we consider this week is perhaps, along with the Good Samaritan, the best-known and most-loved of all Jesus’ divine yarns. There is, of course, no mention of the word “prodigal” anywhere in the tale. In fact, the earliest existing report of such a title came in the commentaries of St Jerome (347-420), who, perceptively, talks of “the prodigal sons”.
The titles we give the stories of Jesus matter. We might read the Labourers in the Vineyard very differently if we re-labelled it the Disorganised Master. In Germany, this parable is known as Der verlorene Sohn, the Lost Son. Such a title has merit, if for no other reason than the word “prodigal” is rarely understood. It means one who is reckless with resources, someone who is lavish and without restraint.
It’s funny how people who take Jesus’ teaching seriously have come to be known as dogmatic. When we consider his parables, these strange little tales “drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by their vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about their precise application to tease it into active thought,” (to use the famous definition by the 20th Century biblical scholar C.H. Dodd) the last thing that we arrive at is a hard and fast rule. The parables exist to perplex as much as clarify. Receiving them as Scripture is an invitation to perceive the baffled state as a potential spiritual discipline. Each interpretation we offer fails to draw the tale to a conclusion. Like a frustrating sum in primary school, each parable always leaves a remainder. We can never quite domesticate them, regardless of how well we title them.
This is certainly the case with this parable of the lost sons. On one fairly common reading, the parable is about the radical forgiveness available through God our Father. The New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey spent much of his working life among communities in the Middle East and that primed him to understand with fresh eyes the offence involved in the younger son’s initial request. When he asks for his inheritance early, he is implicitly confessing that he wanted his father dead. When, as the text says, “he came to his senses,” it was not from some noble realisation about the heartache he must have caused at home. Rather, it is his destitution that drives him home As Simone Weil aptly observed, “if the son had lived economically he would never have thought of returning.”
His confused motives count for nothing. Read the story again and notice that the younger son rehearses what he is to say all the way home. “Father I have sinned against you and against heaven…” He never gets to utter the prepared script because his father envelopes him in a gigantic hug and declares for all to hear that “This son who was dead is now alive!”
This is a fine reading, but it does leave the question of the older son dangling somewhat. He comes in from the field and on to the stage but he seems out of place if this is a story simply about how God the Father offers forgiveness to all who seek it, even Jewish sons disgraced to eating alongside the despised pigs. Another interpretation is now possible, which Jerome’s subtle pluralisation points towards. This is not a story about a younger wasteful son, but an older one. In the context of the parable in Luke’s Gospel, it comes as Pharisees, those righteous, religiously right-on lay activists, are hassling Jesus for his academic or ecclesial credentials. Read this way, the parable is a cunning response which both explains why the sinners and the dissolute flock to Jesus’s teaching about the Kingdom of God and a rebuke to those decent, up-standing, hard-working, but desperately self-righteous crew who see him as a dangerous radical.
The older son, from this perspective, becomes a tragic warning to not allow ourselves to be satisfied with the outward appearance of faithfulness. The older boy is full of self-regard as he professes to how he has been forever toiling at the Father’s work and never once asked for anything for himself. “All these years I have been slaving for you” he says dramatically. His fury is not disguised when he sees that the reckless younger son who has never lifted a finger for the family business is now received back and (implicitly) the inheritance has shrunk yet again.
Read this way, the parable becomes a story about how we can mistake love of God for love of the things God can give. The gentle words of the father remind the older son that he has had the real treasure all along – his father’s company. The older son is exposed as one who does not love the father, but loves honour, prestige and riches. That is why he is angry when the ring is placed on the younger son’s finger, the fatted calf is butchered for him and he is received again as a member of the family.
If we read it as the story of two prodigal sons, it is of course most important to notice that the younger, irreligious son finishes the story inside the house, enjoying the party and savouring in his father’s company while the older son is left outside in the cold, his fate dangling on whether or not he can swallow his pride and join the fun.
But there is a further reading possible again. While we might naturally identify with one son over the other, the story of faith – both our individual faith and the collective faith of the church – is ultimately not a story about us. The Gospel is about God. And if we read the parable with that simple fact in mind, the one who is prodigal is no longer the young son who squanders a little inheritance on hookers and cocaine. Nor is it the older son who wastes his life on dutiful service that is without love. The truly lavish and unrestrained character in this story is the father. Reflect on the story from this angle, and we might, to borrow the phrase of the Presbyterian minister Tim Keller, call this the parable of the Prodigal God.
As is so often the case with the parables of Jesus, when we step inside this narrative, we step into a world that is unfamiliar to us. Logic does not work the way we predict. Prudence takes on a new shape in these stories. All responsible biblical interpretation demands that we see in the parables Jesus’ attempt to give us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, which is an upside-down Kingdom where it is better to serve than be served, better to give than receive. No responsible father would let a son run heedlessly into foreign lands with the family’s hard-won wealth, but this father seems to care not a jot about the loss to the farm’s balance sheet. In 1st Century Palestine, an esteemed older man expressed his nobility by always remaining calm and “keeping his chill”. But this father picks up his cloak and sprints to meet his wayward son on the horizon. This father does not worry what others think of him. Even today, in an age when we do not particularly prize honour, the insult that the younger son has delivered would not be quickly forgotten. But it is forgiven so quickly, it does not even need to be mentioned. This father is unconcerned about saving face.
Reading it as a story that rotates around the father as an image of God casts the parable in yet another light. While religious logic operates on the principle that we must obey God to win his regard, the Father God we find in the parable inverts that logic. The subversive God is prodigal with his regard. It is out of our acceptance from God that we obey. It’s as if God’s grace alters the fabric of the universe, upending our logic and prudence and replacing it with the never-exhausted abundant surplus of God’s love.
But there is (at least) one more perspective to bring. We can imagine ourselves as the younger son and older son, we can imagine God as the Father, but now we must consider – as the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth has taught us to – Jesus as the son of God who goes into that far country on our behalf. In Philippians 2 we find that famous early Christian hymn that sings of how Christ was in very nature God but did not consider equality with God something to cling to. Instead, he humbled himself, becoming human and dying on the cross, so that as he is resurrected from the dead, his ascent can carry all of humanity in his trail. Read as a story about Jesus himself, we see this parable as a tale about how he is the true younger brother, who trekked far from home to make friends with us and how he is also our true older brother, not filled with jealous rivalry but generous love. He fulfils all righteousness not so that he would gain the father’s treasure, but that we would.
Here is where the story of the prodigals (perhaps at this stage we can follow the advice of the biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine and give it an entirely new title such as “The parable of the Absent Mother”!) and the story of Ireland’s homelessness crisis meet. The crux of our social agitation about housing is the realisation that we are all homeless on an existential level.
Each step of our retreat through Lent has been following this path out of the Garden of Eden, into the reality of life in this world where we are always, at base, dislocated and disorientated, both individually and collectively. We worship a Christ who had no place to lay his head. In this remarkably dense little story, filled with layer upon layer of meaning, Jesus confronts us with the fact that the only way we can feel at home is to be embraced by the Father. The Father rejoices over us.
This is no invitation to spiritualise away our social crisis around housing. Not at all! At every step the picture of salvation we find in this parable is material: it is a gold ring placed on his finger, it is a real cloak wrapped around his shoulder, it is a delicious feast with a loving community to which the young son is invited. Instead, this parable clears the ground for something our society desperately needs: a political stance informed by more than self-interest or dispassionate liberal regard.
If our concern for the homeless and the insufficiently housed arises out of this spiritual realisation that we are all existentially homeless, then it will not die down if the media frenzy moves on, nor will it dampen if our own personal situation improves. If our concern for those living under the tyranny of dodgy landlords or defaulted mortgages stems from this realisation that Jesus was homeless to bring us home, then we will not be in this for the short-haul. Instead, Christians can run the gruelling marathon involved in covering the distance from where we are to where we want and need to be.
When the housing crisis is profound, only so profound a motivation as this can fuel our response. The homeless Christ invites us home. Sure and certain in the acceptance we find there, we can turn to our neighbour and enemy and fight to ensure they too have a place to lay their head.
1. Jesus’ primary mode of teaching – the parable – seems to exist to “tease” the mind “into active thought”. If the Messiah is so comfortable with plural meanings, why do you think it is that as Christians, we so often want to reduce our faith to simple and easy-to-digest, black-and-white formulae?
2. Jerome’s ancient title – the Prodigal Sons – directs us to read this story on a deeper level than we might have learned in school. In this light, the parable is not so much about how the reckless can be received back through God’s forgiveness, but that the religious must reckon with how they will be left outside if they imagine, self-righteously, that they do not need that same forgiveness. Are there ways through Lent, when upon reflection, your faith-life has followed this transactional pattern?
3. “In this remarkably dense little story, filled with layer upon layer of meaning, Jesus confronts us with the fact that the only way we can feel at home is to be embraced by the Father. The Father rejoices over us.” How does approaching the housing crisis – or any other social justice issue – from this foundation of acceptance transform our approach to activism, charity, and the seeking of a just society?
For Further Consideration:
No one who has ever read Henri Nouwen’s classic The Return of the Prodigal Son ever needs much of an excuse to go back to it. It is hard to imagine a book that better captures the sense of intellectual, spiritual, and existential comfort that can come from living with this luminous parable.