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Prodigal Son: Literature, Theology, Therapy

Everyone (almost) in Western culture is familiar with the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Even if they have no interest whatsoever in the Christian faith, the basic outlines of the parable are known and the story is well embedded into our culture.

I’ve been listening to a series of sermons by Tim Keller (podcasted) on the passage, and have of course heard many sermons and devotionals on it. I’ve written a ten-minute play about it. The play did not win the competition to which I submitted it. The contest organizers should have been clearer that they wanted LBGTQ themes addressed, and sorry, that's not my thing (although I suppose it could be in a prodigal child story). I’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books that explore the theme of the prodigal.

And I think a lot of people get the story wrong, to some extent. I’d like to dig into this story and deconstruct not it but our interpretations of it.

First, it is a parable, the “earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” It is not realism; there are no names. The actions of the younger brother, whom I’ll call Todd, and the Father would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners and they would not have seen real life in those people and actions. Middle Eastern fathers would not have done any of that. They would have shamed the son, rejected him, and definitely not accepted him back with open arms. The older brother, whom I’ll call Fred, would have been the righteous, wise, upright, and reasonable character.

The story is subversive, as much as any other writing in history. Where we see a beautiful story of unconditional (and really undeserved love), Jesus’ hearers heard a story maligning those who follow the rules and have been loyal Jews; we need only read the context before the three parables.

The story works for us not because of our sentimentality about unconditional love but because the family dynamics. The siblings who are not screw ups are going to resent the ones who are. That the parents channel extra energy, concern, prayer, and resources toward the “prodigal” (which means wasteful, not returning) that would be better spent on something else, even their own retirement. That the prodigals are often no really repentant or even all that sorry, but they can put on a good act. How much the prodigals can actively and intentionally break their parents’, and siblings’, hearts. How difficult forgiveness is.

I fault preachers for going after the older brother. Yes, he’s got his problems, and self-righteous religion can be damaging and condemning. But why condemn the older brother in a way the story, and Jesus do not? What does the father say? Nothing but comfort and affirmation.

31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ ”

That hardly sounds like the father is condemning Fred for his self-righteousness. It sounds to me that he is reminding him grace is for all. In the context of the Jewish audience, it is that non-observant Jews and Gentiles are to be welcomed into the kingdom.

I confess to being an older brother, in a genetic family sense and in a Christian family sense. I am hyper responsible and sometimes shake my head, a bit resentfully, of the screw-ups in my family: the addicts, the child support dodgers, the irresponsible. As to the church, I have seen the celebrities get the attention the faithful missionaries don’t seem to deserve.

We responsible and faithful older brothers can become bitter, no doubt. We need the reminders of grace every day. But we don’t need preachers trying to score rhetorical points berating us that our faithfulness and steadiness is all for naught, that it’s meaningless, and only dramatic rescues count to God.

Even more, we don’t need to see this parable as a model for family dynamics. The Father as a stand-in for God is one thing; the Father as a stand-in for a parent is another. The prodigals need help and unconditional love, but not unconditional trust and validation. I’ve seen so much theft, scarring, abandonment, insults, rejection of parents’ values, and debt glossed over by the parent who wanted the prodigal back so badly.

Sibling rivalry should be outgrown, but when a parent is used and abused by the prodigal, it’s not jealousy. Please don’t see this parable as normative or prescriptive. It’s simply a picture that God welcomes sinner and celebrates their return, not a model for family, an excuse for bad behavior, or a condemnation of the faithful.

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