08 March 2016

The Prodigal Son Reconsidered

Jesus's parable of the Prodigal Son has always bothered me. Here it is, in case you don't remember it (Luke 15:11-32):
Then [Jesus] said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.' So the father divided the property between them.
A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch; so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, 'How many of my father's hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.'
So he left the place and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him. Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.' And they began to celebrate. 
Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.' He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, 'All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property--he and his loose women--you kill the calf we had been fattening.'
The father said, 'My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.'"

This parable has always bothered me because I felt for the elder son. He had done everything right, and yet his father had never thrown a party for him. And now his younger brother comes along, after wasting everything in vice and licentiousness, and he gets a party? I would be angry too!

It does seem unfair, doesn't it? The reason I've always thought it was unfair is because I imagined myself as the elder brother. I am the one who's always done the right thing, obeyed the rules, and lived virtuously. I felt like William Graham Sumner's "Forgotten Man," the man who works hard and well, who takes responsibility for himself and his obligations--and is rewarded by being forgotten by the world, which pays attention instead to the person who's lived a dissolute life.

But then I realized: I am the prodigal son. Indeed, we are all prodigal sons. There is not one of us who has not sinned against heaven and his father, least of all me. It was my pride and hubris that led me to fancy myself as blameless and without fault. In fact, however, I too have failed, erred, and sinned. (Haven't we all?) So when I resent the father in the parable for welcoming his prodigal son with open arms, with mercy and forgiveness, and with a party celebrating his return, I was actually asking that I not be welcomed with mercy and forgiveness. 

What a mistake that was. The parable is not about the other person who sins and yet is forgiven, but about me who has sinned and seeks forgiveness. I am the prodigal son, and I hope and pray that, no matter how many mistakes I have made, I too can be forgiven and welcomed with open arms when I return.

There is one other aspect of this parable that had escaped me. Just as I hope that I as a prodigal son can be forgiven for my failings, often I am in the position of the father who has been sinned against. How do I treat people who have lived in ways I disapprove or have wronged me? Just as I hope to be forgiven, so too should I forgive others. 

One does not need to be a Christian to see the beauty and power of this parable. It is a model not only for how we should treat others' failings with mercy and forgiveness, but also for how we should hope for forgiveness from others, even when we are not entitled to it.

1 comment:

kevin@camelfamily.org said...

The Prodigal Son is the richest and most complex of all the parables. It represents the essence of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus' contemporary followers never grasped during his life. The story is told at the banquet table of a prominent Pharisee, as part of a series of parables using the banquet as a theme or metaphor. Jesus' hosts would have readily identified with the 'good' son, as most of us do. The older son follows the law (a preoccupation for the Pharisees) but fails to understand the nature of grace. The younger son demands his inheritance, a grievous affront to his father that would, under the law, have allowed the father to cast him out and disinherit him (leaving more for the eldest son later).

But the eldest son despises the father as well for granting the request and then pining for the younger son's return. We are reminded of the parable of the workers, where the laborers who worked all day resented to others who had not receiving a full day's wages. He follows the rules because there is an advantage for him to do so, not because of his love for the father. He follows the rules but he does not follow his father's example. When the younger son returns, the father readily forgives him, but the older son refuses to reconcile. At the end, there is sense that the elder son is unable to forgive the father.

Here, again, Jesus is describing the Kingdon of God, which his listeners take to mean an earthly kingdom that will return the Judaic kingdom to the Jews. But Jesus is describing a more fundamental worldview that supersedes political systems.

What does this parable have to say about the value of altruism in a capitalist society? Do we view our relationships as the product of a zero-sum game or an opportunity for win-win solutions?