by Raymond Pickett
Professor of New Testament
One of the things that makes this parable, perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ parables, so astonishing is that it can be heard and interpreted from a variety of perspectives because we connect with it in different ways out of our own life experience. A longstanding tradition has designated it as the parable of the “prodigal son.” When I was a young seminarian I remember reading a sermon by Helmut Thielicke who renamed it the parable of the “waiting father” and shifted the focus to the character of the father as God. As with all the parables, it’s not like there is one right interpretation. That’s not how parables work. Jesus tells these stories to draw us in only so that he can subvert the world as we know it and draw us into alternate universe of new possibilities.
You probably will disappointed to discover (because I am disappointed to reveal to you) that more often than not when I hear this parable I identify with the elder son. I am the firstborn in a family with three siblings and have what some might deem an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. My entire life I have played the role of the obedient son and have never really gone through a rebellious phase or even been enticed by the prospect of a walk on the wild side. I am well aware that on one level this is kind of sad, but there you have it. I have never really seen the point in coloring outside the lines, so to speak. So while theologically I am, of course, drawn to and inspired by the loving father in the parable who obviously represents God, I must confess that I am often confounded by the inability or unwillingness of people to just do what they are supposed to do.
I have a hunch that this might be the profile of many of us; certainly a large percentage of Lutherans. Can we do a little denominational profiling here? How many here, whether you are firstborn or not, see yourself as a responsible person who is in the habit of doing what is expected of you and have at least some empathy with the elder brother? And, of course, there will be at least a few prodigals among us who are here because they “come to themselves.” I will begrudgingly concede that I have on occasion been envious of prodigals who have returned home because their stories are usually so interesting and dramatic, and their experience of grace is often so wonderfully radical while the rest of us carry on the business of day to day life doing what we are supposed to do.
There is no end to the possibilities for reading our selves and our stories into this parable because on one level it is a story of a dysfunctional family, and most of us have enough firsthand experience with familial dysfunction that we recognize it and ourselves in it easily enough. If I were to spend a little more time looking at the parable as a mirror, it wouldn’t take long to expose the moralism lurking beneath my hyper-obedience and overdeveloped sense of responsibility and connect it to my own authoritarian father. And we could, of course, spend days psychoanalyzing the moral deficiencies of “prodigals” who can’t seem to get with the program. But if we continue down this path nothing changes. In fact, we become even more entrenched in the mire of our own stories.
But what if this parable is not so much a mirror that reflects back to us our own dysfunction as a window onto new possibilities; in particular the possibility of transformation and joyful celebration of our connection with God and others, especially those who are not like us? And what if this parable is not about me and my family or you and your family, but rather about the human family? You will recall that Jesus tells this parable, as well as the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, in response to Pharisees and scribes who were complaining that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So for ancient audiences who hear this parable it wouldn’t be a stretch to see the elder son as representing a faithful Jew and the younger a Gentile sinner. We’ve been punked! It’s not about myself or yourself after all but rather about being taken outside of or beyond our “selves” and ultimately about a parent’s desire for all the offspring to grow in their capacity to celebrate redemption and new creation!
It may by instructive to point out that in the Jewish world of Jesus all of us, hyper-obedient and prodigal alike, would as Gentiles fall into the category of “sinner.” That’s the way profiling works! Gentiles were de facto “sinners” because as idolaters they transgressed the norms of Jewish practice and belief. So my sisters and brothers all of us Gentiles are cast as “prodigals” in Jesus’ telling of this parable regardless of our moral sensibilities. However, fortunes change and now more than two millennia later roles have been reversed. Countless prodigals have returned “home” and indeed have built their own house, which at times looks something like a “mighty fortress.” So lo after these many centuries those who were once on the outside looking in have settled in and, in effect, are playing the part of the entitled elder brother who lives in fear of losing his inheritance.
Peter Rollins has an interesting retelling of this parable from the perspective of those who remain faithful to God yet who feel that God is distant. In his version the father lives with his two sons in a lavish mansion and late one evening packs a few items and leaves quietly. The elder son, upon discovering his father’s disappearance, continued with his chores religiously. Through toil and rationalization, this son successfully repressed the haunting fact that the father had abandoned them. The other son also refused to face up to the pain of his father’s midnight exodus. In confusion and fear he withdrew his share of the father’s inheritance and ran away, losing himself in worldly distractions of all kinds. You can see where this is going because it has become, in Rollins’ retelling, a story about an acute sense of Divine absence and withdrawal. He ends the parable describing the elder son who each day prepares for a great feast of celebration and sits by the entrance of the mansion and passionately awaits the father’s return.
But I find myself wondering, is the matter in question the sense that God has left the building, so to speak, or rather that we won’t venture out of the sacred edifices we have constructed (literally and figuratively) to participate in the new creation? The most striking feature of this parable is that the father does indeed depart. As he leaves the house upon spotting his younger son in the distance we are told “he was filled with compassion; and running he fell on his neck and kissed him.” The father is ecstatic and transgresses the etiquette and decorum for how an honorable father is supposed to behave and in self-abandonment delights in the return of his lost son! If there is a tragic dimension to this parable it is the inability or unwillingness of the elder brother to celebrate with him.
So what shall we say about this parable? The good news for today is directed to the elder sisters and brothers among us who have been ever faithful, diligent, responsible and hardworking, and I assume that is most of us. I hear at least two exhortations for us (preaching to myself), and they are not going to be easy. No one ever said the gospel is easy.
First, we elder sibling types could probably learn something from the prodigal son who squandered his inheritance about stepping outside the comfort and confinement of our habitations to venture out into the world to discover some things for ourselves. This parable about the prodigal’s journey is set within Luke’s travel narrative where the disciples are journeying with Jesus. I believe with all my heart that the risen Jesus would love to take us on a road trip with him where we would find not only poverty and pig stys but also incredible beauty and goodness among those outside our regular orbit who bear the image of the creator, but we will have to step outside of our comfort zones into unknown territory.
Second, and this one is going to be really difficult for us responsible types, I hear the Father who acts more like a Mother in this parable inviting us to take a little walk on the wild side. I am talking to elder types here not those with prodigal proclivities. The God whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength may be calling us to take some risks, abandon conventions, transgress routines and rituals, and be more vulnerable. Perhaps we are at that place in Lent when we can move from self-examination to self-abandonment. Our model here is Jesus who as he moves inexorably toward Golgotha will lay it all on the line for the sake of life!
Sisters and brothers, we are surrounded by all kinds of pain and suffering, but all around us every day there signs of life; indeed life emerging out suffering and death. If we can’t recognize and celebrate resurrection that happens in the midst of daily life, then it should be no surprise that we suffer from an acute sense of divine absence or withdraw. For the One who is the very Source of Life itself is off doing a jig with those who have stumbled into the light!
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32