Who’s “Prodigal” Now??

The problem with Jesus is that he just doesn’t know when to let it go! It’s one thing to have conflicts with the religious authorities, it’s quite another to tell them that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Reign of God ahead of them. No wonder he keeeps getting into trouble!
And then there is this story he told, the one we call “The Prodigal Son.” Notice that the word “prodigal” never appears in the story, and if you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find that two definitions: “a wasteful spendthrift” is the first one, but the second one is “profuse in giving, exceedingly abundant.” We will come back to these meanings throughout this reflection.
To whom did Jesus tell this story? That’s an important question, one often overlooked when people read the story. So let’s consider this question. The 15th chapter of Luke begins with these words:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable … “(RSV)He directed it to the Pharisees and the scribes, in other words, the “cardinals”, if you will, of the religious establishment of that time. They were interpreters of the Jewish law; they had the important responsibility of making judgments about right and wrong. And it’s this group of people who are paying close attention to Jesus and they’re not happy with what they hear. Worse, he’s surrounded by tax collectors and sinners—the lowest of the low. The Pharisees and scribes take offense, and they complain, “This man hangs out with sinners and even eats with them!” Jesus hears them and tells them the story we just listened to.
Remember the first definition of “prodigal” is “spendthrift”, and that is what the younger son becomes. He demands his share of the inheritance from his dad and leaves his home and his village. This would have been seen as a grave insult to the father and to the community as well, and in fact, the young man would have been shunned after disrespecting his father in this way.
But after having the time of his life, the young man is broke and homeless and ends up working for a pig farmer. To Jesus’ audience, this is the lowest form of employment. Pigs are considered unclean animals, and the fact that this foreign landowner raises pigs tells us that he is a Gentile, which means the Jewish son is also having to work on the Sabbath. In other words, he is compelled to violate everything he has ever been taught to consider sacred just so he can survive.
But now, just as his life down-spirals to the bottom, the turning point comes. The boy thinks back to his home and how even the servants there are better off than he is. So he decides to return. He even rehearses what he’s going to say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” If that doesn’t do it, maybe he’ll be able to work up a few tears to melt the old man’s heart.
What he doesn’t know, of course, is that his father has been waiting for him. Every day he’s been going out across the fields, to look down that road, hoping against hope that his son will appear on the horizon. And one day his prayers are answered, and the silhouette of his son appears on the horizon. And like a crazy man, the father goes running down the road toward his son. He grabs him — ragged clothes and pig smells and all — and kisses him like he’s returned from the dead.
The son starts his carefully rehearsed speech about how he’s sinned against heaven and isn’t worthy to be called a son, blah blah blah, only he doesn’t get through it before the father is shouting orders to the servants about getting some decent clothes for the boy, killing the fatted calf and organizing the welcome home party.
The welcome home party makes a great ending to a heartwarming, emotional tale about a father’s love, and Jesus might have stopped there. But, like I said, he never knew when to quit. He just couldn’t leave sleeping pigs lie, so to speak…
So, Jesus continues: “Now the elder son was in the field.” The elder son? Oh yes, there are two boys, aren’t there? We’d forgotten about that firstborn son. Won’t he be surprised to hear the news?! Won’t he be excited to learn that there’s a party being planned? We would be, wouldn’t we? Or…do you think maybe you ought to pull your father aside and have a few words with him? To express your anger and outrage? To talk some sense into the old fool? This is what happens in the parable, when the older son refuses to join in the festivities and dad has to go outside to find out why—and he gets an earful!
“Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!” (Good News Translation).
And he’s making a good case: it hardly seems fair, all this fuss over the one who ran off and made a mess of things. What about me? he wants to know.
We have all asked that same question, and if we’re honest, it’s this older brother with whom we identify most. Up till now, the parable was a heart-warming bedtime story, but now suddenly we find ourselves in the story—exactly as the scribes and Pharisees saw themselves. And like them, we aren’t too pleased with what we see.
The older son resents the attention his brother is getting and he even adds details to the story, saying that his brother spent all his money on prostitutes. (This must be a Freudian slip because nobody said anything about hookers up to this point!) And then, worst of all, we realize that the older son feels unloved by his father. This is genuinely tragic because of course his father loves him and has always loved him and will always love him, but the older brother has never once noticed it. Maybe he never felt the love because he was focused so much on getting his fair share of everything else. And the big party for him and his friends? That could all have been his too, any time he asked for it, except he never thought to ask for it because, as Frederick Buechner writes, “ he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn it.”1
In this story there is another prodigal son, the one who stays at home. It’s not that he is a spendthrift with money, rather, he is a spendthrift with his own insecurity, his own need to earn love, his own self-pity. And the story ends unresolved: Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older brother is able to overcome his limitations and hurt or not. Since we are connected deeply to this son, we hope he did ultimately discover that the experience of his brother also held amazingly good news for him as well. And we whisper a silent pray that we, too, will make that same discovery.
Maybe we will be able to hear the good news that God’s love for us is not contingent on our good behavior. Maybe we can come to realize that God is willing to come out to meet us, and even run up to us and embrace us, even when we smell to high heaven of our mistakes and bad choices. If so, we need to lighten up on ourselves. That doesn’t mean we need to take the family money and run off to waste our resources on hookers and parties, but maybe we can stop focusing on being “perfect” and just focus on becoming what God intends us to become instead.
The parable of the prodigal son is a great story because each of us lives the roles of all the characters in it at some point in our lives — the role of loving, the role of being loved even when we’re unlovable, and, maybe most of all, the role of feeling that we have not been loved enough.2 And permeating the whole story is the holy presence of the one who told the story.
There is a sense in which Jesus is the prodigal son. Do you remember that second definition of the word prodigal? It means “profuse in giving, exceedingly abundant.” Like the father in the story, Jesus shows how God loves equally the prodigal who wallows in self-indulgence, the prodigal who is lost in self-pity, and every other prodigal in between. This is the God who has no sense of decorum or propriety; this is the God who searches the horizon every day waiting for our return, and as soon as he catches a glimpse of us in the distance, he breaks into a run and comes to meet us and hold us in an embrace we can never earn, we can never be entirely worthy of, an embrace that is the fullness of everything we have ever needed.


About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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One Response to Who’s “Prodigal” Now??

  1. Pingback: Father Michel: Who’s “prodigal” now? | Curtis Narimatsu

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