By the Rev. Darren Miner
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Today’s Gospel reading is universally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I think it needs a better title. First, no one uses the word prodigal anymore. And second, the story isn’t primarily about that younger son. A more fitting title would be “The Parable of the Family that Behaved Outrageously.” Now, the outrageous behavior in this story may not be apparent at first glance. For one thing, social conventions were very different in first-century Palestine. For another, we have become inured to outrageous behavior; the Republican debates are a case in point.
The story begins with the younger of two sons telling his father that he can’t wait for his father to die to get his hands on his money. Clearly, this was an outrageous way for any son to behave. Common sense alone should have been enough to tell the father that the appropriate answer was “I don’t think so.” But if the father needed some guidance here, he could have relied on Judaism’s wisdom literature. Here is a typical teaching on the subject: “To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, in case you change your mind and must ask for it.” (Sir. 33:20–24). But the father in our story doesn’t take this sound advice. Instead, he divides all he owns between his two sons. An outrageous response to an outrageous request!
The younger son then goes off to foreign parts on what must have been one heck of a Spring break. Just when he’s run through his inheritance, famine strikes the land, and he’s forced to take a job as a pig-keeper. Now, observant Jews didn’t raise pigs. So this career change indicates that the younger son had abandoned not only his family, but his Jewish heritage as well.
But this job doesn’t work out so well, for we’re told that he was dying of hunger. Eventually, the starving pig-keeper comes to his senses. He figures that he would be better off returning home in disgrace and working as a menial laborer. It’s important to note that the son is motivated by hunger, not by any overwhelming sense of contrition! Next, the son rehearses a prepared speech that he’s going to recite to his father. On the face of it, the speech sounds quite repentant: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” (Maybe, I’m too cynical, but I’m just not convinced of his sincerity.) Anyway, off the son goes and heads back home.
Here the story takes a turn, and the outrageous behavior escalates! As the son approaches his father’s house, his father spots him. The old patriarch hikes up his robe and runs pell-mell down the lane, falls on the neck of his long-lost son, and starts kissing him. Most undignified behavior for a Middle-Eastern patriarch! But this patriarch evidently doesn’t care about social conventions.
Then, after the father has, for all intents and purposes, already accepted the son back into the family, the son tries to recite his prepared speech, but he’s interrupted before he can finish. The father calls for servants to dress his son up in party clothes and to prepare prime beef for a banquet in his son’s honor.
At this point, the elder son reenters the story. Now, recall that in the beginning of the story the father had already divided his inheritance between his sons. So the house, the servants, and the prime beef on the party menu all belong by rights to the elder son, not the father! The elder son hears the party going on and finds out from his servant what his father has done. His reaction is understandable. He gets angry and refuses to attend the party. But then the father deserts his guests, comes out, and starts begging his son to see reason. More outrageous behavior, for no patriarch worth his salt ever begged his son to do anything! After witnessing his father’s latest exploit, the elder son gets his turn to act outrageously. He talks back to his father in a highly disrespectful way, prefacing his insolent remarks with a phrase that might best be rendered in English as “Now, look here!”
To be fair, the elder son does present a good case. I think we can all agree that the younger son didn’t deserve a party in his honor, whereas the elder son probably did. And although the elder son doesn’t make a point of it, the party is being held at his expense—quite literally! After all, he is the rightful owner of the fatted calf. And if that weren’t enough, by welcoming the younger son back, the father has obliged the elder son, who now owns the family estate, to provide the younger son with a permanent place in the family business. I can see why the elder son was just a bit peeved! Even so, the elder son comes across as a touch petulant and self-righteous. He refuses to attend the party, preferring to stand outside and pout. He refuses to acknowledge his younger brother as such, referring to him as “this son of yours,” instead of “my brother.” And he goes on to accuse his brother of consorting with prostitutes—which may or may not, in fact, be true.
The father tries to reassure his elder son about his position in the family and to explain that the younger son’s return is like a miraculous resurrection from the dead. And how could one not celebrate a miracle? The story ends abruptly, and we are left hanging, with no hint of a resolution. Does the elder brother reconcile with his younger brother? Does the younger brother truly amend his way of life? We’ll never know!
Now, I hope I’ve made it clear why I would like to call this story “The Parable of the Family that Behaved Outrageously.” But what are we supposed to take away from this outrageous story of family dysfunction?
Recall that this parable is addressed to a group of Pharisees and scribes who had been complaining about the fact that Jesus welcomed sinners into his presence and ate with them. In that context, the Pharisees, who were genuinely pious and observant Jews, were meant to see themselves in the role of the elder son and to see God as the father in the parable. Jesus wanted these dutiful sons of the Father in Heaven to defy convention and welcome the sinner into their midst without complaint or condemnation, just as the father in the parable wanted the dutiful son to welcome back his wayward brother. Jesus is making a point both about how religious people are supposed to act and about the forgiving nature of God. And this lesson is by no means restricted to the Pharisees of first-century Palestine!
We church-going Christians are also being asked to welcome into our midst people who have made mistakes in their lives and to throw them a party—metaphorically speaking. We are asked to forgive and reconcile with others who come before us, even before they have a chance to ask for forgiveness. In other words, we are being asked to behave outrageously! Likewise, we are assured that, out of his abundant love, our Father in Heaven will behave just as outrageously and will forgive all who come back to him (us included!), even when our motives for doing so are mixed and our contrition incomplete.
Today’s Gospel reading is not so much about repentance, as it is about the outrageous forgiveness of God that defies all conventions and the outrageous ministry of reconciliation that our Heavenly Father is calling us to. As St. Paul puts it, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Reconciliation is the vocation of the Church. So, like the father in today’s parable, let us not hold back, but rather rush forth in defiance of convention and forgive outrageously!
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.