For me, the parable of the prodigal son stands out from all the other parables. For me, it doesn’t belong to that category of stories Jesus told, inscrutable teachings from the master. And it isn’t one of those Chinese finger traps, where you go into the story and then find no apparent way out again.
For me, the parable of the prodigal son is a ballet. It is a story told in the sweep of arms, the delicate, and not so delicate, work of feet; based on pure emotion.
And it is, first and foremost, a tragedy. And, no, not, for me anyway, in the way it is normally viewed as a tragedy resolved rightly.
It is as clear a telling of what it means to belong, and, more painfully, of what it means to feel as though we don’t belong, as there is in the Bible.
Because of the tenderness there. The tenderness of the father.
A tenderness, if you look closely at the story, that doesn’t exist anywhere else other than with the father.
We have the younger son. The recalcitrant pleasure-seeker who defines early on in his life exactly where he feels he doesn’t belong: at home.
So, shaming his family, and through the generous nature of his father, he claims his inheritance and makes his way into the world of selfishness and intemperance.
But let’s face it, with this kind of lifestyle one can only go up by turning criminal in order to maintain the style of living, or down, because self-indulgence without self-imposed limits pretty much cancels out any attempt to work in a seemly manner. Somehow, the illusion goes, this money will last forever!
And so down the younger son goes. And down. And down.
He bottoms out so completely, in fact, that he even thinks of home. Of his father. Who he had used successfully once already.
And what does he think? Does he think he should repent and lead a better life?
No, actually he doesn’t.
He thinks, eating corn husks is not to my liking. I will go to my father and see if he’ll give me better food if I watch his pigs for him.
This is not repentance.
This is just another assertion of selfishness, except with lower expectations.
My father was stupid enough to give me what I demanded once, who knows, maybe he’ll fall for it a second time.
And, yes, this demand for a living wage is a more reasonable demand on his father. But it is still just a demand.
Give me what I want.
And all of us parents know fully well how good a child is in making their demands sound righteous and reasonable: I have sinned against you and Heaven. Can I have some food, please?
He doesn’t ask, What can I do for YOU, father, to make up for my wrongs?
He doesn’t say, Punish me as you feel I deserve for what I did to you.
He says, I’ve sinned. Where’s the grub?
Kids. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live with ’em.
The Prodigal Son leaves because he knows absolutely he doesn’t belong there; and he returns with essentially the same message on his lips: I know I don’t belong here, I’ll just sit out in the sty with the pigs to prove it, but please JUST GIVE ME SOME FOOD!
The home is turned into a homeless shelter.
And what does the father do with this message: why he ignores it completely and says, anything, anything I can do for you, I will do.
The father asserts that the bad boy son belongs at home.
This is the beginning of the tragedy.
Enter the second son.
The good boy.
The hard and faithful worker.
And what does he tell his father upon witnessing the festival of joy that is being played out before his eyes? Why, just this: Father, if this is how you are going to treat HIM, then this is no home to me.
I don’t belong here.
First the first, then the second.
And the father has at it yet again: No, no, son, of course you belong here. You’ve always belonged here. You just never knew it.
And there’s the rub: exactly why didn’t the older son know of this reality of belonging at his own home? The place where he’s lived all his life?
He’s now a grown man, and just the re-entrance of his unspanked child of a brother completely undoes him.
Welcome home, Bro, now it’s my time to leave.
Interestingly, we are never told how the older son responds to his father’s assurance.
So let’s do what all the theologians do: let’s extend this story out to what it is a metaphor for – God, the Father, and us’ems, the great unwashed wanderers of the world.
But we can get a bit more specific, can’t we?
The father = God, the Father.
That’s an easy one, wouldn’t you agree?
Then there’s The Prodigal Son. He could be just about anyone. Saint Paul, say, as a stand-in for our inveterate quality of screwing up everything we touch. Until he’s downed while out riding one day in the sunshine.
Or, it could be Judas. What do you think of THAT stand-in? Pretty intense. But there’s a ring of truth to it.
Peter, the ever I’m-with-you-Lord-except-when-I’m-not disciple.
We have a whole range of choices there.
And then there’s The Older Son.
We have only one candidate for this role: The Lord Jesus Christ.
We know to our bones how we feel about belonging: we don’t. Here. Here. And here. And here.
Even Mother Teresa didn’t feel she belonged to God at some point in her life.
If she can feel abandoned and lost, I guess it’s a pretty easy guess that so do we all at some point in our lives. And here. And, yes again, here.
And we know when and where Jesus felt that he no longer belonged to God.
What we don’t know is how many moments he had feeling like this before he picked up his cross.
I’m doing this for you, Father. Why, exactly aren’t you doing anything for me?
The beginning of the parable of the prodigal son is also it’s ending.
Just as the beginning of Jesus’s life was a reflection of his ending: you aren’t wanted; you don’t belong; move along; and, ultimately, go die.
Perhaps it’s all about our carrying deep in our souls the grief of being evicted from Our Original Home. This just may be a stand-in for our actual births: coming out of the warmth and safety; leaving behind the knowledge of the absolute love of God as we don our bodies and find we need now to focus on things like food, and cleanliness, and the touch of another human being.
The ballet comes into its final explosive ending. The father becomes the hero.
The younger son gets fed.
The older son is wounded.
We don’t know where this wound is, how deep it is, if it gets infected.
Or if it heals.
And we don’t know if the younger son ever grows up and becomes responsible for his choices. If he ever really gets down on his knees and tells his father he’s sorry. And means it.
Now that his tummy’s full.
The moral of the story? God gives. And we take. In our most imperfect ways.