The Prodigal Son--in 2007
Bill Long 3/19/07
A Secular Reading
We discussed the parable of the prodigal son in my adult Sunday school class yesterday, and it dawned on me that this parable is not only a great story but it would be a wonderful teaching vehicle in secular, as well as religious, contexts. In some ways it is too bad that the parable appears in the Bible because in our "secular" culture people look at the Bible as the possession of the religiously fanatic. In fact there are hosts of interesting human narratives in the Bible, one of which is this story. By the way, you can read it in Luke 15:11-32.
If I had money or know-how, I would devise a writing contest in which the authors would have to use a biblical story as a basis and then develop their own story. There are a number of ways you could "take off" from this parable. Here are a few.
The Father--Pushover or Wise Parent?
We know the story. The younger son wants his share of the inheritance--immediately. And the father gives it to him--immediately. The Greek text only says: "And so he divided for them the inheritance" (the Greek word for inheritance is "bios"--'the life.' So the father is, as it were, giving away his life. You don't need to be religious to understand that one). I just noticed for the first time that the text states that the father divided the inheritance for them. Does that mean that both of the sons now own their share of the property? Why would he do such a thing? If a child comes to a parent with money needs, the "good" parent, we are told, usually tries to figure out whether the need is justified. Does the child want to buy a house or start a business? The parent usually then tries to help. But if the child just wants some dough to "explore the world," parents are divided on that one. But he seemed to give the children their respective portions of the inheritance. Does this mean that he has treated the children "equally," a sort of "share and share alike" approach to dividing the estate? But the story is fascinated with what the younger son does with the money; no mention is made of what the older son does. He acts as if he still doesn't own anything.
So, is the father wise to divide the inheritance at this point? Is he wise to divide it between them at this point? Has the father left himself no protection for the future? One of the big issues for parents in our day is when and how much to begin to give the kids. Every parent that I know holds back at least enough to "live on" for at least the next 20 or 30 years; is the father in the parable foolish for not doing so?
And is he a pushover in accepting back the son after he has rejected the family and squandered his living in a far country? This seems the most realistic detail. Children might feel incensed with and deeply offended by their parents, but the situation doesn't seem to work the other way around. Parents in general continue to cherish their children even in the child's worst and most painful explorations.
The Older Brother and the Entitlement Mentality
I think this parable is really about the older brother. I would so re-name it--the parable of the older brother. Please repeat that for me wherever you go, and perhaps within a few years it will take the world by storm. The reason I think it is about the older brother is that he is a much more difficult "nut" to crack than the younger brother. All it took to draw repentance out of the younger son was a little hardship. But the older brother is so fixed in his ways that he probably can't see either his need or the path to change. He is set in his ways because he is committed to "good things"--to doing his duty. Duty sings a very alluring song. One of the central epics of the Western tradition--the Aeneid-- is based on the notion of Aeneas' doing his duty. He is pius Aeneas. So, the older son has been dutifully keeping the farm all these years.
What do you think was his reaction when the younger son left with his share of the inheritance? Was it one of unbounded joy? A feeling of, "I hope he fails and fails miserably?" Do you think that he already knows of the father's "weakness"--i.e., his compassion? What do you think runs through his mind when the younger son appears? Who is the older son, in 2007 terms? I just love the first words out of his mouth when he talks with the father--in v. 29. The first few words translated literally are: "Behold, so many years I have slaved for you and I never once violated your command." Wow. Recall that the older brother already has his share of the inheritance, too, but how does he characterize his life? As the life of a slave. It is interesting that even the hired hands in the story are never called slaves; they are simply described as those who work for their day wages. Thus, even though the younger son would gladly have become a hired hand on his father's farm, the older son felt like a slave.
And it is precisely when he feels like this that, paradoxically, his entitlement mentality kicks in. The father never gave him a fatted calf, or even a "young goat" (v. 29). But he was entitled to it. So his bitterness knows no bounds. He, figuratively speaking, wanted Nineveh destroyed. He wanted his younger brother to be as dead to him as the family seemed dead to the younger son. He wanted a celebration, a party. Dammit, he deserved it.
With this in mind you can understand why my favorite words in the whole story are those of the father to the older son, "All that is mine is yours." It is true. The father has given away everything; some to the younger son and, if true to Jewish tradition, a larger share to the older son. Indeed the father is literally correct. His possessions "are" (the Greek is in the present tense) "yours." But the older son would prefer to wallow in a pigsty of his own mind than to take advantage of the gifts that are already his. Whereas the prodigal does things externally, the older brother does the same things internally. He is thus a much more interesting psychological case study than the younger brother.
Conclusion--What Happens the Next Day?
The parable ends after the father tells the older son that it was a right and good thing to celebrate the return of the younger brother. But what do you think will life be like tomorrow for the family? Will there be reconciliation? Will the older son begin to possess the things that already belong to him? Or will a person who has devoted his life to duty be unable to change? After all, duty is a pretty important virtue?
The power of Hebrew narrative is its open-endedness. I wonder how we ever or why we ever listened to those who want to "control" the meaning of the Bible by suggesting that this or that is the "bottom line" interpretation? The Bible will take us farther than we can even imagine. And, it would be good if some of our greatest writers in America would take on this story and "finish" it.