There are many ways to read the parable of what has long been called the prodigal son – ‘prodigal’ meaning of course ‘extravagant and wasteful’. Yes, the interpreters blamed the youngest from the beginning!
Rudyard Kipling, whose amusing poem we’ve heard this morning, like many interpreters plays with the text in order to help us see differently. Kipling politely suggests that our condemnation of the youngest, his leaving home, his wasteful living, might not be quite as it seems. Indeed after being fed, forgiven, and claimed again, the lad wants to return to the pig farm to pursue a different life.
Kipling’s message is that there is a part of us too ready to apportion blame to the one who leaves, or who has the courage to leave, and apportion blame for ‘wasteful’ living when unseen circumstances may be contributing. We like to judge those different from us, who don’t do things as we would or we think they should.
My interpretation, drawing on a more scholarly approach than Kipling, is this is about family and about the relationships within a family mattering. But it isn’t just about family in the sense of the male members of a nuclear family [two brothers and a father], but about the human family. For the introductory verses [1-3] alert us that the elder brother represents Jesus’ religious critics. And I would suggest by extrapolation represents all those who are successful, law-abiding, and upright members of society. Whereas the younger boy is characterised by those ‘sinners’, outside the boundaries of faith, like prostitutes and tax collectors; and by extrapolation all those who are ‘unsuccessful’, or those who think, look, act, or believe differently from the norms and conventions in our day.
The lesson of the parable is simply that family matters; that is the relationships between human beings matter. This is the same message, albeit in a different form, that is being espoused in the wake of the Christchurch massacre: though we look different from one another we all belong; though we believe differently from one another we all belong; though we are very diverse Aotearoa is our home, and getting along with each other is very important. Family, our Kiwi family to which we all belong, matters. And like in the story of the two boys and their dad we will need wisdom, tolerance, forgiveness, and the willingness to embrace and accommodate individuality and diversity.
So in our parable beliefs and laws around family, inheritance, conformity, and penalties are deemed secondary to the restoration of the relationships in the family. Keeping to the expectations of the dominant cultural norms is deemed secondary to bringing the disgraced brother and the disgruntled brother into relationship with each other. Relationships matter more than rules.
In the story there are six shameful acts [‘shame’ being something a culture or society deems as blatantly and un-controversially wrong]. They first two acts happen immediately. The younger son, maybe a 17 year old[i], asks for his share of the property, and the father gives it. The primary act of wrongdoing by the younger son was not misusing his inheritance but asking for it. When he asks for his share of the property it is culturally tantamount to wishing his father dead, for property only passed on to the next generation after death.[ii]
The second shameful act in this story is the father’s. In granting his youngest son’s request he shows himself to be a weak fool. In ceding a third of the estate [what the younger was entitled to] the father put in jeopardy the financial well-being of the whole family unit. As events unfolded, with the younger son frittering his finances away, the father’s wanton generosity would have been seen as bringing shame upon the family.
The restless son came to the father and insulted him by demanding the resources to be free. The son did not want to be caged by family responsibility and duty. The father, like many parents, thought of the consequences of denying the request. Then, knowing that his other dependents and neighbours would think him foolhardy and irresponsible, yet also knowing that healthy relationships are not well served by coercion, the father took a deep breath and said yes.
The third shameful act was the youngest son’s squandering of the inheritance. It’s portrayed as self-destructive. Working for a profane foreigner and feeding profane pigs are signals to the Jewish audience that he not only has sunk as low as he can go, but he has also lost his faith. His squandering also loses him his family - for he would in future have no means to fulfil his duties and provide support to his kin.
The young prodigal then ‘comes to himself’ and decides to return to the ancestral home in order to work as a hired hand. The parable does not portray this as a cynical calculation to escape poverty, although the audience may have wondered. Rather he is portrayed as desperate. He has no expectation that he will be restored to the privilege of being a son. Indeed he can no longer be a son for he has forfeited those rights.
The fourth shameful act was the manner of the father’s forgiveness. He goes overboard. He seems to have been looking out for this reprobate. He runs – not the seemly thing for a patriarch to do – kisses and hugs him. He confers forgiveness when there is no evidence of the son’s sincerity, or even the request for such forgiveness.
This display of emotion by the father character indicates that the vision of ‘family matters’ is not bound by expected legal and hierarchical roles but rather by a deep and nurturing love for all, especially for those that are suffering. The father’s disregard of legalities is evident when he asks his slaves to carry out orders that have the appearance of restoring the son to his former status rather than inducting him into the duties of a hired hand. The vision called ‘family matters’ not only wants to welcome and include, but it also wants to restore.
The father has received the son back and as was normal in 1st century Judaism the father is still in control of the property. The welcome means that the younger son can be supported from the property as long as the father lives. In a limited-goods society however the youngest son has not only wasted one third of their communal resources but by being received back will ultimately be a financial burden to the detriment of his elder brother.
The fifth shameful act is that of the elder brother, who you will recall from v.2 is a characterization of the Pharisees and Scribes who do not like Jesus welcoming and dining with ‘sinners’. The elder brother feels the enthusiastic reception of his wayward sibling is unjust. He does not want to join in the feast given on the return of the prodigal. He is angry.
New Zealand Christian audiences often have a lot of empathy for the elder brother. Like with our treatment of prisoners I think we struggle with being compassionate towards those who have chosen a wayward path. We want the wayward one to experience the consequences, and be punished for their actions. We want to attach the label ‘bad’ to them. I think it was this tendency that Kipling was indirectly addressing with his poem.
For a 1st century Jewish audience though the elder brother’s refusal to dine with his father is culturally also a very shameful act. Just as the younger boy shamed the patriarch in asking for his inheritance so the elder shames his father by not eating with him. He violates the 4th commandment.[iii]
The elder son sees the father as having brought dishonour on the family by ceding to his brother’s request and then welcoming him back. He sees his younger sibling as having brought dishonour in both his request for inheritance and his squandering of it. The prodigal has further shamed the family, according to the eldest, by consorting with prostitutes, therefore compromising the family’s bloodline.
The story cleverly at this point shows how with the reference to non-existent prostitutes, the pious, like the elder brother, can fantasize about leaving the strictures of their faith, and project both their envy and fear upon those who have. Similarly by extrapolation those who are successful, law-abiding, and upright members of society in our day can subconsciously project out their envy and fear upon those who do meet the same standards or are just ‘other’ than themselves.
The sixth shameful act is the father’s response to this jealous elder brother. As in his dealings with the younger, the father refuses to assert the authority and discipline of the patriarchal entitlement. He comes out to him and affirms him as a companion and co-owner of the farm. The father’s response however goes beyond a simple legal affirmation that the elder is the one true heir and addresses him with the affectionate term teknon: ‘child’.
The father is stepping away from dealing with this family crisis by technical legal means. Addressing the elder brother as child serves the same function as the kissing and embracing of the younger son. It is relationality not legality that is paramount - it is the finding and loving of his children that concerns him, not his honour as represented by the inheritance. The vision called ‘Family Matters’ seeks not to defend its own honour and importance but to reach out to heal and embrace.
The father rejects neither of his sons. Upon his death the estate will go to the eldest who will assume the responsibilities of the patriarch. Yet the father is ultimately interested not in morality or inheritance but the ongoing relationship between the two boys. The purpose of doing the dishonourable thing and allowing the younger his inheritance; doing the dishonourable thing and unconditionally forgiving this son; doing the dishonourable thing and coming out to the elder son who has shamed him… the purpose of doing all this is for relationship, and ultimately for relationship not with him but between the two sons.
Similarly the vision for our country that many of us are articulating in these post-massacre days is primarily interested in reconciliation between insiders and outsiders in society, rather than being primarily interested in legalities, moralities, and correct doctrines or calls to prayer. We want to find ways to affirm and include all with wisdom, respect, kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, and the willingness to embrace and accommodate individuality and diversity. The sinners and prostitutes really were brothers and sisters to the Pharisee and Scribe; as are 1st generation Muslim immigrants to fourth generation New Zealand Presbyterians. We are family; and family matters.
[i] Dr Chris Marshall suggests this as a likely age when the son is old enough to leave home but has not married.
[ii] Occasionally in this 1st century culture a deed of gift could happen during a patriarch’s lifetime, but the beneficiary [in this case the younger son] still had responsibilities to use the gift to support the benefactor [his father].
[iii] ‘Honour your father and mother’ Exodus 20:12.