The Parable of the Prodigal Son is well known. For many it is a favourite parable which speaks to God’s awesome ability to love, even in the most difficult of circumstances. As we travel through Lent and prepare ourselves for the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday it is important to re-examine this parable to see if it sheds new light on our Lenten journey.
Text: Luke 15: 1-3, 11-33
Who is the Prodigal?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is well known to us. So well-known that often we rush through the parable so that we can arrive at the joyful reunion at the end. This parable has traditionally been understood as expressing God’s love and mercy, demonstrated in the father’s actions towards his younger son. It is a comforting story that reminds us of God’s love.
However, we are well served to slow down in our reading and gain a better understanding of this parable. As we journey through Lent towards Good Friday and Easter we should also be mindful of reading this parable through those events. We would be well served to keep the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross in mind as we read this story. What we will find is that this Parable is about far more than God’s love.
Let’s turn our attention to the younger son. I want to be very clear here, the younger son is not a nice person and that is putting it politely. His request for half his share of the inheritance is the equivalent of ‘Wishing his father were dead.’ Have you ever seen in someone’s home or perhaps in the movies where there a bunch of family photos. Only one of the frames is lying face down on the table and you are unable to see who the picture is of? In this instance it’s the younger son.
Within the cultural context the son has said, “Dad you are dead to me.” It shouldn’t be surprising that his parents would think a similar way. Of course we know that the father does not react this way, but I share this with you to give you a sense of how vile the son’s actions are. Of course it gets worse. You see the inheritance wasn’t money, it was land. What is implied is that the son sells the family land to someone else for money, which he then goes and squanders.
These actions of demanding the inheritance and then selling the land would have brought great shame upon the family. In fact one of the most surprising things about the parable is that the father agreed to these demands at all!
The son goes off and squanders his wealth. He then finds himself feeding pigs. Now that might not strike us as odd, but our assumption is that the son is Jewish. Jews don’t eat pork. You gain a sense of how far the son is from home, both literally and metaphorically. The son decides to go home, to work as one of his father’s hired hands. For surely that is better than his current position. Whether the son has a true change of heart or just thinks that he can con his old man we don’t know.
We do know that his father welcomes his with open arms, much to the chagrin of his older brother. An older brother who is fuming that ‘this son of yours’ has come back. He is unable to see his brother as that, his brother. It is as if his brother is dead to him. The attitude of the older brother is telling. He indicates that he has ‘slaved away for all these years’ at the behest of his father. He does not understand or see the abundance he is already living in.
When I compare these two brothers I have to honestly ask which one was the worst son? The one who said, “Dad, I wish you were dead give me what is mine.” Or the son who has viewed himself as a slave all these years, a son who has no joy written on his heart.
Who is the worst son, the one who actually says “Dad drop dead” or the one who is waiting for his dad to ‘drop dead’ so he will be freed from his imagined slavery? Both brothers have a broken relationship with their father.
Within our traditional reading of this parable we need to ask these questions. We understand the grace that is offered to the younger son. However, we also need to understand the grace that has always been present for the older son. Their attitudes are important as they help to shape our understanding of the parable and of our own relationship with God.
There is a further thing with the older son and it ties into the opening verses of the reading from Luke. Jesus is having a meal, we don’t know what type of meal, but he is eating with tax collectors and sinners. In the eyes of the Pharisee’s Jesus is hanging out with the wrong crowd. Jesus hears their words and so he shares the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
In many ways the attitudes of the older son mirrors that of the Pharisee’s as they are unwilling to eat at the same table with the lost. They don’t want anything to do with sinners. They are so lost within their own perceived purity that they cannot recognize that other people need God’s grace. They forget that God’s grace is available to all people.
Now the traditional reading would put the elder son as the Pharisee’s, the young son as the sinners perhaps the character we identify ourselves with. The father is of course then seen as representing God, through his act of forgiveness and love. It ties things up all nice and neatly. Perhaps a little too neatly.
Now, I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with the traditional view of the parable. However, I do wonder if there is another element at play and it is within the context of Lent and the arrival of Good Friday that I consider this. One of the key Christian doctrines is that of atonement. What happened on the cross? Why did Jesus need to die?
One of the most enduring thoughts on this comes from Anselm and his theory of substitutionary atonement which was formulated in the 11th century. In short this theory says that because God is just human sin must be punished. However, because God is loving God doesn’t want to punish humanity. The result is Jesus, who Anselm refers to as the God-man, can take the punishment thus satisfying God’s need for justice.
Now, this theory isn’t perfect but it has endured for a thousand years. One criticism with it is why does God need to punish at all? Why doesn’t God just forgive, as we see in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Why demand justice?
One of the reasons why this theory endures is because we like to add things up and we have an innate sense of fairness. To give an example if one child gets one cookie and the other child gets two cookies, what does the first child want? Another cookie, they want their fair share. They want to know that things are even, that events are being settled properly. This is the view of the elder son. We can empathize with him, we understand why he is angry with his younger brother. However, it doesn’t forgive his attitudes towards his father.
However, in addition to this today we also remember past grievances. As a society we are not good at forgiving. We are not good at forgiving other people and we are not good at forgiving ourselves. This is where Anselm’s theory begins to break down for me. Why do we need to add it all up, why do the scales need to be balanced? Clearly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t concerned with everything being balanced.
Here in the Parable of the Prodigal Son we have an example of forgiveness on display. Forgiveness which is modeled on how God operates in the world.
I would like to leave you with one last image, a twists if you will on this parable. To provide a new way of thinking about it and to provoke some additional questions of yourself.
Imagine if you will that the elder son does still represent the Pharisee’s with their inability to see how God offers mercy. However, do not view the father in this story as God. Instead I would like you to see yourself as the figure of the father, as the one who forgives. The younger son is Jesus.
Jesus who asks if we will accept him, even if he is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. Even if he reeks like a pig sty. Will you embrace him with love? Will you run out to meet him? Will you share a banquet with him?
The same Jesus who said, “When you did this to the least of these, you did it to me.”
Do we have the ability to see the face of Jesus in those who are not like us? Or must we remain as the elder brother demanding that people conform to our expectations?
This is the question which the Parable of the Prodigal Son forces us to answer. Can we love and forgive as Jesus does? The same Jesus who will hang on a cross for our sake. Not to see that God’s desire for justice is met, but to demonstrate God’s love. The cross event demonstrates how far God is willing to go to show God’s immense love for us. Love which is available for sinners, for younger sons and daughters and for elder sons and daughters. Love which is available to all people who live with broken relationships. Amen.