The reading set for this week is known almost universally as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But because of its context in Luke 15, should it be called something else? Jesus is answering complaints from the good religious people of his time about his association with “sinners.” Sinners was not only a religious term, but also a measure of social acceptability. In his answer he tells the story of a lost sheep and a lost coin. So his third story, which we call the Prodigal, might actually be the story of a lost son.
This observation raises an immediate question: which son is lost? There are two sons, but only one is able to enter the house of his father. The other, estranged from his father, refuses to come in. And it’s not the prodigal son; it’s the “good” son who won’t come home!
In this post I explore the parable from the point of view of the good son, and from my own life experience. I am using work collected by Paul Nuechterlein, predominately in this article , and the indented paragraphs are from him, unless otherwise attributed.
There is another common interpretation which we could question.
The parable does leave an open ending: will the elder brother be reconciled and join the party or not? Will the Father’s efforts at reconciliation prove successful or not? The dominant Protestant reading of the parable appears to answer in the negative — that some will always refuse to put their faith in grace alone and so will be punished forever in hell. Eternal estrangement is the end of the story….
Yet the story does not say this.
The father’s invitation remains an open invitation to join the party of reconciliation. Jesus leaves it as an open invitation for all of us elder sons who come along in history that we, too, might join in the party of reconciliation.
There are two groups of people who listen to Jesus tell this story. Nuechterlein describes them as
the religious folks who are, overall, obedient to society’s rules and seen as successful; and … those on the margins, the poor, captive, and oppressed, the sinners and tax collectors.
Do you see that religion is linked to societal success in these groups? The poor, even if not wicked, are classed with the sinners, simply by virtue of being poor. I do not think much has changed, even now. People used to say cleanliness is next to godliness, but even cleanliness costs money, just as it once cost money to be properly religious and not a sinner!
We define sinfulness along socio-economic lines in complete contradiction of the bible. Paul, for example, reels off a terrible list of sins at the end of Romans 1 and then reels in his nodding Christian readers by saying,
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God? … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 2:1-3; 3:23)
Jesus could have said to the Pharisees and scribes, “But you are sinners, too! You are no better, except for the fact that society lets you enter the temple to worship.” In this chapter of Luke, it is society who has defined the sinners, not God.
An example from our time: drug induced psychosis and drug fuelled violence are major issues for our local hospital. In our society, such drug dependency has been criminalised. The churches often see it as sinful. But one of my acquaintances who has never been drunk, as far as I know, has also “never been seen” without a glass of wine at hand after 5pm. This person deals with their life trauma and stress with a legalised drug, safe in an upper middle class house. Could it be mere luck that their life trauma can be deadened with alcohol alone? And in my fortunate life, I can deal with— or is it avoid— my trauma and wounding with “obsessive and excessive riding of pushbikes”— my doctor has a way with words, over-hard work, and an excess of coffee.
All three of us are estranged from God in some way. All three of us need healing. All three of us self-medicate. But society determines which ones of us are sinful, whilst being blind to the addiction of the others. Those who control society, we who are rich, get to define those who are not. We define them as “sinful” or as failures, rather than as estranged from us or, even, as victims of the system which benefits us.
God in Jesus Christ is inviting me to the heavenly party going on because of the work of reconciliation begun in Jesus Christ. But first I need to be able to see my estranged siblings. Mimetic Theory teaches us that our most common blindness precisely involves our not being able to see our victims as anything else than unrelated others. We fail to see them as siblings, as fellow human beings, and so we fail to see them as estranged. And, most tragically, we fail to answer the call to be reconciled. If Jesus’ heavenly Father is trying to get us to see them as brothers or sisters, our response is so often like the elder brother’s: “this son of yours,” never “this brother of mine.”
As one of the winners in society, and as a member of the church, I am an older brother by definition. Will I respond to the people around me as sister and brother of mine, or reject them as someone else’s problem? Often we barely even allow that they are daughters and sons of God!
The first gift in this story is that the Divine does not judge us as society judges us, or as we judge ourselves. God simply loves us. Rob Bell says the “younger son comes to see himself as bad, undeserving of any love from his father. But the older son’s problem is that he thinks he does deserve” his father’s love. (Quoted by Nuechterlein) That’s why he’s so angry. He’s worked over-hard and thinks he deserves more. He’s blind to what the father says: “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours!”
He’s blind and enraged because, instead of taking his bearings from his father’s love, he is defining himself by his brother. Andrew Marr says
When the older brother keeps his distance, the father runs out to him with the same solicitude he showed the returning younger son. The elder son’s disingenuous accusation of not being allowed to celebrate is shown up for what it is. Apparently, the elder son never thought to celebrate with his friends until his father threw a party for that son of his. What the elder son has done is put himself into competition with his younger brother, when there is no need for competition. This sort of mimetic rivalry creates a stumbling block in the way of forgiveness. It remains to be seen whether or not the younger brother will forgive the elder for his unforgiving attitude.
It worries me that so often we (and I) have believed the older brother’s claims about the father’s lack of love! What does our common assumption that the older brother is being truthful say to us? Or have we not noticed how often we “gild the lily” when complaining about our siblings? Is there something here that betrays that we don’t believe in the love of the father!?
The story is not only gift. It is a repeat of the first story of culture— from the biblical perspective— and can be read as a chilling warning of a future of estrangement.
In captivity, the Israelites were confronted with the Babylonian myths of origin. Underlying these is the notion that violence simply is. It is a part of the constitution of the world.
In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world … order is established by means of disorder … Evil precedes good. … Marduk and his father, Ea, … execute [a captive god], and from his blood Ea creates human beings to be servants to the gods … Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes. (Walter Wink The Myth of Redemptive Violence)
The early chapters of Genesis seem to have been written in opposition to this myth.
The biblical myth in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed to all this. The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution. (Ibid)
And, as we see only too clearly in a nuclear age, and in the heat of the acquisitive violence that threatens our climate and biosphere, violence requires a solution or we may not survive it.
When the first couple leave the Garden of Eden and enter “the real world,” they have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain is angry that God does not accept his sacrifice, but does accept the sacrifice of his younger brother. In response, out in the field, he kills the brother of whom he is jealous. In literary terms, this is the beginning of human culture. And “many years later” out in the field beside his father’s house the elder son is being given a choice: be reconciled, or be like Cain. Sibling rivalry goes the heart of who we are. The estrangement of Adam and Eve from God is mirrored in Cain’s estrangement from God. And at the heart of it is violence, our violence.
This is a grim connection. Cain lamented that he would be a target for revenge, so God said, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.” (Genesis 4:15) But, as we have learned, the mark of Cain was prophetic rather than protective; violence has bred violence.
The parable of the lost son, this story of estranged brothers, addresses the basic issues of rivalry and violence which have been with us as long as we have been human, and which may yet destroy us. In this context the presence of Jesus among us is not so much about forgiveness, which is how we have traditionally heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but about reconciliation so that we may have life.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2)
Notice that in this text both groups are reconciled to God, as well as each other. Brian McLaren says of the elder brother,
You can’t maintain hostility against “the other” without also withdrawing from the father who loves both you and the other as beloved children. If you maintain hostility against the other, you stop acting like a son in the same family. You leave your true identity as a son and start playing the part of a slave.
At school I became the one who was other. In one sense there was no malice intended. We were just kids being kids, taking on the roles and acting out the same scapegoating of the other which society taught us. But with older eyes I am astounded at how our violence split unerringly along the lines of class and other rivalries. There were the well-off farm kids vs. the poor workers kids, and the rest of us vs. the gaol warders’ kids. Many years later, as an uncle was talking about the “butcher’s picnic” that was the football match between two local towns, I found that my father’s great rivals on the field had been the fathers of the kids who didn’t like me.
My way out of all this was to be good, and, since I was clever, to do well at school. If I kept in good with teachers, and good with my parents, I would have protectors, and life would be bearable. Of course, good meant middle class morals and ideals, and it meant the definition of those who were different as… sinful, even if we didn’t quite say so. And being clever was another way of delineating myself over against those who abused me. To my father’s credit— and to my later benefit— he lived to a very different standard, but I soaked up the dominant ethos of the district like dry sand. So I was right into what Nuechterlein calls
… human forms of obedience, based on being over against the disobedient who are the scapegoated victims of sacrificial culture.
It would never have occurred to me that
God’s way of obedience [to which we are called] … is for the sake of the siblings perceived as disobedient by the human way of thinking.
We would help those in need, but my help or sympathy was always to the in-some-way-undeserving rather than being compassion which sought to be reconciled. Few of the basic rivalries and injustices of the local community were changed.
Nuechterlein quotes James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 35.
According to this parable the mercy of God is shown not to the group, but to the lost member, to the outsider. I ask you to consider quite how extraordinary this change of perception with respect to who God is turns out to be: mercy has been changed from something which covers up violence to something which unmasks it completely. For God there are no ‘outsiders’, which means to say that any mechanism for the creation of ‘outsiders’ is automatically and simply a mechanism of human violence, and that’s that.
Life blossomed for me when I went to university, but not because I changed. I merely found more people like me. And then, life began to sour again after uni, as I found that being good does not work. Being good gets you into trouble, or makes you a slave. So, like the older brother, I discovered rage; deep fury at the injustice of life, which, really, meant deep fury that I was still not accepted. I was still estranged. I was not one of the winners. I was not good enough.
But I was just clever enough to finally realise my rage was only quantitatively different from those who killed their families, or who beat up bystanders outside pubs. The problem is not goodness. The problem is not self-control. The problem is estrangement.
Nuechterlein says in another article
Jesus didn’t just call these folks brothers and sisters, he lived in solidarity with them — the poor and oppressed, the imprisoned and persecuted. Jesus — the perfectly obedient elder brother — accepted being declared a disobedient younger brother, even to the point of hanging on a tree and appearing accursed by God. [cf Deut 21:22-23] And though he knew it would not be easy, he called his disciples to follow him and do the incredibly hard work of reconciling people of this world, of being peacemakers.
The solidarity he describes is the beginning of reconciliation. I remain astonished at how much a very little attempt at solidarity has changed me. It drains the rage. It reconciles; I have friendships with people I might once have despised, and with whom I would have felt friendship was impossible— people who now inspire me!
… will we accept the challenge, or does it seem too hard? Does it seem all burden and no grace?… grace is the invitation to follow as a disciple of Jesus in the work of reconciliation and peacemaking. Any grace that doesn’t include that challenging call is “cheap grace.” The grace of discipleship, in short, is both the invitation and the challenge together.
That’s the second gift of the parable: “the invitation to follow as a disciple of Jesus in the work of reconciliation and peacemaking” is the gift that reconciles us to both God and each other.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.