“The Prodigal Son” is probably one of the best known parables in the Bible, but we sometimes get so sentimental about the story that we gloss over the discomforting details.
To begin with, we don’t always notice how hateful the younger son is. We tend to think of him as foolish and immature, but not downright hateful. And yet in Jesus’ day you could hardly come up with a more painful rejection than to ask for your inheritance while your parents are still living. The son might as well say, “Why aren’t you dead yet?” His request is calculated to inflict pain.
Don’t forget that Jesus told this story to answer a question. His critics wanted to know why he kept company not just with sinners but with tax-collectors. Tax-collectors aren’t just the IRS. This is a subjugated, occupied country. Tax-collectors are traitors, people who don’t mind harming their own neighbors to get ahead, people to be feared for what they can do to you. They’re not unlike a son who wouldn’t mind seeing his own family dead.
So what does the father do? He doesn’t even rebuke his son. He says nothing about the pain that request must have caused. He simply does what he’s asked. Our translation reads, “He divided his property between them,” but the word for “property” also means “life.” He divided his very life between them. He gives everything away. And apparently the younger son is still welcome to stick around, because several days pass before he decides to strike out on his own. Nobody asked him to leave. It was his decision alone.
So honestly, it’s hard not to feel a little satisfaction when he makes a complete mess of his life. And if this were a morality tale, that’s where the story might end. Do you remember Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant? The grasshopper fiddles all summer long while the ant stores up food, and when winter comes the grasshopper starves and freezes. End of story. Don’t be like the grasshopper.
But this parable is not a fable about how to manage your resources. Nobody’s left out in the cold. In the end, the younger son’s better off than ever. He’s practically treated like royalty. And he didn’t even have to finish his confession.
I’m not sure I like that. I’m a younger brother myself, and I can summon a lot of sympathy for people who make bad financial decisions. I’ve made plenty of my own. But really, shouldn’t there be some consequences here? In a twelve-step program, wouldn’t we want to warn the father about being an enabler? Doesn’t the older brother have a point? Take him back, maybe, but don’t let him think he could get away with this again. But instead the father loses any semblance of dignity he might have retained and makes the younger son the guest of honor.
It really isn’t a very good model for a functional family. But what else can you expect from a parable? Practically speaking, Jesus’ parables usually don’t make that much sense. There’s always something a little exaggerated, maybe even a little twisted, about the way they turn out. This one comes third in a cluster of parables, and all of them sound a bit silly. A shepherd risks his entire flock to find one stray sheep; a woman spends a whole day looking for one coin that isn’t worth that much; and a father throws a party that’s bound to give the wrong impression.
Don’t try to figure this out. There’s no explanation. There’s no accounting for the father’s behavior, just as there’s no accounting for God’s love. God’s love is beyond all reckoning. It can’t be explained, can’t be measured, can’t even be taken for granted. Maybe the most exasperating thing about it is that God’s love always seems to find us in a place where we don’t expect it to be. Maybe like the younger son we lose all hope in ourselves, can’t imagine anything more than a hired-hand status, only to find that God doesn’t look at us that way. Maybe like the older son we feel resentful, overlooked, and just when it all boils over and we’re telling God off, we find ourselves invited to a party, of all things.
That, apparently, is how God’s love works: never quite predictable, often downright exasperating, but there is one thing we can count on. There’s always more love than we could imagine, not less, more than we could ever measure. As St. Augustine once said to God, “You are … caring for each of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual” (Confessions 3.11.19). I can’t even begin to imagine how that’s possible. But it’s true anyway. There’s no rule of human making that God wouldn’t break in order to be your God, and mine, and everybody’s. And the love doesn’t run out, or even run low.
I suspect the reason the older brother feels resentful about the party is that he can’t believe there’s that much love for him too. But the father says, “All that is mine is yours.” We call this parable “The Prodigal Son” but maybe it should be called “The Prodigal Father,” or maybe even “The Prodigal God.” To be prodigal is to be wasteful, to squander everything you have. Isn’t that what this father does? Isn’t that what God does? Doesn’t it look a little foolish?
“All that is mine is yours,” the father says. And so says God. But God never runs out. It’s love beyond all reckoning. It’s all for us, and it’s all for everyone else too. Even here, in the middle of Lent, before we can finish confessing our failures, there’s a party waiting for us. And each one of us is the guest of honor. Welcome.