A fresh look at the parable of the prodigal son

It must be pretty obvious that I have a soft spot in my heart for the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, seeing as I named my memoir after it.

The parable is about two sons who work for their father. The younger one asks his father for his share of the inheritance ahead of schedule – essentially saying he wishes his father were dead – and then skips town to squander his new wealth on frivolity, while his older brother stays and continues working for his father. When the younger son’s money runs out, he returns home and begs his dad for forgiveness. The twist in the story is that the father immediately welcomes him back, and even throws him a party. This infuriates the older brother, who complains that he did everything that was expected of him and yet he never got a party, much less a fattened calf for a celebratory dinner. His father calmly tells him that his son was lost, and he is rejoicing because now he has been found again.

It’s a beloved story for Christians because it’s a metaphor for God’s love for us: no matter what we do, no matter how much we screw up, he’ll always take us back like that father did.

I read this story a little bit differently. I saw myself as the younger brother, yes, but the “wealth” I squandered was my Jewish education. I “rejected” it all for a social club called Christianity (I’m sure that’s how many people in my life saw it). The end of the parable is a metaphor not just for God’s love for me, but of my parents’ love: they “took me back” (as in, let me continue being their daughter) even though my conversion was confusing and stressful for them. So the twist in my version, then, is that I’m still, in their eyes, a prodigal.

3116205I reread that parable again recently as part of an extended study with my small group, based on Timothy Keller’s Prodigal God. Like many stories I grew up reading, this one read differently through the hindsight of the years that separate me Campus Crusade for Christ and seminary, in addition to my father’s death, and a major faith crisis. It’s not the same story for me that it once was.

I no longer see myself as the younger brother, I’m the older one.

In Keller’s view, the older brother is like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. His relationship to his father was based on following the rules, and wasn’t a genuine relationship at all. He was seeking glory for being faithful, and naturally resented his younger brother for shirking his responsibilities and still being treated like a king. Where’s the older brother’s reward for good behavior?

That poor brother, we’re supposed to think. His so-called “relationship” is all performance based.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think Big Brother deserves that bad rep entirely. Honestly, think about it: wouldn’t you be pissed off if you did everything that was expected of you – and perhaps then some – in your job, only to find out that the laziest employee on your team got the promotion instead? You might suspect favoritism, since he sure as hell didn’t deserve it. Or maybe he and the boss are sleeping together. Either way, that promotion should have been yours – the one who actually did everything right.

That’s not an unfair reaction. That’s a perfectly understandable one! Not only does the parable highlight the limits of God’s love for us (ie: there aren’t any), it also teaches the necessity of forgiveness. The scorned father had every right to turn his son away and say, “Sorry, you reap what you sow, kid. You can come home, but you’re really going to have to work at earning my trust again.” But he didn’t. He embraced his son with complete and utter gratitude for his return.

Clearly, this story only works on the assumption that the prodigal son was actually repentant. I’m sure he had to be, or else it wouldn’t be in the Bible. But one cannot dispute the fact that Christianity is filled with so. many. unrepentant leaders who still have yet to lose the respect of their congregations. Not Josh Duggar, who molested his sisters and a babysitter. Not the priests hiding from justice under the protection of the Vatican, and Pope Francis, who turns a blind eye. Not Bill Gothard, founder of the sect that the Duggars belong to, who was accused of sexual harassment by thirty-four women.

No, these people still have their book deals, their reality shows, their inspirational memes, and thousands of supporters. Their apologies, if offered at all, are prime examples of not-pologies that essentially say,” I’m sorry you feel hurt,” and not “I’m sorry I did the thing that caused the hurt in the first place, it was very wrong.”

Part of the reason these men still hold power over their followers is because of the unhealthy emphasis on forgiveness: a critical piece of the Prodigal story. It’s unchristian to withhold forgiveness. The father in the parable represents Jesus, and if Jesus did it, then we have to do it, too.

Needless to say, many of us have completely twisted the meaning of this, if we ever understood it at all. See, I did all the “right” things, too. For eight years I attended church, Bible study, small groups, had “quiet times,” sought God’s involvement in every major life decision, and turned down a handful of opportunities to have sex before I got married (that last one made me especially prideful). I took on the role of Kent State’s professional missionary and used my platform as a newspaper columnist to preach to my student body. I even went an extra ten miles and enrolled in seminary after college.

And yet, here I face the worst faith crisis of my life, in which the hooks of doubt are so deeply embedded that I don’t know if I can emerge without permanent disfigurement.

It makes me a little angry when people who have never experienced serious hardship (so it seems from my perspective, anyway), never asked hard questions, act as if they alone hold the Keys of Truth, and anyone who disagrees with them has obviously never been Christian in the first place.

The parable of the prodigal son, then, is about many things: unconditional love, forgiveness, the importance of repentance. But ultimately, it’s a story about all the very human ways we approach God, and about being human, period.

8 thoughts on “A fresh look at the parable of the prodigal son”

  1. If you liked Keller’s book, may I suggest you try Henri Nouwen’s classic: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” – Nouwen puts himself in the place of each of the characters of the parable – all by his contemplation of Rembrandt’s famous painting. It is a satisfying contemplative journey.


  2. I really loved this post. Yout an awesome writer! I never quite looked at the prodical son in that perspective and I love how you related in today’s life.

    You are right…It is important to remember that no matter what, God’s arms are always open and waiting for us to return to him. And he sees the motives of our hearts when we do.

    Great Post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always thought the older son was judged to harshly. We all certainly do this and would be angry too. One way to combat this in real life is to celebrate those that are faithful. seriously. think about all the people in your life that are just faithful and take time over the next few months and thank them. let them know you appreciate their faithfulness.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think that when we die, we are going to be incredibly surprised about who we see in heaven! It doesn’t seem fair, but then I don’t think the gospel is fair, and I don’t think that grace is fair. ( I wrote recently about the parable of the talents, which in my humanity, I think is incredibly unfair.)
    Yes if I was the older brother I would probably be annoyed, but then doing the work of your father shouldn’t be a hardship, it shouldn’t be something that we feel we need to be rewarded for, it should be a joy!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a really interesting perspective! I’ve found myself in both roles, though I confess it’s usually been the older brother’s. I agree we shouldn’t just carelessly allow people who have wronged others to continue to do so, or be held in the same esteem, just because they said they were “sorry”. Forgiveness isn’t the same thing as an excuse for abusive behavior! Even with genuine repentance, boundaries need to be drawn and consequences doled out.

    Liked by 1 person

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