Looking at the Prodigal son differently
When I first read the Prodigal son story (Luke 15:11–32), it made me mad. What’s the point of this story? How does it even connect with the rest of what Jesus has been teaching? How is it fair and just that a man who squandered his inheritance from his father, was a dead-beat, suffered from poverty as a result of his unwise actions, and came back to a full celebration from his father? He was welcomed back into his father’s good graces, no accountability whatsoever. When I read this story, I identified with the son who stayed with his father and worked. Why does his brother get the Golden treatment even though he left? Clearly he came back because he realized how much better it was with his Father in the first place. Why doesn’t the son who stayed get the same treatment? He stayed and worked with his father, never abandoning. Doesn’t he deserve more?
On the immediately mundane level, the son who stayed is justifiably angry. His hard work and continued loyalty seemed to be taken for granted and ignored while the bad behaving child got a celebration just for coming back. Even on the metaphorical level, where the bad behaving son who left is the sinner, why does the sinner get to enjoy more than the followers who stayed loyal and followed God’s rules from the get-go? This just doesn’t seem fair no matter what level you look at it. Are the people who consistently did good on the same or lesser level than the people who strayed?
Years later, this story hit me at a different angle; which is being shared in this blog now.
Mirror, a test, and teaching point
This story acts as a mirror and a test. Who do we identify with? The son who left or the son who stayed? That is the important piece to unlocking this story’s message. Most people would immediately identify with the son who stayed. They would sympathize with the loyal son. And, if you were like me, this story would be super unsatisfying, no matter how you try to understand the justification. Some people would point to how at the end of the parable; the Father lets the loyal son know that all that the father owns is his. So even if the son who strayed is getting a celebration now, the son who stayed is getting the rest of the property. But even still, even if one were to accept that explanation, it would be with some grudging caveats; “well ok, but the straying son is still getting more than he deserves” or “well, ok, I guess that works out.” We leave that story unsatisfied just as the loyal son was unsatisfied with how his brother was treated. How we read into this story reflects our American culture, our tendency to view things through the eyes of meritocracy. If you work hard, you get rewarded, but if you laze around and are unwise with the wealth given you, you deserve the hardships you earned.
But perhaps this story was to be a test and a teaching point. It is a test to see what is our mindset. Who do we identify with? The loyal brother, who represents meritocracy and earning favor and rewards with God, or the Brother who strayed and spent his inheritance in unwise and stupid decisions; the one who despite all of his mistakes was welcomed back with unconditional love and forgiveness? If you, like most, identified with the good son you leave the story unsatisfied. But the teaching point is to identify with the son who strayed; the son who was given a fortune but squandered it; the son who suffered because of his idiotic decisions and decided to go back. Why? Taking the different Gospels as a whole, Jesus says in Mark 2:17 “…Jesus says to them ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” If we are to be a follower of Jesus, if we are to be able to listen to Jesus, we have to think we are “the sick”. We have to think we are the person who needs help. And generally, we see the “righteous” as the person who is blind and has self identified as not needing help (even though most of those who have grown up reading the bible know that the righteous in this case are people who are bad and are rejecting Jesus). Knowing that we have to identify as the person who needs help, the person who is not enough by themselves, who do you think we have to identify with in the story of the prodigal son? The son who strayed and made mistakes, or the son who stayed loyal?
Point of view of the deserving
The point is we shouldn’t see ourselves as the people who are closest to the Father always. We should not see ourselves as the “deserving.” But when we identify with the son who stayed, or sympathize with him, we are taking the viewpoint of the “deserving.” And what happens when we do that?
When we take a deeper look at the story, the loyal son was angered and dissatisfied with how his bad brother was getting a celebration but he was not. The loyal son had stayed and worked with his father. He didn’t squander his inheritance like the bad brother did. What the loyal brother failed to look at, though, was that not only did he stay with his father, he got to enjoy the comforts of home. The loyal son got to experience stability and the satisfaction of a guaranteed future of inheritance. He didn’t suffer from being paid less than his father’s servants as his bad brother did. He didn’t have a moment where he realized he had it better at home because he stayed at home. Not only did he get to enjoy the comforts that his brother had mistakenly left, he still gets his inheritance. But despite all of that, despite all the good that he has experienced and is still experiencing, it all gets forgotten in a moment of jealousy. It’s all forgotten and lost in a moment of paying attention to what someone else is getting. What value does his experiences of continued comfort have now that he feels that he is being cheated in treatment?
The loyal son has taken for granted the comfort and stability and assurance of inheritance over a perceived slight. Over a feeling that he was being treated unfairly, though he would still get his inheritance. He forsook a feeling of contentment and happiness and gratitude because he felt that what he did, his actions, had more value than his brother’s. He had all of that wealth, but wanted what his suffering brother got. He valued more what his brother was getting than what he already had. All the wealth that he had was made worthless or became nothing in that moment.
Point of view of the idiot
Now, let us put ourselves in the shoes of the son who went astray. He took all that the father gave him. And he spent it all. He was left with nothing. He didn’t make any wise decisions and make that wealth grow. He was spoiled and stupid and lost everything. He ended up working for someone else and being paid less than the servants of his father.
Who hasn’t messed up? Who hasn’t sinned? Who hasn’t been in a situation where they messed up so bad that there was no way to make up for what they have done. Most if not all of us (it’s actually all of us in the religious scene of things) have sinned. There is nothing we can do to pay back or make right again what we did. But, we hope and expect God, the father, to take us back with open arms. We want, for ourselves, God to take us back unconditionally because we have no other way to make right our sins. We want unconditional forgiveness for mistakes we cannot correct. That is the condition of the son who strayed. And that is who we should identify with. So, how would you feel as that son? That son who royally messed up? His father not only took him back, he ran outside to hug him. Not only did the stupid son get a place in his Father’s house (he was even willing to go back as a servant), he was welcomed back with love. He wasn’t given the silent treatment, or a grudging welcome that he so deserved. Dad hugged him and was given a warm embrace.
How would you feel in his shoes? You would feel loved. Lucky. Undeserving yes, but that’s what makes that blessing so much more intense, because you deserved punishment but you were welcomed back with so much love and warmth.
We should identify with the one who went astray and was welcomed back again. When we go into the world with a “deserving” mentality or meritocracy point of view, we often lose sight of the comforts we enjoy and have enjoyed in the past when we see someone else getting more than they deserve. We forget the joy we have and had when we feel like our value hasn’t been seen over someone who doesn’t have value at all. We need to come into this world dropping our sense of value and entitlement so that we can appreciate the joys that we have now and in the past. We gain so much more satisfaction when we abandon our sense of value, our ego and cast ourselves as the son who messed up and came back.
So who would you rather be? Who would you rather sympathize with? The son who could no longer enjoy the wealth and comfort he had? Or the son who deserved punishment but was welcomed back?