Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Lent (C): The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son
(1773 Pompeo Batoni)
photo grab: wikipedia

The Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
"A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
'Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.'
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
'How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."'
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.'
But his father ordered his servants,
'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.'
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
'Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.'
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
'Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.'
He said to him,
'My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.'"


It’s difficult to find something new to say about a biblical text that is as popular as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The subject of many commentaries, the parable's oldest commentary could be traced back to the Church Father Tertullian in the middle of the second century A.D. who writes that the "most gentle father" in the parable is "God surely" (De Paenitentia) and in allegorical way (typical form of interpretation at that time) he explains that the ring that the father gave to the son is baptism, while the banquet is the Lord’s Supper (De Pudicitia).

The Parable as a Trap

The problem with parables such as this one is that the moment we begin to identify the characters or even identify ourselves with the characters, the parable "throws us beside" (literal meaning of the paraballō, the Greek root of the word, "parable").

Take for example the behavior of the father. If the father here is God the Father we would run into theological and moral difficulties: Why would Jesus depict God as owning slaves? As favoring one son over the other? As not remembering to invite the older son to the feast? As hoarding goods and partying while there is a severe famine in the land?

Some preachers also take note of the reaction of the father who runs to meet his lost son (v. 20) as unbecoming, a loss of dignity of some sort, for a respected elderly man to do so, thereby accenting the uniqueness and unconditional love of this father which only a Heavenly Father can do. But since when is running an unbecoming conduct in the Bible? People who run in the Bible do not reflect in anyway a loss of their dignity: Mary Magdalene runs to Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple to report Jesus' empty tomb. Then Peter and the beloved disciple run together almost like a race to the tomb (John 20); Paul uses metaphors of running to illustrate his ministry (1 Cor 9:24, 26; Gal 2:2; Phil 2;16).

The image of a father waiting by the window, looking at a long and winding road for the return of the son often portrayed in plays is touching but a bit overdone. The text does not say that the father is waiting. But that he hopes for a run-away son to return is expected of any responsible father. A 2nd century A.D. rabbinic writing uses a similar parable to explain the passage "You will return to the Lord your God" from Deut 4:30:

To what is the matter like? It is like the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent a teacher to him who appealed to him, saying, "Repent, my son." But the son sent him back to his father [saying], "How can I have the effrontery to return? I am ashamed to come before you." Thereupon his father sent back word: "My son, is a son ever ashamed to return to his father? And is it not to your father that you will be returning?'

Here we another example of a merciful father, but one who does not simply wait for the son's return but sends out messengers to the lost son.

It’s not so easy also to identify ourselves with the younger son who, in the text, does not seem to show a sincere conversion or repentance. The text says "he came to his senses" (v. 17, New American Bible translation), in Greek eis heauton de elthōn literally “he came to himself”. This is not the common word for the verb “to repent” which is metanoō. The prodigal son simply realizes that while he eats pig food, there is real and good food his father’s house. So he rehearses what he has to say to his father, short of genuine humility and sincerity. He will have to say "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you (vv. 18 & 21). But even the Pharaoh uttered the same empty words to Moses in Exodus 10:16, "I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you."

At the return of the prodigal son, most homilies end, even the Gospel reading in the Mass is cut short (the shorter version). We are tempted to end the story with the lavish banquet tendered by the father for his returning son, in a sort of "they live happily ever after." As in the parable, readers ignore, forget, and do not like the second son. In the midst of revelry, even the supposedly merciful father forgets the existence of his elder son. It’s strange that the elder son was not even informed or invited for the big celebration. He has to ask the slaves what’s going on (v. 26).

We do not like the elder brother even though he is what a son is supposed to be, loyal and obedient to his parents (Exodus 20:12, 4th commandment) because of his feelings of resentment (Tagalog, tampo and sama ng loob) at his father and his younger brother. He is said to that he performs his duties out of fear rather than out of love for his father. But these are all over interpretation of the texts. For instance, the older brother complains and accuses his brother before his father: "This son of yours…swallowed up your property with prostitutes". Thus most plays portray a prodigal son spending all his money with new found friends in some sort of "beer houses". Commentaries point to a false accusation since the text does not say so. It simply states "he squandered his property in dissolute living" (v. 13). But the Greek words used "dieskorpisen" and "zaō asōtōs" would lead to such connotations. In contrast, it was the father who makes unkind remarks by calling his son "dead" and "lost" (v. 32).

The point is that this parable has no easy interpretation. Once you identify yourself with the one of the "better' characters, you find yourself trapped by the parable.

Parable of the Pigs

I remember a story share by an SVD missionary on this parable. He was stationed in the so-called bush mission in Papua New Guinea. He asked once the youth to dramatize the parable of the prodigal son. To his surprise, the young people scrambled for the role of ….the pigs! He soon found out that, in that tribe, the people consider pigs as one of the first creatures of God, hence an ancestor.

The Parable as Mimesis of Human Experience

Before we try to introduce divine allegories to the parable, it's good to remember that a parable speaks of a human experience: sibling rivalries, runaway children, wayward husbands, irresponsible fathers, poverty---concrete problems of families: Note that the parable begins with: "There was a man who had two sons". This phrase immediately tells of us of the many conflict stories in the Bible among siblings: Cain and Abel; Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau; Leah and Rachel; Joseph and his brothers; even Jesus came into conflict with his own relatives (cf. Luke 8:21); the disciples are warned that they too would be betrayed by their parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends (Luke 21:16).

In the seminars for Basic Ecclesiastical Communities, young people usually act out this parable in a sort of a play I've noticed that the plot of this instant staged drama is common: because of poverty, a son decides one day to try his luck in the city. At first, he is hardworking but then when he has enough money, he now starts smoking, drinking, going to beer houses, and finally becomes a drug addict. Almost caught by the police, he decides to return home to the province but only to find his father dying.

In a kind of reader-response interpretation, the parable is made to imitate concrete human experiences. And in spite of the limits of the characters, the parable allows us possibility of reconciliation in the family, that there are good, understanding, and forgiving parents. This would also apply in communities whose members call themselves "brothers" or "sisters."

Last year, my brother suddenly became seriously sick. I took upon myself the responsibility to take care of him. It was not easy both financially and emotionally. Once I thought that I could have functioned better as a priest without getting involved in the concerns of my family. But then I also thought that perhaps part of my God-given vocation as priest is unrequited care of my brother.

I always connect this care for a brother with this story. Once there was man who saw a frail boy carrying a baby and staggering towards a park. The man said to the boy: "Pretty big load for such a small kid". With smile, the boy replied: "Why, mister, He ain't heavy; he's my brother." The story, as we know, inspired a composer to write the famous song with the same title: He ain't heavy; he's my brother.

A great part of this reflection is adapted from Amy-Jill Levine, Same Stories, Different Understandings: Jews and Catholics in Conversation (CBAP Lectures; Quezon City: Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines, 2004), pp. 48-56.

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