Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
When I was seven years old, not long after we moved to California from Kansas City, a little black dog showed up at our door one night, whimpering on the front porch and scratching on the door to be let inside. This adorable and pugnacious little Pekingese/Cocker mix of a dog didn’t have a collar or tags, and this was decades before microchips, so we had no idea where he came from or who his people might be. We ran an ad in the paper and I went door-to-door for several blocks asking if anyone had lost their little black dog, but nobody claimed him.
So we did. We named him Barney. We got him his shots and tags, and he officially became our dog.
We loved Barney, and I’m pretty sure he loved us, too. He would sleep curled up next to me in my bed. He would snuggle up next to us on the couch when we were reading or watching TV. He gave us lots of little dog kisses. He loved to pull my sister and me up and down the sidewalk on our roller skates. And he rode patiently in the car with us as we made the long car trip every summer back to Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas to see family. He was in almost every way a perfect family dog. But Barney had one bad habit. An impulse, really. If anyone left the back gate or the screen door open, he would be off like a shot, running as fast as his little legs would carry him, launching himself out into the world to have an adventure. A few times he was gone for several days before some kind soul took him in and then called us to come pick him up.
When Barney took off on one of his adventures, I’m sure it never crossed his little canine mind that we were heartbroken and worried sick about him. And when he came home nothing was ever really resolved. Dogs are very capable of showing regret, but Barney never did. There was always a risk that he would take off and go exploring again. It was just in his nature. Some dogs are like that. And so are some people.
We are all happier when people—and dogs—color within the lines. We all secretly think that the world would be a better, happier place if everyone stayed in their lane and lived by the rules and boundaries as we know and understand them. But the plain truth is that not everyone does. Some people have different, looser ideas of what is acceptable and what is not. Some dogs just want to see what else is out there.
Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling because Jesus was hanging out with and sharing meals with “tax collectors and sinners.” They didn’t think it was appropriate for Jesus to be making friends with people who were not socially acceptable by their standards, and they told him so. But Jesus didn’t respond directly to their criticism. Instead, he told them a story.
“There was a man,” he said, “who had two sons.” We all know this story. We call it The Prodigal Son, although a better title might be The Two Brothers, or even The Over-Indulgent Father. Amy-Jill Levine suggests that it could be called The Parable of the Absent Mother. That puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it? And it fits, since this is really a story about family dynamics.
Whatever title we use, we know this story so well that I wonder if we really listen to it. There is a lot going on in this parable that could, maybe should, make us uneasy. We assume that it’s about sinning, repenting, and forgiving. But is it? Or are we imposing our traditional understanding and ideas on this story and ignoring the ancient culture that heard it first, a culture that saw things very differently?
Was it a great sin for the younger son to ask his father for his inheritance? Jewish law did not prohibit asking for your inheritance, so while it might have been considered foolish, it wouldn’t have been seen as a sin—at least not by the first century Jews who were listening to Jesus as he told this story.
Does the father sin by giving away half of his estate to the younger son? Deuteronomy 21 says that the oldest son should inherit a double portion, but by the first century it was considered perfectly allowable for a man to divide his estate any way he saw fit. So while the father’s actions in this parable could also be seen as prodigious foolishness, no one would think he was sinning. In some circumstances he might even have been seen as prudent. In The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, Ben Sirach counseled, “When the days of your life reach their end, at the time of your death distribute your property.” Is the father in this parable, perhaps, nearing the end of his days? Would that explain why he so readily indulges his son’s unusual request? The wording in the New Revised Standard Version says that the father “divided his property,” but the wording in the original Greek text says that he “divided his life.” How should we hear that—not that he is giving half his money or property, but half his life to this younger son?
After asking for his inheritance, the prodigal son doesn’t leave immediately. “A few days later” he gathers up his things and leaves. Jesus doesn’t say what happened during those few days. Did the father try to talk his son out of leaving? Did the older brother step in and try to talk some sense into him? The story doesn’t say. We don’t even know if he said goodbye.
What the story does tell us is that he went far away—to a far country—somewhere out beyond the boundaries of Jewish law, somewhere far beyond the boundaries and expectations of the home and community he grew up in. In that far-away place, out beyond the familiar restrictions of home and community, he squandered his wealth with reckless living. When his money was gone and famine hit the land, nobody helped him. He managed to find a job feeding pigs, but it didn’t pay anything and he was so hungry that he thought about eating the seed pods that he was feeding to the pigs. Amy-Jill Levine points out that there’s a proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbahthat says, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.”
This is the point in the story where this reckless young man decided that it was better to go home and eat crow than to starve to death in a pig stye. Jesus, telling the story, says he came to himself. He admitted to himself that he was not living the dream, having his best life. He also seemed to realize that if he was going to go home, some sort of apology might be in order. So as he walked the long way home, he rehearsed a little speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
Now this might sound like he’s repenting, but is it real repentance or is it conniving? He already knows that his dad is inclined to be extravagantly generous. And notice this: he not going to ask to be restored to the full status of being a son, but he’s not volunteering to be a slave, either. He’s planning to ask his dad to treat him like one of the hired laborers. They get paid. When you read his little speech carefully, he still sounds pretty self-absorbed. There’s no remorse for how he has treated his dad or his brother. His confession that he has sinned is generic at best. Basically, as David Buttrick put it, what the prodigal is really saying to himself is, “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”
He has rehearsed his little speech, but he never got to deliver all of it. Before he even got all the way home, “while he was still far off” his father saw him and was filled with compassion. His father ran to him, put his arms around him, kissed him, then started issuing orders. “Get him some clean clothes! Put a signet ring on his finger! Get the barbeque going, and let’s celebrate! My son was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!”
And now the story shifts focus. The older brother comes in from mowing hay all day in the hot sun and is surprised to find that there is a party going on because his younger brother has returned home. This makes him mad, so angry that he refuses to go in the house. His father comes out to plead with him, to beg him to come in and join the party. And that’s when we learn that the relationship that is most damaged in this story is the connection between the father and the elder brother. The older brother unleashes a tirade of pent-up resentment, and as he spews out his bitterness over years of being neglected and overlooked, the father realizes that it’s his older son who is truly “lost” to him. For years the older brother has worked hard to be “the good son.” For years he has been faithful to the family values. For years he has faithfully contributed to the success and wealth of the family. It’s clear from his outburst that he has a pretty low opinion of his younger brother, but it’s even more clear that his anger is directed primarily at his father.
In response to this flood of anger, all the father can do is try to reassure his eldest son that their bond endures. “Child,” he says, “you are always with me. All that I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” And that’s where Jesus ends the story.
As I said earlier, we have a long tradition of assuming that this parable is about sinning, repenting, and forgiving. But is it? As I read it again, I can’t help but notice that nothing in this story gets resolved. It’s like a melody in the key of C that ends with a G7 chord. Everything feels suspended. The younger son never really expresses any remorse or sorrow, in fact no one in this family expresses any regret for the ways they’ve hurt each other. The father gins up a party to celebrate the return of his younger son, but did you notice that he never actually speaks to him? He does speak to his oldest son, but the story ends with the two of them still standing outside the house, outside the celebration.
This parable leaves us with questions hanging in the air. Will the two brothers reconcile? Can the father repair his relationship with his oldest, neglected son? Can he even persuade him to come into the house, to join the party? Will the prodigal son stay and work for the good of the family, or will he be out the door again when someone leaves the gate or the screen door open?
When all is said and done, if it’s not about repentance and forgiveness, then what is Jesus trying to teach us with this parable?
In Short Stories by Jesus, her outstanding book on the parables, Amy-Jill Levine says that this parable actually guides us with straightforward advice: “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share their joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.
“Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate and invite others to join you. If the repenting and forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.”
 Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.69