Then he said, "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.'"
The parable of the prodigal asks a very important question: Which is more important to you? What you own? Or who your children are?
It’s a dangerous question, because it can lead to answers like this. And when you answer like that, which looks remarkably like the way the father answers in the parable, people aren’t going to be happy with your decision.
The parable speaks in no uncertain terms: the younger son tells the father, "Give me what is coming to me." He means his share of the estate, the property he will inherit upon his father's death. He is saying to his father, in absolutely no uncertain terms: "Drop dead." The father means nothing to the son; his continued life only an obstacle to the son's financial freedom. Then, as now, it was money that mattered, money that would set him free. And the father? Certainly a reasonable father would at least say: "Oh?" This father, however, says: "All right." I wonder how the New York Times would write up that story.
Now realize, from this point on, the father owns nothing. He is relying on the kindness of his elder son, or at least his sense of obligation. Because Dad is living on the land the older son owns, living off the property owned by his son. If Dad doesn't have the good sense to live by reasonable rules, the son will; and that is Dad's salvation.
The younger son, of course, is as unreasonable as the father; but at least his unreason fits the expectations of the world. Living prodigally (hence the usual title of this parable), he is soon broke, soon reduced to feeding unclean animals (he is the servant to the pigs; how much worse can things get for him?). And so, his pride broken, he decides he will go home and beg from his father.
But he never gets the chance to beg. This is the part we all love, because we all identify with the wastrel son, we all carry some guilt about what we have done, could have done, should have done, wish we could do over. And we all want to enjoy unconditional forgiveness, to not even have to say "I'm sorry" to be accepted. Home, wrote Robert Frost, is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to let you in. We all want that much, at least, to be true for us, if we ever need it.
The father embraces him, puts the family ring on his finger (Daddy was rich!), puts the best robe on his back, and tells the servant to slay the calf and start the feast! But the audience has not forgotten what the father and prodigal clearly have; the father is not the owner of anything anymore.
It is a pointedly ironic statement that we usually gloss over in our rush to identify with the prodigal, but when the father tells his older son, "My son who was dead is alive!," it's a reversal not of what has happened to the younger son, but of what the younger son wished for his father, for the wish the younger son was granted. Maybe we should look at this as a "be careful what you wish for" story. But that still doesn't let the father off the hook for being completely insane. It is property we value, although when the prodigal puts property above paternal fealty, we call condemn the prodigal. When the father refuses to put property above paternal love, we all stand perplexed. It is right to love your child, but surely there should be boundaries to such love. Surely the prodigal should be taught a lesson by the father, not just by circumstances; surely absolute forgiveness should not just be offered to the prodigal without some act of contrition, some offering, some exchange. Without that, the forgiveness given her by the father is simply a gift! Shouldn't this forgiveness be part of some economy, some cycle of exchange?
But would it then be forgiveness at all? Or simply compensation for a loss suffered, for property taken, squandered, not valued, treated...prodigally? Who is the prodigal here? The younger son? Or the father?
So the older son, the dutiful one, the one who honored his father even after his father dishonored the entire system of property and exchange and ownership and familial structure, even after the father willingly and knowingly accepted the complete rejection of that system for the selfishness of the younger son (a selfishness even keener when we realize the concept of the "individual" we have today stems, not from the 1st century, but from 19th century England, from post-Enligthenment Europe, from the reaction to the dehumanizing of the Industrial Revolution); the older son still honors the social system and the fifth commandment. And for his pains and forbearance and loyalty to property and society, what reward? To see the prodigal feted, and his property (!) given to the son who placed property above propriety, who understood the lesson all too well, who took literally the message the it's property and money that matters! And it still does, because without it, what feast of welcome would there be? But the feast is with the elder son's fatted calf, the elder son's robe, in the elder son's house! The father has declared himself dead and divided the property, it is no longer his to give away. What is this father doing? Why does he continue to place love and forgiveness above property rights and ownership and even punishment for going beyond the bounds?
No wonder we allegorize this story. No wonder we say the father=God, and prodigal=Sinner, the elder son=...? Well, who? Us? But aren't we sinners? Those who don't accept God's love and forgiveness? Yet the father tells him (and it is literally true; deeper and deeper the irony cuts!) that "Everything I have is yours!" (Kierkegaard notes that the "concept of irony" is that it undermines everything reliable, every truth, every piece of solid ground, until there remains nothing left to stand on, until irony destroys even itself. He was speaking of Socrates; but in the parables of Jesus we get the same feeling: that the ground is being cut out from under us, that we are left hanging, like a cartoon character who has run off the cliff, hanging over the abyss just before we start to fall.) Yes, everything the father has belongs to the elder son, because the prodigal liquidated his part and spent it on wine and women and who knows what all.
So what does this story tell us about God? Well, maybe, just maybe, this story isn't theological at all. Maybe this isn't a revelation into the substance or essence or "mind" of God by God, at all. Maybe it is a lesson about living, about true life which is the basileia tou theou. Maybe it is a lesson about what is really important versus what we think is important. Maybe it is of a piece with the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, which neither sow nor reap, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as they; even Pharoah with all his grain stored in bins was not better fed than the birds. Maybe it's a lesson about the economy of scarcity versus the economy of community. Maybe it isn't about property at all, except that property is our treasure, and where our treasure is, is where our heart is. And so to get at our heart, God has to go through our property. And the idea of property, of ownership, of possession, of having and holding and controlling, is the idea that needs to be attacked, confronted, contradicted, over and over and over again, until we finally begin to let go, until we finally begin to hear, until we finally begin to think that maybe, just maybe, we don't need to be afraid.
Maybe it's not an allegory at all; or theology; maybe it's just a simple lesson: that everything we know is wrong. That love is the most important part of living, and that we all have to follow the most insane and self-destructive paths to learn this, and that if love isn't still offered when those paths come to an end, then it truly is a bleak and hopeless universe after all.
But it needn't be. Thanks be to God.