|The Return of the Prodigal Son - Rembrandt|
In our Sunday school program, Godly Play, we say that parables are not easy to open. You have to be ready to get inside a parable. Parables are easy to break, but they are hard to open. On the face of it, today’s parable may seem easy to open. It is probably the best known of Jesus’ parables, perhaps the greatest story ever told. Our familiarity with it, however, may present the greatest barrier to opening it without breaking it. Finding ourselves on the inside of the parable requires imagination and vulnerability. Let’s see if we can open it.
There is more than one way to open a parable, as indicated by the various ways this parable has been described. Tradition refers to it as the parable of the prodigal son. One of our greatest living preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, calls it the parable of the dysfunctional family. Brother Andrew Marr calls it the parable of the prodigal father. They are all correct. I’d like to add another possibility: the parable of the brothers’ rivalry.
Understanding their rivalry requires an act of imagination. To begin, imagine the situation in which Jesus tells this parable. He is teaching in the synagogue, or perhaps outside the synagogue to accommodate the crowd that has gathered. Many of those assembled to hear him would not have been allowed to enter the synagogue because of ritual impurity. So Jesus goes out to them. The religious authorities begin to grumble that Jesus defiles himself by associating with such people. The scribes and Pharisees are genuinely curious about Jesus, but see the crowd as unworthy competitors for his attention. There is tension in the air. Jesus picks up on this tension, and tells this parable in response. This is our firstclue that rivalry may be an interpretive key to this story.
Imagine also, that Jesus is commenting on a particular set of texts appointed for that day. For more than 100 years before Jesus, the books of Moses, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, had been divided into 150 sections so that they could be read in their entirety over a three-year cycle. More recently, readings from sections of the Prophets had been added. So, Jesus would not have been commenting on a text at random, but would have been commenting on the appointed lessons.[i]
Some scholars have suggested that Jesus may well have been commenting on Genesis 46:28 – 47:31 and Ezekiel 37:15-28. Both readings are about the resolution of sibling rivalries. The Genesis text is about Joseph being reunited with his father, Jacob, and his brothers; brothers who had previously left him for dead before selling him into slavery. Ezekiel prophesies that the divided tribes of Judah and Joseph will be reunited into one kingdom in which God would make his dwelling place. Interestingly, these are the readings appointed for the feast of the rededication of Temple. The Temple was thought to be God’s dwelling place, and its purpose was to offer ritual sacrifices to guarantee reconciliation with God.
So what is at issue in these readings is rivalry and reconciliation, and the stories are read in the midst of a tense rivalry among the people who have come to hear Jesus. Like any good rabbi, Jesus responds with a midrash on the texts: he interprets the stories in terms of another story: a parable about sibling rivalry.
Now, imagine the dynamic driving the parable’s storyline. Have you ever wondered why the younger son left home in the first place? Years ago when I lived in Chicago, I worked with homeless youth. These were not bad kids. They didn’t have many options available to them, and didn’t always make the best choices among the options they had. But I’ll tell you one thing: they generally had very good reasons for leaving home. I imagine this younger son had his reasons too.
Given the context, my guess is that he was having a serious conflict with his older brother. Maybe it was about their inheritance. It isn’t like siblings never fight about that, right? Maybe the younger brother was tired of living in the shadow of his “perfect” sibling; never measuring up, never feeling good enough. Maybe the older brother resented the attention lavished on the “baby” of the family. Maybe the younger brother was just tired of living with such a self-righteous, uptight prig. We don’t know. The parable doesn’t tell us. But we can imagine.
This is the Bible, after all, and the Bible is chock-full of sibling rivalries: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Aaron, Solomon’s sons who divide the kingdom of Israel. And it isn’t just a brother problem, although the patriarchal character of scripture gives far less air-time to other rivalries: Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Rachel, Tamar and her brother, Judah. It’s all there, all the ways we find to set ourselves against one another.
In fact, it is not too much to say that rivalry, distorted desire marked by envy and resentment, is the fundamental human problem according to the Bible. I want what you have. I need to protect what I have. From rivalry for the objects of our desire flows violence, even death, and the lies we tell to justify our violent conflicts.
Does this seem far-fetched? I’m an only child. I am told that when I was a young boy, I would hide my favorite toys before my cousins came over to play. Today, I can own the ways in which I have viewed my husband as a rival for my son’s affection: my secret desire to be the favorite parent (after all, I was the favorite son – and grandson, I might add). I am told that husbands can become intensely jealous of the attention their wives give to their newborn children, leaving the women feeling like they are caring for two needy babies!
The rivalry of parents in relationship to their children isn’t always a laughing matter, as any parent or child who has lived through a divorce can testify. And sibling rivalries for the attention of parents can last a lifetime, sometimes irrupting explosively when an elderly parent becomes ill and dies.
These dynamics play out in the workplace and the wider community as well. When I leave for sabbatical, will the congregation have buyer’s remorse if they decide they prefer the sabbatical priest to me? Is the new rector in town a better preacher? Such insecurities fuel envy and resentment. We only need look at the current election cycle to see how tensions and resentments between races and social classes are nurtured and exploited for political gain. Interpersonal rivalries and social rivalries create division and death at every level of our common life. Bible stories about brothers killing each other, and nations descending into civil war, are like mirrors in which we see ourselves all too clearly.
So, when I hear the older brother in today’s parable says to his father, “this son of yours” and not, “my brother,” I’ve got to believe there is a backstory. Maybe the younger son who ran away from home isn’t just a bad apple. Maybe he was a victim of a rivalry that drove him out. Maybe his return is an opportunity for reconciliation.
James Alison suggests that Jesus identifies himself with the younger son, providing an illustration of his own mission of reconciliation. Remember that this younger son’s return is the occasion for a feast, much as Joseph, a younger son, provides food for his family during a famine after their reunion. And the younger son of the parable, like Joseph, was thought dead; but is alive. Jesus, too, will die the death of a rebellious son, but will be alive again, much as the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision come to life and form a reunited kingdom. The one who was dead, the victim of rivalry, is resurrected and offers the possibility of reconciliation.
Through his dying and rising, Jesus, like the younger son, reveals to us a God who is pure compassion. It was not the father who drove out the son to begin with, but rather who continues to give of his substance, his very life, so that the son may live. This father prepares a feast, a celebration of new life, and welcomes the older brother, forgiving his rivalry with the younger brother. This older brother, too, is provided for out of the substance, the very life, of the father. It is freely given, and always has been his. The invitation to reconciliation is now in his hands. How will he respond?
Opening the parable requires an act of imagination. Entering into it also requires an act of vulnerability, allowing the parable to open us, so that we can receive its meaning and its promise. How are we in rivalry with others? How have envy and resentment distorted our desires, cutting us off from our own brothers and sisters? What have the consequences been for us and for them? Do we trust that God is an unconditional source of life, forgiveness, and reconciliation? Are we willing, like Jesus, to identify with the victims of our rivalry, to enter into their suffering and courageously show them the way back to the party that God is throwing for them? Will we invite our older brother to the party? Will we accept the invitation?
It is easy to break a parable. It is hard to open it, and to stay open.
[i] James Alison, “He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27b): How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible Reading? at http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng49.html. Alison offers a brilliant reading of the parable, illuminating the scriptural background upon which Jesus was very likely commenting.