The Prodigal Son or the Prodigal Family?

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Reflection by Fr. Randy Flores, SVD

(Fr Randy Flores SVD has a Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from Biblicum in Rome, a Doctorate in Sacred Theology in Loyola School of Theology and A PhD from the Ateneo de Manila University. He is currently the Parish Priest of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Quezon City and a professor at Divine Word Seminary in Tagaytay City.)

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). 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?

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 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 shared 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.” It seems the parable is not only about prodigal children but also prodigal families–families whose parents have not for each other; siblings who exist like Cain and Abel.

On a positive side, those of older generation can still recall this short shorty: Once there was a 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.

This reflection was adapted fromSame Stories, Different Understandings: Jews and Catholics in Conversation byAmy-Jill Levine, published in CBAP Lectures (Quezon City: Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines, 2004), pp. 48-56. 

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