Readings for the Sunday of the Prodigal:
NOT THAT THERE’S Really this kind of ranking system, but I imagine that “The Prodigal Son” is one of the more well-known of Jesus’ stories. Perhaps equally as often what they know about this story is wrong. We use “prodigal” as a way to describe anyone who goes away and comes back, although that’s not what “prodigal” means. Many folks know about how forgiving the Father was in this story and use this story as one of Jesus’ “don’t judge me” moments to try and get the Church to bend (or even break) her own rules. They only know what they want to hear. What they have learned though, is sort of an inoculation: it keeps them from wanting to know more.
First, we’re going to start with the meaning of “prodigal”. It’s about how you spend, waste, give away, or otherwise use or misuse your money. It’s not about coming back.
- spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.
“prodigal habits die hard”
- having or giving something on a lavish scale.
“the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream”
When the younger son says to the Father, “split your stuff in half and then give me what is mine…” he is saying, “I wish you were dead now.”
The Father concedes this. So it is the Father who is the first prodigal in this story. Yes, the Son runs away and spends all of Dad’s hard-earned dough, but the Son is only doing what he’s seen Dad do already. And yes, I know: the Son is prodigally sending his money on wine, women, and song. However he’s spending only irresponsibly – and he’s copying Dad. Dad, of course, could run a business, take care of a family, and lavish a gift on his son. Son does not have the kind of discipline needed to navigate in the real world. That said, I knew lots of kids in college who made stupid money choices. I was one of them! Again, the Youth probably wanted to do “things” with his money that would make him happy. He didn’t want to do responsible things like pay bills. That’s boring – let Dad do that – but as long as I have money, let there be a party! The Son thinks Dad made some wonky choices and the Son thinks, Hey, I can do this better.
And, like most irresponsible youths he comes to himself after a while, snaps out of it. Grows up. Settles down. Stops being prodigal in a bad way and – one hopes – becomes prodigal in a good way, like Dad.
But then the problem with reading arises: because the older brother is a bit of a putz, at least in the normal reading. So I want to speak for him.
See, at the start of the story, Dad divides everything in half and gives one whole half of everything to the younger brother and one whole half to the older son. It says the property was divided between them – not just to the younger one. That might sound just to you, with your 21st-century ears, but to a Second Temple Jew or in many cultures around the area, that would have already been entirely wrong. By right, the older brother gets anywhere from 2/3 of everything all the way up to everything. It’s the older brother who’s getting screwed here. And, when the younger brother comes back, and the father says, “All that I have is yours…” it might be better to hear that as “The only stuff we have left is your stuff.” When the fatted calf gets killed for this welcome home party the calf belongs to the older brother.
I’d be a bit indignant about this too.
Dad’s been very prodigal with his family stuff. The father is just as guilty of wasting his belonging as the younger son. The older son is saying, “Hey… wait. That’s my stuff!” And, let’s be real, it is.
Where the older brother fails here is to think it’s about stuff – his stuff, my stuff, your stuff, our stuff. But it’s not about stuff. It’s about love. It’s about family. It’s being together in the end that’s what counts.
But more than that, the older brother is only acting as if he hasn’t anything at all. The Father already gave him his half of the stuff. (Jesus says this happened at the beginning of the story.) He’s acting this way to get the right to complain. You never gave me a fatted calf… well, actually, everything was given to you at the beginning of the story. Why are you complaining? What are you afraid of?
The older brother is acting like the guy with one coin (Luke) or one talent (in Matthew). In the both stories, the servant hides things away because they are fearful of the master. In the Lukan story the servant is described as “wicked” but in the Matthew story the servant is “slothful”. The Greek implies that the Master is accusing the the servant of being scared of doing anything, of being timid. Jesus seems to be saying the same thing here: yes the younger brother ran away, and took a huge risk and came back. He had every reason to be afraid, and yet he was not. He was bold as all get out – just like Dad. But the older brother had no reason at all to be fearful or angry – and yet he was still that way: love is prodigal. Fear is not.
Fear is risk adverse. Timid. Careful. “Where’s my stuff” is not a greedy question here, it’s the voice of fear. That’s not Jesus’ way at all.
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