A few months ago I was visiting a young couple whom I knew as students when I was a college campus minister. Their youngest child was less than a year old at the time, and he was having a cranky day. I tried to placate him with lullabies from the streaming music app on my phone. It worked well until the playlist was exhausted. When I picked up the phone to restart the music, the baby was not pleased. Evidently, he thought I was taking the phone away from him. His brow wrinkled, and he began to pout. He looked as if the whole universe had betrayed him.
Everyone experiences this sort of disappointment in life; it’s unavoidable. Sadly, those experiences of disappointment and loss stay with us, often throughout our lifetimes. Even the slightest experience of loss or abandonment can color all our future perceptions. The third parable in this Sunday’s Gospel reading is one of those things that often gets interpreted in the light of abandonment issues.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is very often understood, not as a parable, but as an allegory. As an allegory, the younger son represents repentant sinners, the elder son represents those who have no need to repent (or refuse to do so), and the father is the ideal parent who welcomes back the prodigal with deep affection. This interpretation is very comforting and consoling because it speaks to our experiences of loss and abandonment. The image of God as an ideal parent who heals all of our broken-heartedness is very compelling, but perhaps not entirely faithful to the Scriptures.
Parables are metaphors rather than allegories; parables rarely refer directly to the images used to construct the parable. Jesus’ parables about sheep, shepherds, wheat and weeds are not instruction about animal husbandry or farming. The parables in the Gospels are about entering into God’s Kingdom, and only that. If we read the parable of the Prodigal Son as being about finding God (rather than about our personal losses or abandonment issues), a very different interpretation emerges. The parable portrays three different images of God, but not all of them are of equal value.
There was a time when it was commonplace to imagine God as judgmental, difficult to please and even cantankerous. Scriptural texts like today’s first reading seem to support such an image of God. “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are, the Lord said to Moses. Let me alone, then, that my anger may burn against them to consume them.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
The elder son in the parable is stern, unforgiving and petulant. He lamented the return of his lost brother, and he complained about his father’s permissiveness. (Luke 15:28-30) The elder son serves as a very good representation of the judgmental god whose memory is as unreliable as his compassion; he forgets quickly a person’s merits, and focuses instantly on their foibles. Religion, in the presence of this god, is concerned with avoiding condemnation, obsequiously seeking divine approval, stockpiling personal merits and, when necessary, bargaining for favors.
The vengeful god of old has been replaced, in more recent times, by an image of God who is morally tone deaf. This god lives in denial about the spiritual bankruptcy that afflicts human nature. The god of denial gives tacit approval to every sort of moral failing. This god feels no righteous indignation over the injustice that people inflict on one another. Rather, this god reacts to sin with a cool cowardice that admits anyone and everyone into an eternal reward, regardless of their moral probity.
The father in the parable seems to be very much a depiction of the morally tone deaf god. His younger son had asked for an inheritance (the equivalent of saying he wished his father was dead). The son squandered half of the family’s wealth, and degraded himself by tending unclean animals for hire. The father’s reaction to his son’s egregious lack of responsibility was to throw a party, inviting the whole town (a fattened calf would have provided food for more than a hundred adults). (Luke 15:23) This is exactly the sort of licentious behavior that is praised in secular society as ‘personal freedom,’ and in consumer religion as ‘spiritual development.’
After his repentance at the end of the parable, the younger son is treated more like a conquering hero than the recalcitrant sinner he appeared to be earlier. He might well be the hero of the story because he was the only one who came to his senses. (Luke 15:17) The younger son is a representation of what happens when a person encounters the One, True God: he repented and reformed his life. (Luke 15:18-19)
God (the real God), is not depicted directly in the parable, in just the same way that God is not perceived directly in the world. The good people and good things in our world give us glimpses of God’s goodness, but we do not see God directly in any experience. In the repentance of the younger son, we get an oblique glance at God as the source of ubiquitous goodness and the source of forgiveness. The younger son realized how far he had fallen from grace when he acknowledged the good he had abandoned. (Luke 15:17) The message of the parable is that the goodness surrounding us serves as an on-going call to repentance. When we respond to the call, we encounter God again – this time as perfect forgiveness.
The judgmental god and the morally tone deaf god described above are not God; they are reflections of the human psyche. To be human is to be torn between the two poles of judgmentalism and denial. The One, True God is not so obvious as to be characterized or pigeon-holed or seen directly in the finite world of experience.
The One, True God is the one whose image we see in Jesus, an unfamiliar image, foreign to human nature, and at the same time, the very God whom we seek (and who seeks us) unceasingly. The whole point of the conversation between the Lord and Moses in today’s first reading is that God desires nothing more than to be in a covenant relationship with God’s people. (Exodus 32:13) God promises an everlasting inheritance to those who dedicate themselves completely to a life of covenant fidelity.
God waits for us each day. God waits to be found in the goodness that surrounds and enfolds us. The only valid religion, in the presence of the real God, consists of repentance and a lifelong dedication to covenanted fidelity. This requires no focus on self, but complete focus on God.