The parable in today’s Gospel reading is one of the most familiar passages in the Christian Scriptures; it is well-known even to non-Christians. The phrase “prodigal son” is used in casual conversation and has provided the title for movies and television series.
The commonly used title of the parable, however, might be a misnomer. There is, of course, a prodigal son in the story. The younger son was an extremely selfish, thoughtless individual. He asked for his share of an inheritance that would have been due to him only after his father’s death. By asking his father to divide the property, the prodigal son essentially was saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” The prodigal’s shamelessness didn’t end there; after he had impoverished himself, he took a job tending pigs, that is, unclean animals whose proximity would cause ritual defilement.
The prodigal son, however, wasn’t the only careless, destructive member of the family. The father was as much to blame for the family’s strained relationships as the prodigal. Foolishly, the father acquiesced to the prodigal’s request for undeserved wealth. By doing so, he impoverished the family, put his own retirement at risk, and embarrassed the entire household in front of the neighbors.
The elder son caused at least his fair share of family conflict, as well. He failed to prevent his younger brother from acting selfishly. He failed to prevent his father from acting foolishly. Later, he complained bitterly about the inappropriate behavior he failed to prevent.
The neighbors and townsfolk are mentioned only in passing, but they played a central role in this story. The foolish escapades of the father and his sons certainly would have provided enough material for months’ worth of gossip by the neighbors. I imagine that the townsfolk’s private conversations would have sounded as if they had been lifted from one of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” stories.
For these reasons, I think the commonly used title for the parable is a misnomer. Rather than calling this the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it might be more accurate to call it the Parable of the Co-dependent Family.
There is another notable aspect to this parable, namely, it ends quite abruptly. The father welcomed the prodigal home with the same shamelessness that he allowed the prodigal to abscond with half the family fortune. The father prevented any complaints from the household servants by giving the prodigal a ring (signifying restored status as a valued family member). Then, the father prevented shaming by the neighbors by inviting them to a feast; if the neighbors refused the invitation, the father would have been entitled to shame them. One sub-plot of the story remained unresolved, namely, the fate of the elder son. The father invited the elder son to join the feast, but we are not told the elder son’s decision.
The unfinished nature of the story was intentional on the part of the author of Luke’s Gospel. The author intended to prompt a few rhetorical questions in our minds.
The Gospel author intends us to ask the obvious question, “Which character in the story needs to repent?” Is it the prodigal son? Is it the irresponsible father? Is it the disgruntled elder son?
The obvious question above leads to two further questions, “Who owes forgiveness to others?” and “Who deserves forgiveness from others?” Finally, we might look at the whole messy story of co-dependency and moral weakness and ask, “Why?”
The Gospel author intends us to ask these questions because the answers to these questions will determine how the story ends. Human nature’s limited capacity for moral goodness leaves us in the unenviable and unavoidable situation of being guilty. There are many possible responses to guilt, but only repentance and forgiveness heal relationships; all other responses to guilt harm relationships. This is what is meant when the Scriptures say that sinners are ‘dead’ because of their sin. Sin creates lifeless, loveless, merciless relationships with God and people. Repentance and forgiveness bring life where there would otherwise be death.
The parable ends abruptly so that we will supply an appropriate ending. As the ending is determined by the questions raised in the story, I’d like to propose the following answers.
Q: Who needs to repent? A: Everyone.
Q: Who deserves forgiveness? A: Everyone.
Q: Who owes forgiveness? A: Everyone.
Q: Why? A: Because everyone has limitations and failings.
How would you like to see the story end? Would you like to see the co-dependent family enjoy new life, or would you like to see them remain in the death of sin? The moral of the story is that the unforgiving are as ‘dead’ as the unforgiven.