404. rethinking the story of the Prodigal Son (Part 1)

1024px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project The Return of the Prodigal Son Painting by Rembrandt

You probably know the story. Two sons. One of them asks his father for his share of the inheritance while the father is still alive. He goes and spends this inheritance on a life of partying and delight. And when the money runs out, he goes back to his father who lovingly takes him back, welcoming him into the family with a lavish celebration.

The Good Son seldom gets any attention, and when he does, it’s often negative, focusing on his hard-heartedness, on his lack of ability to forgive and love as his father does. And the attention to the Good Son usually stops there. But there’s so much more.

Because here’s the thing. I don’t think the Good Son’s refusal to welcome his brother back is the worst of his sins. Not by a long shot. That’s the response of someone who has been harboring a much deeper, more profound sin — a sin that seldom gets addressed in church, a sin that has likely festered within him well before his brother went prodigal.

The Good Son’s fundamental sin? Forsaking God’s (and his father’s) gift of love and life.

It’s obvious that the family was wildly wealthy. The fact that the father could give the Prodigal half the family’s inheritance and still maintain his farm for however long his son was away; the fact that he had hired servants who could take up the work abandoned; the fact that he could afford to throw a party upon the son’s return. All of these point to a household that didn’t have to worry about money, even after giving half of it away.

The Prodigal Son recognizes the wealth available and the opportunities latent therein and decides to take a huge fucking bite out of the bounty to see what there is of life out there to be lived.1 Yes, it’s an act of profound selfishness and disregard, but my God, what a life he lived for a while.

Thing is, I think we so often focus on the sin of his acts that we miss the latent hint of salvation.2

Picture a boy, raised on a farm, now in the bed of a temple prostitute who has been trained, from a young age, how to pleasure a man. Picture the hard, trembling edge of inexperience enveloped in the soft, warm contours of fleshy bliss — her tenderness dulling the perimeter warmly, precisely, gracefully. She lulls, nudges him playfully towards surrender. And he complies. And it’s a revelation.

Imagine him pursuing the boundaries of human experience, testing the limits of ecstasy, extending each of his senses as far as his substantial fortune can stretch them — a deep study of his God-gifted body and the world through which it moves. And yes, there is much depravity there, but isn’t there also a kind of salvation? Because isn’t part of the allure of decadence the taste of paradise it both teases and fulfills, even if only for a moment?

And yes, his choices eventually lead to ruin, but the experiences — both bliss and desolation — will live in his body forever. When he returns, he is money-poor, but the stories! The sensate memories endure. He is both haunted and enlightened by them. The Prodigal returns with breadth and depth in him. How is that not a kind of salvation?

Study of a Male Nude (Althaemenes) in Despair Study of a Male Nude (Althaemenes) in Despair Artist:Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard

In contrast, picture the Good Son, back at home on his bed, alone with the fury of his imagination spinning endless narratives of his brother’s infidelities. Imagine him simultaneously titillated and inflamed.

In those moments, imagine him asking the question that terrifies him most: is there any for me? Because if the answer is no, then what the fuck is he doing here anyway? And if the answer is yes, then where is it?

But the Good Son resolves; tucks his envy away into hidden, overstuffed pockets of denial. Instead, he stores grains of honor, integrity, and loyalty into his storehouse of virtue — an endless room that never fills, his personal holy of holies.

Imagine night after night, weeks into years, this unwieldy dance of fondled desires and blunting righteousness. Every night, another dour deposit.

And then one day, out in the fields again with the servants and the livestock, the heat and the soil, he hears music. He hears laughter and celebration. He turns his head toward the house and sees smoke from the kitchen, smells meat stewing. He is confused. He looks again at the field before him, at all the work yet to be done. Last year’s harvest was slim and they need to make up for it this year. And yet, what the hell is going on over there?

He begins the long walk back home.

As he nears, he sees someone dancing at the center of the festivities, someone wearing his father’s ornate, ceremonial robe.

And then a jolt of recognition, a terrible epiphany. His brother is a thief yet again. His storehouse of virtue, his holy of holies has been ransacked. Consciously or not, he had been hoping to one day leverage his surplus of faithfulness for a concrete sign of his father’s love. But there, right there in front of him, his bastard brother: laughing, dancing, showered by the very attention and affection that should have been his.

Blood and betrayal reigns.

But while the Good Son is still a long way off, his father spots him, waves him over.

The son stands still. The father intuitively understands the weight of this (non)response and runs over to him, begs him to join the party.

But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

DP159897 Small Bust on a Plinth (Diego) Artist:Alberto Giacometti

He was never given a meal or a celebration.

And while it’s not explicit in the text, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that he never asked for one. Life, joy, food, festivities were all there to be had in abundance, but they had to be pursued, requested, the want made plain.

So if the Prodigal was guilty of asking too much, the Good Son was guilty of not asking at all. Both sins, and yet, only one son finds forgiveness and a kind of salvation.

And it’s important to remember that the father granted the Prodigal’s wish, probably with a good idea of what he intended to do with it.

And yet, scripture does not record any pushback or plea. The text moves from the Prodigal’s request to the division of the family’s fortune. And if the father personifies God in this parable, is it too much of a stretch to say that God allows us, even empowers us, to go out and experience all of what there is in the world, just as the Prodigal did? Is that too scandalous an interpretation? 3

In contrast, the Good Son lives a life of jealousy and resentment — refined by his brother’s departure, weaponized upon his return. His is a joyless, spiteful, trivial life, an insult to the boundless gift that life can be. This is his sin.

Given this rethinking of the story of the story, is there a corresponding rethink necessary around how we think of how God relates to us, about what sort of life God wants us to live?

I think so.

More on this in part 2.

  1. I think this is both sin and salvation, but that’s too much nuance for one blog post. ↩︎
  2. “Salvation” is probably too strong of a word, but it does get at the idea I’m trying to covey — that there are elements of life-giving good in the Prodigal’s choices. ↩︎
  3. And yes, I realize I have to address Romans 6:15. More on that in a future post, but for now, one of the points I’m trying to make is that the Good Son also sins by hoarding virtue alongside envy. ↩︎

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