“Listen my children and you shall hear/of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…” The classic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appeared in January 1861, when the nation whose beginning it described was unravelling. It is a stirring, dramatic poem, however it is not good history. Revere never shouted “The British are coming” since everyone (including Revere) would have thought of themselves as British. He also never made it to Lexington or Concord, but fortunately he wasn’t the only one riding with the message that night. Guess Longfellow didn’t want to start his poem “Listen my children and you shall hear/of the midnight rides of Paul Revere/and a bunch of guys who don’t fit my rhyme scheme.”
The Prodigal Son is a parable which is frequently misinterpreted. A tale of God’s immense capacity for forgiveness, definitely, but in the culture of Jesus’ day, it is a much more extreme story that it appears on the surface. Two things we need to remember as we approach it: it is set in a traditional culture where family honor is more important than life itself, and it is set in a small village where there are few secrets, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
“Dad, I wish you were dead.” That’s how the youngest son’s request would have been heard. I don’t know about your father, but I’m sure mine wouldn’t have taken this with good grace. Most men of the time would have beaten a son who said that severely; almost no son would have dared make the request. There would be no chance of it being granted, it was unimaginable in that time (pretty unimaginable now as well.) For the father to go ahead and divide the property was incredible. Tongues would wag and fingers would be pointed.
The young man going off and going through his possessions isn’t hard to imagine, most of us know somebody like this. Perhaps we’ve done this ourselves. There was no unemployment then, no safety net; he was broke and hungry and nobody cared. Feeding pigs was perhaps the lowest a Jewish boy could go, and wishing he could eat what they ate a sign of starvation. It took something that extreme that made him do something pretty unthinkable: go home to his family. There would be no doubt it would be a living hell, the way everyone would treat him, reminding him constantly of his folly, standing in judgement of him. It took a lot for the younger son to go home to certain misery.
The father’s reaction is incredible. He sets a standard beyond belief: by giving him fine clothes, a ring, shoes, is a return to the status he had before. The celebration he orders, killing the fatted calf, means everyone in the village will be at the party, signaling to them how he wants his son treated. He doesn’t even let his son finish his apology. The younger son is forgiven.
The older son isn’t the noble one, in spite of appearances. He’s frequently called the faithful son, but in his culture, he’s betrayed his family duty by sins of omission. If his brother had a dispute with his father, he was to intervene and mediate, even if he thought it futile or he didn’t want to do it. Appearances are everything. When he finds out his family is hosting a party, he is duty bound to make sure everyone has enough to eat and drink, having a good time. Arguments are put on hold until everyone goes home, he can say what he wants in private.
Making a public scene of disapproval is just as scandalous as his brother’s departure/return. We can imagine the onlookers watching the scene like a daytime talk show, thinking themselves superior and being glad their family wasn’t like this. The older son’s argument is like “He’s had his chance and he’s blown it. He deserves what he gets. You shouldn’t waste your generosity on the undeserving poor, you should be taking care of me and my friends.”
The father reminds his older son that everything he has belongs to his eldest: there is no new share for the prodigal to inherit. The older son’s status is secure. The forgiveness of the prodigal is a recognition the younger son is human and part of the family after all, and that is enough. “He was lost, and has now been found.”
What does the older son do? Does he go in and pick up on what he’s supposed to do, stop embarrassing himself? Does he stand there and refuse to take his brother back? Does he walk away? We don’t know: the story ends with the question unanswered.
Most of us are usually like one of the two sons in our lives, frequently we play both roles sometimes. There are times we do something stupid, cut ourselves off from our support network, we look like a fool. We’re frequently tempted to play the older son, to pass judgement on who deserves help and who should be cut off. Honesty with ourselves is difficult, and we need to remember when we’ve been in both roles. We also need to remember the amount of unconditional mercy God gives us, that as St. Augustine says, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” Christ calls us to forgive as we are forgiven, and calls us to stop sitting in judgement of each other repeatedly.
The Prodigal Son is a timeless tale and an instruction how to live life as a compassionate person. It tells us about God’s nature and human nature as well. It is a challenge to all of us, but a challenge that will help us at every stage of our lives. Perhaps the most challenging faith question we have is how do we finish this story?