The good news with the parable of the prodigal son is that it’s like the opportunity to hold a family heirloom. It is the best known and treasured of Jesus’ parables. Charles Dickens called it “the greatest story ever told.” And it is a classic. Every century can see itself in the story, whether one lives in 1st century Jerusalem, 4th century Rome, 16th century Wittenberg, or 21st century Arlington. The parable is timeless!
The bad news with this parable is that a story so at home in every generation, so beloved, so well-known…well, it is so easy to get very, very comfortable with it. To think we know its every feature, every turn, every surprise. But that means we are shaping Jesus into our image, rather than He shaping us in His.
I mean, how easily we turn the shocking, lavish grace of the parable father toward the younger son into cheap grace. Cheap grace is the sort which interprets the story as saying that no matter what you do God will always forgive you and take you back. That interpretation contains enough truth to be convincing.
And we have become so accustomed to booing and hissing the older son that we have not noticed how easily we become the older son. He’s the good son, isn’t he?! He’s done what is right. And it feels good to take a stand apart from the others. To know who is right and who is wrong, and which one you are! Even if it shames the father, and causes him to die a little more right before your eyes.
And then in our Readings, when this classic of all parables is matched with the Reading from St. Paul about reconciliation…well, how very quickly does Jesus parable turn into our modern, Oprah-esque notions of reconciliation, which amounts to little more than playing nice with the toys in the same sandbox. Oh the parable is a much loved, much abused story!
Prudence might suggest, then, to let it set and not risk abusing it further. Ah, but being a Jesus parable…He is always greater than any of our abuses of His material. And He can always break through to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted!
There is a point, the midpoint to be exact, in the younger son’s story where Jesus uses a delightfully curious turn of phrase. “He came to himself.” He came to himself. Not just, he came to his sense, though he probably did. Woke up. Got a clue. Yes. But more importantly, “He came to himself.” Until that point he was beside himself, torn apart, imbalanced, insane. I mean, the man was living and eating with pigs. How insane is that? But…“he came to himself” and “he arose.”
Yes, there is death and resurrection here. The old dies, and behold, everything becomes new. Which is what reconciliation means for St. Paul. It is always a Jesus thing. It is always a Jesus crucified and resurrected thing. It is always a dying with Christ and a rising with Him in a new life thing. Anything else is a copy.
Yes, the pig son has a long way to go until he arrives at the father’s house. And he still turns to the insanity of bargaining his way back. But that moment in the pigpen when he came to himself, the outcome of the story turns. He came to himself and he arose. Just like the outcome of the human story is turned with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yes, while in this world we are not yet in the father’s house, still we are on the way. While in this world we still turn to insane ways of dealing with sin…but it is always in Christ that we come to ourselves again, come to who we are in the Father’s eyes, and in Christ we are lifted up, we arise to set out for the Father’s house once again.
Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic knows something of what transpires in this parable. Alcoholism is a kind of insanity. It’s not just the goofy behavior that someone does while drunk. It’s not just the reckless decisions the alcoholic makes. The insanity is that despite all the overwhelming evidence that the alcoholic is destroying his or her life…that person returns again and again to the alcohol until they die. Or until they come to themselves and arise. And this “coming to themselves” must come from outside their own kind of insanity.
Meanwhile, everyone in the alcoholic’s family, everyone who loves the alcoholic, gets drawn into the madness. Arguing, enabling, forcing, bargaining, defending, excusing…trying to do the impossible. And over time the codependents are beside themselves. Don’t talk. Don’t feel. Don’t trust. Just do what is right. Be perfect, which, of course, no one can be. And keep at it again and again and again…unless you finally come to yourself and arise. And that must come from outside the insanity.
No…I’ not suggesting that this parable is an AA program in disguise or Dr. Phil or any sort of self-help guide. What the parable does is draw us into the figure of that waiting father…to see Jesus in him. Like the parable father, it is Jesus who suffers every shame in letting that fool boy go his way…and then giving him a lavish welcome home. For without that father’s grace, without Jesus, the boy could come to himself every day, yet have nothing to arise for. And it is only the father’s grace, it is only the crucified and risen Christ, who can span the impossible distance that prodigal son must travel to enter the father’s house.
And like the parable father, Jesus suffers the shame of the righteous son, who in his own righteousness shames the father in front of the whole village. Without that father’s grace—“All that I have is yours”—without Jesus in whom we share all that is His, there would be nothing for the righteous son even if or when he comes to himself and arises to enter the father’s house.
In coming to himself, the younger son knows very well that his life has gone insane….but he cannot help himself. The older son, like an alcoholic codependent, is in the worse state because he only sees the recklessness of the prodigal, and despises the weakness of both the prodigal and the father. He cannot see his own righteous insanity, the madness of what his self-righteous life has come to. He cannot help himself.
So in the parable it falls to the father, the father of both sons…just as it always falls to the crucified and risen Jesus…it falls to the One outside ourselves, the One outside our self-created madnesses and insanities (whether our own insanities have us wallowing with the swine or standing apart in our self-righteousness) it always falls to the Christ who reaches in to bring us to ourselves, to bring us to Himself, in Christ we see again what sort of children we are in God’s sight, that we may arise in Him to live a new life, His new life. That is the ministry of reconciliation!
One of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, had an insight into all of this. “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act…and rightly so, but what [the reader today] has forgotten is the cost of it…. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow [this grace].” (Mystery and Manners)
Jesus has an understanding of the violence of grace, so He goes joyfully to His violent cross for us. So the father in Jesus’ parable does, so he waits and bears the violent shame of both sons. And we…if we, with St. Paul, are to be reconciled to God…as well as carry on God’s gift of the ministry of reconciliation with ourselves and with the prodigals and the self-righteous in this mad world…well, we too must see that in coming to ourselves we enter the violence of grace in our own dying to self in Christ, and of arising to live His new life.
Only in the crucified Christ, in the resurrected Christ, only in coming to ourselves in Him, can we possibly arise to bear the violences of grace which precede and follow anyone’s coming to himself in Christ in the midst of this world of insanities, and in Christ to arise and return to the Father’s house….where even now there is a banquet going on. You can almost hear the music. And more importantly…in Christ…there is a place in that house prepared for you!