It’s complicated. If we’re going to talk about the parable of the Prodigal Son — as Jesus tells it — that’s got to be the very first thing to say about it. It’s complicated.
I feel I have to be clear that I mean Jesus’ telling of the story as it appears in the Gospel of Luke because it’s one of those parables (like the Good Samaritan) that has made its way into general culture. Sort of.
There have been a variety of retellings, in different eras and different contexts, and the term itself has come into everyday use. Sure.
But I wonder sometimes if we don’t use the term out of context and in a simplified way or simply focus on one aspect of the story. Like all the parables of Jesus, this one has layers, but it has many more than most and the characters and their relationships are much more complicated than a simple “return of the one that left” kind of story.
That’s not to say there haven’t been contemporary retellings of equal complexity. It’s just that either one focuses on a particular aspect of the story or one dives into its complexity. I think that might even be the secret to its enduring popularity: it can speak very clearly, but at the same time offer an opportunity to engage the struggles that we might see in our own family dynamics or in those around us.
The message might at first seem simple enough. A son chooses to leave home and live a “prodigal” life, one that’s extravagant, lavish and reckless. When the money runs out and the first son finds themselves destitute, they decide to return home. The father welcomes them back unconditionally. The lost is found, he was dead and is now alive again, the father says. There’s a big party to celebrate. That seems to be the end of the Prodigal Son Story.
But that’s not where Jesus stops. There’s more. It’s the Resentful Son Story. See, there were two sons and the other one stayed and worked. When the prodigal one returns home, no one bothers to go and tell him, out in the fields where he’s working. He finds out when he returns at the end of the day, exhausted. He’s hurt, resentful and angry. When the father tries to bring him in, he refuses. He tells his father he’s worked like a slave since the other’s been gone and won’t hear the father’s love and joy that his brother has returned. And that’s where Jesus ends it. There’s no indication what that son does now. We’re left to decide.
But I think that’s why Jesus stops there. There’s more.
Let’s call it the Unconditional Love Story. Both sons are offered love, each responding to it their own way. One goes, loses his way, but finds his way back. I would say that the other loses his way too. Was he just resentful of his brother when he said that he’d worked like a slave or was there more? Is it just his brother’s return or was that simply the climax of a life of feeling stuck and unappreciated? It’s complicated.
We don’t really know where any of these stories go next. Does the prodigal son stay and live well? What does the resentful son do? And how does the father embrace them both? What we do know is that Jesus tells these stories in a very real context: he’s been spending his time with the lost and broken, the sinners and “tax collectors” - all the wrong people, according to the temple authorities. And when he welcomes those lost and broken homes, the temple authorities criticize and complain. They see Jesus flaunting the structures, rules and traditions they’re trying to uphold. All Jesus sees is love.
I think that’s why Jesus leaves this story hanging. Jesus wants us to wrestle with it. Faced with the practicality of structure and societal norms on one hand and the extravagance of unconditional love on the other, where does the story go next?