Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Postmodern Prodigal

“The Prodigal Son” by Tamara Paetkau
I want to make sure that this is understood. What I am about to type is NOT an interpretation of the story In Luke 15: 11-32 that we traditionally refer to as the "Prodigal Son". (A better title that is in most modern-day Bibles is "The Lost Son" in order to show that story's connection to the the two previous parables usually entitled "The Lost Sheep", and "The Lost Coin").

What I am giong to do comes close to allagory, although that is not my intent. An allagorical view/interpretation ruined the meaning of this passage for centuries. But again, I am not attempting an interpretation. My goal is to try to help others hear how this story could be (and is) connecting and reflecting the reality for many people.

I have sat on this entry for some time, thinking about it, praying about it, and talking with others who have helped validate and encourage this parallel between the story in Luke 15, and the reality that many people are facing in their faith and lives. First, this story is a PARABLE! Parables were stories that had some deeper meaning. Often they were story-puzzles that took people from something they were familiar with (farming, fishing, laboring, plants, animals, etc...), with which they would IMMIDIETLY connect, to some sort of twist, lesson, or conundrum on which they were to ponder. They usually go something like this:

Familiar story item/job/character----->new cultural/universal teaching---> Personal absorption and application.

I draw heavily on the SPIRIT of a parable, and try to focus there. This post centers around two similar questions: Since the power and longevity of parables START with us connecting to them, how then are many people today connecting with this timeless parable? How are many Postmodern people finding THEIR story in the story of the Lost Son?

Let's examine the story from a POV that many have expressed to me:

There are 3 Characters to the story: The younger son, The older son, and The father.

The majority of the tale centers around the younger son who goes up to his rich father and asks for his inheritance. The story never really gives the answer as to WHY the son wants to leave. I think that's one purpose. It leaves the door open for our own experiences to answer that question. The biggest reason this is considered the most beloved parable of all time (within the Bible and out) is because we can connect with this story in some personal way. How many times have we heard this story and looked at the son and said, "that's me!"?

We don't know what happened to make the son ask for his inheritance before his father's death. We do know this was a HUGE insult in that culture for a son to make because it was basically saying to the father, "I don't care about you or having a relationship with you. All I want is what I would get if you were dead, because I feel my life would be better with you dead than it is now with you alive!" At its most simple understanding, we find here a broken relationship. What happened? Who knows? All we know is that he would rather be ANY place but at his home with his family right now.

This is where many people today connect much differently than in past eras. The house/home for many has become "the Church". Something has happened between the Church/church and the person. This could be any number of things: they may have experienced pain, neglect, frustration, and/or abandonment. More and more we see people leaving the Church saying, "I'm not fulfilling my life (from a spiritual POV, although They realize that everything about them IS spiritual) here, and I am at the point that I think that I would be better of if you did not exist in my life." I know, harsh words, but I've heard people say things very similar to me and also to the churches they have left. As for the parable, all we know with the son is that he feels like leaving is his only option. Whatever the reason, the son feels that he is in a hopeless situation.

For many people, they feel like the Church owes them something. The Church promised them great things on which the Church never delivered. This could be any number of things. But the feeling is that they've been giving their time and effort, yet are not treated with respect, marginalized, and their ideas and ideals fall on deaf institutional ears. They begin to feel like their current situation, no matter how hard they try to "fix" it, or make it better, never changes! So they feel like their only option is to leave. This is not necessarily RUNNING (although in some cases I'm sure that happens), but hopelessness. so they find themselves in the story as the younger son...not knowing where they are going, but knowing they can't stay where they are. So they depart.

Notice that what the younger son leaves: a) a (familiar) way of living, b) his WHOLE family (father and brothers...possibly representing God and our "church family"), and c) the physical location of the house itself. He leaves the institution itself! That fact isn't missed on many who are finding themselves in the parable in this way.

We know that the son searches, questions, doesn't find what he's looking for! And for many right now, that's where their story stops! They cannot relate to the rest of the story because this is where they are. In limbo. In Purgatory. In hell. In between. Lost, Looking, and Longing for the satiation of their holistic thirst that involves their spirituality.

But there is more to the story of the son: So he begins to return home humiliated, defeated, and willing to beg and plead to be taken back into the life that he once knew, even if it means being at a lower level than he was before. The idea of returning to that hopeless situation is too much for many people. The pain is too deep or too fresh. The wounds haven't healed and their therapy hasn't ended. However, for others, they realize it's better to return to some semblance of what they had/knew than to stay in the limbo they are in. Some return and find another church that meets their needs and helps them fulfill their life-calling. Others go back and sit in complacency in the same environment that they left before...the hopelessness is still there, but they feel they are out of options. Familiar misery is better than unfamiliar wandering!

Now, here's where the story takes a twist that many are connecting with, but far more that connected earlier aren't. As the son is returning home, the father, who is and has been waiting, gets up and comes out of the house and RUNS to meet his son on the path BEFORE he can reach the house. There are many who sees something in this that was never meant to be there (at least I don't think). They see the father (again, usually representing God) LEAVE the institution! We see him kiss his son, and reinstate him as the son he was. The son doesn't have to even say his humiliating speech he's been practicing, The father is just glad to see his lost son again! The connection that many are making is that The "house" (institutional Ch./Religion) and the father (God) are NOT THE SAME THING!

God is bigger than a ch., The Ch., or even Christianity. The son EXPECTS one reaction from the father, but the father stops him and says, "look, you've got it all wrong... you've always had it all wrong! You've missed something. You thought or was taught that THIS was reality, when in fact I am showing you a NEW reality of myself. It doesn't have to be the way it was, it never had to be that way. This is not about a religion, its about a relationship. See, you expected me to act in one way, but I am THE FATHER, I act beyond your expectations, understandings and teachings. Come live in ME, not in your religion or institution." The father presents a NEW picture of reality different from the tradition/former reality that the son perceived when he left.

As Henri J. M. Nouwen shows us in his book, Return of the Prodigal Son, The real lesson in the parable is not about the son at all, but in the end about the father. A father that shows unconditional love, and unexpected reactions that stem from that love. He says that, yes, "at times we are like the younger son, and at times we are like the older son. However, we are called to be like the father." Inspired by Rembrandt's painting (on left), Nouwen spent years contemplating the parable and its meaning in our lives.

At this point in the story, a new view of "the father" is revealed to "the son", and the father redefines the new life and community in which the son returns. This is evident in the confrontation with the second son...the elder and "faithful" one who stayed behind. He stayed true to the "house" and, in his mind, the father. I think that those who allegorize that in staying and practicing the familiar/traditional is the lesser of the two is wrong. At this point, before the father reaches the eldest son, he has done nothing wrong. For those who find purpose in the familiar house/reality/way of living...well, the father was there all along. As a matter of fact I think that's what the father is pointing out.

The second son allows his jealousy, insecurity, self-absorption, insecurities, or simply not understanding get the way of a great historical event! Instead of seeing the joy that has come with the younger brother's return, the elder bro. now sees his own brother as a threat, even though they both share the same father. It's become about protecting his own reality and way of living, and thus the elder bro. misses the point altogether! The younger brother has reunited with the father, and the father wants the two brothers (now with different views of the father/status-quo/reality) to act like what they! But the brother refuses. And what the father says is brilliant.

(a paraphrase)
Look son, all I've had has been yours all along. What have you done with it? I've treated you both with love....yet you can't even come and celebrate this new thing that's happening over here! You can't celebrate your brother, and in turn, you can't celebrate me!! Simply because I'm not acting the way you WANT/EXPECT me to act. I have defied your understanding/concept of me...But I am the father, not you! I do as I please. Now you can sit here and pout and let your anger sizzle. Sit here and think up all of these reasons why your brother is "wrong" and you are in the right. Think of ways to attack your brother and disown him as family. As for me, the father, I'll be over there celebrating our family and our love. I really want you to be there... for me and for your brother! Your brother came back lost and broken, but I have helped to bring life into the lifeless, hope to the hopeless... all because I can defy your dogmatic expectations! Today is a new day! It's the beginning of a new era! You have in front of you a choice... 1) Please, come and celebrate.... join with us and celebrate a new and diverse family that shares the same father... or 2) stay and pout, build up walls that you can defend, build syntax weapons to attack, but me....I'll be over there celebrating! If you choose to stay here with your anger, bitterness, and stubbornness, then you will not find me here!

So, we entitle this story as "The Story Of The Lost Son". But in the end which son ended up "lost"? There is no reconciliation with the elder son in the story. He is left with the choice. I'm not saying that he has to change his ways of going about loving and living with the father... but he will have to change his mindset! And that's where the story leaves us.

I don't preclude to present application from that, that would turn this retelling into an interpretation. I'm only pointing out that 1) since parables work on a level where we personally connect with them, then 2) these are the different levels at which many people's stories are finding connection within the parable. The beauty of this story is that it has the power to transcend time and become our own story. But as Nouwen states, the story is about us becoming like the father. There are points where both sons are not acting like the father... the question is, where do we find ourselves. I see Christians (both Postmodern and Modern) attacked from both sides. Harmony has left Christianity, and many people are beginning to leave with it. Thank goodness that God is bigger than religion! But when we fight amongst ourselves, we help drive them away! And a life with Christ is a better way to live than with the pigs! A life with the father is a better life than one in the limbo where many people who keep leaving are. Shouldn't we ALL be rejoicing when a brother or sister returns to the father, even if they find a different "reality" of the father than we grew up with?

Please don't hit me with exegetical shots here, I want to hear real thoughts... Again, please don't read this as an attack or an interpretation using this passage... Simply a new way in which this timeless classic is connecting with other people...the same way that it may connect with an individual who is fighting drugs, alcoholism, family abandonment, ridicule, ___________ fill in the blank. This story connects with each of us on a very personal level... and that's the story that I'm trying to tell... a new connection!


  1. Really enjoyed this post. Thanks for being open and using your experiences to teach the rest of us a valuable lesson. I think you hit the nail on the head!

  2. Travis,
    thank you good sir....your words are heartening. I now know that even if no one else reads this post, it was worth putting out there... you have just verified that for me. Thanks.
    (I know that sounds sarcastic, but I genuinely mean that!)

    I wish that I was telling this as an objective view, but you are right that my story is tangled up within this parable. Yet, not fully!

    Thanks for your kind words and encouragement! You're the man!

    love and peace bro!

  3. what an excellent take on this. i especially like the part about the prodigal asking for what will be his "after the father dies". interesting parallels to Jesus, but also to seeing the faith journey as totally wrapped up in what happens to the BELIEVER after death, and that "heaven" is the only thing that matters.

    i wrote my own take on this here. my focus is on the older brother - to me, he's the most telling character in the story.

    excellent post. (yours, i mean - though mine is pretty good, too...)