Thirty-seven years ago, I was at a crowded beach watching my youngest son, Jacob, then three years old, throw a boomerang harmlessly into the sand. Without thinking I flung it properly, saying, “This is how you throw a boomerang.”
Horrified, I watched it follow a perfect parabola, then return along the same path straight toward a knot of people. Paralyzed, by the grace of God I watched it land harmlessly in the sand, bare inches behind an unsuspecting beachgoer, creating a parable upon finishing its parabola.
Parabola and parable are the same word in Greek. No matter how far they travel, both parables and parabolas swing back to knock us head over heels.
The story of the prodigal son is fictional. Ironically, the characters in this parable are far more real to us than many historical figures.
Why would Jesus use fiction? Because stories not only tell truth but make us a part of the action. This particular parable ends with a question but no answers, so we’re invited to become fellow writers!
Jesus did not name his parables. We did that. Calling this one “The Prodigal Son” simplifies the story to a Bad Prodigal, a Good Father who is really God, and an Older Brother who should stop resenting his brother and join the party.
Twenty-five years ago, a friend told me about Jorge Maldonado’s book Even in the Best of Families, which looks at biblical families through the lens of a family counselor. I saw the parable in a whole new light. Complex families have serious issues but, with God present, there is hope.
I’m not sure who’s the hero here, but I do know there are at least six characters who bear discussing.
The missing mother
Where’s the mother in this story? Jorge Maldonado suggested the simplest explanation was she died. In those days the average life span was 25 to 35 years. Disease. Malnutrition. The crushing grind of labor. Most of all, childbirth.
Maldonado likened this biblical family to an unbalanced cart missing a wheel. Nowadays it’s not just death that unbalances families. Some people leave the family structure for good reasons and bad.
Keep this in mind: The missing people want to be with us.
They don’t want to die.
They don’t want depression.
They don’t want to be sick.
They don’t want jail.
They don’t want opioid addiction.
They don’t want alcoholism.
We’re all broken. We’re all damaged goods.
The enabling father
Typically, we define Dad as God, whose love and forgiveness is boundless. This is a loving father, but could we also say this is a permissive father, an enabling father, a father who is not helping either of his children?
Liquidating a farm is not a bloodless affair. Every acre is precious. What you sell you’ll never get back. What would you think if your neighbor sold land, equipment, and houses? You might call social services or the bank to intervene.
I picture the father walking the fields of the family farm where he was born, where he imagined one day grandchildren would farm this land. Now it’s not going to happen.
Being part of a family means we all have rights, but we also have duties. Is the father failing at these?
The faithful brother
How many sermons have you heard where the older brother is the villain? He’s a hard worker and he’s a villain? I don’t blame him for being angry. No one even bothered to tell him the prodigal was back. He found out when he heard the music. The Greek words sumphonia and koron suggest a band, singers, and dancers. My goodness, there are dancing girls in the house while the older brother was sweating out in the fields! Why didn’t dad immediately send that deadbeat brother into the fields to do a decent day’s work for once!
So the older brother waited outside and made his father come to him, a slap in the face. He referred to “your son,” not “my brother.” He said “Listen!” instead of “Father.” He referred to himself as a slave, the very word the younger brother planned to use in that well-practiced speech he never got to deliver.
Of course, the father pointed out that everything left would still go to him, but that only meant he’d have to take care of that no-good brother after their father died, with a smaller farm to pay for everything.
Maybe he needed to give himself permission to take a vacation, to throw a party for his friends, to be a little less judgmental—but for goodness’ sake, he’s poured his heart and soul into the farm since their mother died, because someone had to. If he’s a sinner because he does his duty, we could use more sinners like that. He’s not the one who broke his father’s heart, who went to a far country and was dead as far as anyone knew.
The slave who got stuck
How’d you like to be the slave who got called over by the older brother, exhausted, returning from the field, and then was asked, “What’s going on?” You know it’s a disgrace, but there are situations where you have to keep your opinions to yourself. You might even get blamed when the older brother won’t come inside, but what can you do when you’re only a slave?
The good employer who got stiffed
The employer in that far country took a chance hiring that lazy rich kid who didn’t know a thing about honest work, who then took off without giving notice the instant things got rough, and now he’s probably gone back to his rich daddy and is living high on the hog.
Finally. The prodigal.
Many think the word “prodigal” is a synonym for “sinner.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “given to extravagant expenditure; recklessly wasteful of one’s property or means.”
The prodigal son is a financial sociopath.
It was shocking and self-centered, a staggering insult to his father, who’s not dead yet, to demand his portion of his inheritance so he could light out for the territories while ignoring his own duties.
Maybe it’s just a matter of maturity. The frontal cortex, that part of the brain that helps us make good decisions, is still developing at that age. That’s why it costs more to insure young men for driving.
Remember, no one is a villain in their own mind. Maybe his work was never good enough for his older brother, or his father failed to instill the proper sense of responsibility because he was so broken by the missing mother.
Don’t forget—this is a story. You have every right to write your own parable.
Our very own prodigal
Oddly enough, Brethren history begins with a Prodigal or Wandering Son. Alexander (Sander) Mack Jr. (1712-1802) was the son of the first Brethren minister, Alexander Mack Sr. Sander Mack went into an emotional tailspin after his father’s death. He abandoned the Brethren and joined his father’s adversary, Conrad Beissel, at the Ephrata Cloister.
After a decade, disillusioned with Beissel’s authoritarian ways, he traveled west with a couple of other disgruntled former members, far into Virginia. When the corn they planted was destroyed by Native Americans, Sander returned to Germantown and asked for forgiveness. He was not only restored among the Brethren, but he became a writer, historian, and leader working for reconciliation, understanding, and patience among the sometimes quarrelsome bunch. Sander Mack cemented our identity as a forgiving, reconciling people of service and peace.
Frank Ramirez is pastor of Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Indiana.