This parable of the “prodigal son” is deceptively familiar. It is ingrained in us that the younger son is “prodigal”—a sinner, the older brother is self-righteous and law-abiding and the father represents God as forgiving. We think we know what the story is about, but do we?
In Luke’s gospel this story of the father and his two sons is a parable not an allegory. To make the parable into an allegory forecloses the meaning. If all the characters are type-caste, as listeners, we are let off too easily, we think we have the figured out. And, this type casting is also very dangerous, because the parable is not a justification of the patriarchal fatherhood of God. As feminist scripture scholar Luise Schottroff describes, for Jesus and his listeners the parable “does not attempt to give an illustration of the love of God dressed up as an allegory” (The Parables of Jesus, p. 149) but rather would have been heard as describing a flesh and blood family. A family, where even the best efforts leave the family disconnected and stuck.
So, if the father in this parable is not God, what could the parable be revealing about God in our being lost? In Luke’s gospel Jesus is the compassion of God made flesh. Lukan parables invite us into the world of God’s compassion. To enter this world of compassion let’s explore the experience of this family as a whole. If we look at the relationships of these flesh blood people as a family, do you feel the unresolved tension in the story? The parable of these two sons and their father contains anger, disappointment, longing, relief, joy, resentment, envy—but not resolution. In the final words of the parable, we hear the father’s plaintive appeal to his older son to come to the feast but the ties that bind are frayed and strained to the breaking point--and we the listeners are left hanging.
Don’t these family dynamics feel familiar? Aren’t these circumstances the very places where we feel lost and stuck. It is tempting to want the parable—to spell out a resolution, to offer a roadmap home, give an assurance that in the end “we can all get along” if we just follow the divine directions. But could it be that parable invites us to experience something better and beyond our imagining--God’s compassion right at the very places we feel lost, vulnerable, stuck, and powerless? Jesus seems to be offering us compassion as “a way out of no way”.
A woman I know has taught me a great deal about how God’s compassion desires to meet us. I’ll call this woman, “Mary”. Mary has two sons, and they are her only children. Her sons have chosen to live on the street in order to take drugs and drink. In many ways her sons have been lost to her. For years Mary has done everything humanly possible to get help for her two grown sons; getting them treatment for addiction, providing housing in a half-way house, and working to get them gainful employment. Like the father in the parable her overtures didn’t resolve anything. Though she longed to, she couldn’t “fix her family” or make it right. Finally, her eldest son said, “Mom, if you keep this up, we will leave town and you’ll never see us again.” With these words she felt lost. How could she be a loving mother to her sons without working to get them help. Mary had to let go of a plan to make things right and be present to her sons. She had to find a way to love her sons in the real situation, not the ideal family she wanted it to be. Now each month, Mary sees her sons under a bridge, or in parking lot or at a McDonald’s. All she asks is that when they meet her sons not be high.
There are so many places where we may feel lost and stuck in our world right now. We are called upon to deal with situations that are unprecedented. Looking around the world one response to this fear of being lost is to impose order and control—to reset the world to what we think is “normal”. This is to worship the idols of our own making akin to our ancestors in the first reading who have just been liberated from Egypt. They now feel lost and unable to trust God’s liberating presence, so they make something solid, predicable, and familiar. Even if it means sacrificing to it.
But the good news is in this parable Jesus draws us into a world of compassion, which is not of our own making right in the midst of feeling lost, where things are unresolved, where our best efforts don’t seem to measure up. To be open to this compassion may seem unrealistic-- not practical—too abstract. For Mary and her sons this way of being present is “making a way out of no way”.
I hope we can ask each other, “How do we help each other experience this compassion, trust this compassion, and embody this compassion-right in the places where we feel stuck and lost?”
Laurie Cassidy, Ph.D. is a theologian, anti-racist activist and spiritual director. She currently teaches in the Christian Spirituality Program at Creighton University and was associate professor in the religious studies department at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. An award-winning author and editor her latest book, Desire, Darkness and Hope: Theology in a Time of Impasse is edited with M. Shawn Copeland. Her forthcoming book is entitled Praying for Freedom: Racism and Ignatian Spirituality in America. Over the past thirty years Cassidy has been engaged in ministry that facilitates the intersection of personal and social transformation. Raised in Massachusetts she now makes her home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, traditional homeland of the Ute in Colorado.