March 6, 2016 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause
March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Fr. George Smiga
Parables can be interpreted in different ways. We normally see the father in today’s parable as a figure of God who warmly welcomes back the prodigal son. When we read the parable this way, it is a parable of forgiveness, God’s forgiveness to us. This is a beautiful and valid reading of the parable. But it is not the only one. We can also see the father not as a figure of God but simply as a human father, and when we read the parable that way, its meaning changes. It is no longer a parable of God’s forgiveness. It becomes a parable of family dysfunction.
Why, for example, does the father divide up the estate when the younger son asks him to do it? It could be because this younger son is the father’s favorite, and he simply cannot say no to his beautiful boy. The father might be so conditioned to indulge his younger son that he will even give up his estate before he dies. Then, when this younger son loses everything and is in dire need, he decides to return home. We normally see that decision as a one of repentance, but it could just as easily be a form of manipulation. Knowing his father’s infatuation with him, the younger son might confidently conclude, “I am going to go back to Daddy, and he will give me whatever I ask.” And Daddy does. He runs out and gives him robes and rings and kills the fatted calf to celebrate, because this son, who is the apple of his eye, has returned home.
So this is a very different reading of the parable. It is no longer the parable of the Prodigal Son but now the parable of the Spoiled Son, or the parable of the Indulgent Father. This parable presents us with a family whose love is unhealthy, a family in which affection is used as a tool for selfishness.
And once this dysfunctional family is presented, the elder son arrives. He is not the father’s favorite. He is not the focus of the father’s affection. In fact, the father even forgets to invite him to his brother’s party. He has to find out what’s going on from the servants. And when he finds out that his brother, the brat, has returned home and his father is making a big fuss because his favorite son has returned, the elder brother snaps. He can’t take it anymore. He is so tired about hearing about his brother: how wonderful he is, how clever he is. He is so fed up with his father loving his brother more than he loves him. He digs in his heels and he refuses to join the family celebration.
The father comes out to plead with him. The father’s argument is simple, “Look, we’re not a perfect family. Things are not as they should be. But a wonderful thing has happened here, and we must rejoice. Your brother was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and has been found.
These words of the father provide an entry for us into this parable, because all of us have relationships that are dysfunctional in some way, relationships in which we do not get the love that we deserve, relationships in which others are indulged at our expense. We watch as others are held up for admiration, and we ourselves are forgotten. It can happen in our families, among our friends, in our school, or at work. We want others to recognize us and respect us. But instead, they organize parties and forget to invite us. “It’s not fair,” we say. And it’s not. “Things should change,” we say. And they should. But this parable is wise enough to recognize that they probably won’t. The relationships in our families and among our friends are largely the relationships that they are. It is likely that their flaws will remain.
So when we find ourselves holding the short end of the stick, the only real decision we have is the decision of the elder brother: Will we or will we not enter into the family celebration? Will we keep ourselves apart and refuse to go in? Will we cut ourselves off because the relationships are not as healthy as they should be? Or, will we somehow find the strength and the courage to accept an indulgent father who pleads with us or a spoiled brother who comes home?
The parable never tells us whether the elder son enters the celebration or not, but its preference is clear. The relationships in our lives are flawed. If we decide that we are going to stand apart until we receive an apology, that apology may never come. If we wait until people begin to love us as they should, we might end up waiting alone. Therefore, this parable says that it is wiser to take a deep breath, swallow our pride, and enter the family feast.