I had a colleague who said that the Prodigal Son was the story of the first dysfunctional family! I think he might be right. Let’s have a closer look at this story.
Jesus loved to tell stories. He would gather up a crowd and then tell a story with a message attached. Jesus is telling this story to the Pharisees and the Scribes who were critical of Jesus for his association with the marginalized. The Pharisees and the Scribes wanted to confine their social life to the country club, and they didn’t like it one bit that Jesus associated with the outcast. They looked down on the people with whom Jesus associated as being beneath them and worthy of their contempt. Jesus even ate with these people who were social misfits…people who certainly didn’t know what fork to use. The conduct of Jesus associating with sinners and social outcasts was a source of scandal to the Pharisees because they gave major importance to cleanliness rituals and to behavior that made them unclean. Why was Jesus slumming it?
To the do goody Pharisees Jesus is an interloper, a problem, an annoyance. He receives offenders and feasts with them. So Jesus decides to tell them a story that confronts their attitude of superiority.
In this parable we find a family. The loose definition of a family is a group of people living together as a unit. Black Mountain is a family. Beaver Cleaver had a family. Some families have single parents, two fathers, two mothers, a father and a mother, children, no children, dogs and cats, maybe a parakeet. People become family members by birth or adoption or choice or just by love. In Jesus’ story, we hear of a family that consists of a father and two brothers. There must have been a mother once upon a time, but she is nowhere to be found in this story.
The sons in this story are trust fund babies, and they ask their father to give them their inheritance. Inheritance is a tricky thing. It can be used wisely, but it can also cripple the recipient. To be a trust fund baby certainly puts one at risk of being handed everything instead of developing one’s own merit to earn it. It also puts one at risk as being viewed as weak or having an easy road. However, the father in this story decides to go along with the request, and he gives his sons their inheritance.
The younger son, who has no name, takes everything he was given and he hits the road to journey to a far off country. Many parents would say that the younger son “got in with the wrong crowd.” Did you ever notice how often it’s the “wrong crowd’s” fault in the eyes of parents of irresponsible children? The younger indulges in a life of “reckless living.” That could be anything from crack cocaine to alcohol to gambling to unemployment to liaisons with loose women. And did you ever notice that it’s always the women who are “loose” while the men are just sewing their wild oats?
The younger son wants out of his dumpy village. He wants to get to a major metropolis. He wishes to utilize his inheritance to live life his way, and he does. His life becomes a catastrophe. In his desire to get out of his father’s house, he jeopardizes every relationship at home for the illusory pleasure of living on his own terms. But Nirvana didn’t happen. He might have relished some exciting moments, but in the end his own actions did not bring pleasure.
Pretty soon the younger son had spent all of his inheritance, and there was a famine in the country he was visiting. He found himself in need, in need of help, out of happy go lucky good fortune. So he took a deep breath and hired himself out as a day laborer. He was sent to the fields to feed the pigs. He longed to be fed with the pigs, but no one gave him anything. Imagine what the germ phobic Pharisees thought of young son wishing to eat with the swine.
The young man remembered that his father’s servants were given more than enough bread, so he decides to approach his father to ask to be treated like one of the servants. As he approached, his father saw him in a far off distance, and ran toward him with open arms. The father asks the servants to bring the best robe, to put a ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet. The father even asks to kill the fatted calf for a celebration later that evening.
And what about the older son? What has he been up to? All this time he has been there with his father, working hard in the fields, being anything but the entitled trust fund baby. He can’t figure out what is going on and is told by the servants that his younger brother has returned, that his father has killed the fatted calf, and that there is a big celebration going on. The older son is not impressed. As a matter of fact, he is ticked off, reminding the father that he has never had so much as a goat offered for a celebration with his friends.
The father says to the older son that he was always there, that he was always with him, but the younger brother was dead, and now has come back. The older son is ticked off. Can you blame him?
The common interpretation of this story is that the father showed compassion to the irresponsible son while the older son was a spoil sport. But wait a minute….let’s look at the story from another angle. What if my colleague was right that this is the story of the first dysfunctional family.
First of all, did the father do the sons a favor by making them trust fund babies, by giving them a large inheritance instead of encouraging them to find their own calling, and to prepare themselves to fulfill that calling? Or was the father an enabler, robbing his sons of the opportunity to excel in their own right? The quick definition of an enabler is someone who does something for another person when that person should be doing it themselves. Might it have benefitted the younger son to earn his own money?
In the traditional reading of this story, the older son gets a bad rap. He’s supposed to be happy that he was always there with the father working from dusk to dawn. In a dysfunctional family, he would be viewed as the hero, the child who excels. The hero looks good, looks smart, looks strong, and excels at everything. When there is a needy person in the family, whether they be ill, addicted, or mentally or physically challenged, the high functioning hero children are often neglected as the focus is on the needy person. The hero learns to hide his or her own feelings…just keep working, keep excelling. While the prodigal is off making a mess of his life, the hero older brother serves as a symbol that there is really nothing wrong with the family.
The father appears to need to be needed, welcoming the younger son home, showering him with more extravagant unearned gifts, dismissing his apology and brushing off his attempt at repentance. Does this do the son a favor?
Let’s consider some other lessons from this story. When the younger son asked for his premature inheritance, the father could have said “no.” Instead, the father could have discussed the value of earned money responsibility, and finding one’s own financial way in the world.
When the younger son returned home, the father could have set clear boundaries of what would be acceptable behavior, healthy behavior, responsible behavior. In this way, he could have contributed to his son’s health and given him real love.
The story is also an example of the often overlooked overachievers who sometimes wonder if they are worthy by just being who they are. The older son had every right to be angry, and he deserved recognition for just being who he was.
Why do I think my friend might have been correct in saying that this was the story of the first dysfunctional family? My opinion is based on twenty years of working with addicts and students in the Arizona school systems. We do no one a favor by covering up irresponsibility, handing over unearned money, making excuses for irresponsible behavior or not holding people accountable.
We also do great harm by overlooking the less needy people within the family….the people who suit up and show up, the people who care tenderly and consistently for others, the people who rarely complain, the people who just keep on keepin’ on. We owe them attention. We owe them the opportunity for self care. We owe it to them to listen to their feelings. We owe the older brother and others like him the respect of listening to his anger.
There might be a new story today. The new story could still be a caution to the do goody Pharisees, but it would be a story of respect, a story where the sons both find their true calling, follow that calling, and earn their own way in the world. It would be a story where parents no longer enable their over privileged children, rather hold them accountable for their actions. It would be a story where the prodigal are held accountable, the hero children are noticed, and parents draw boundaries. It would be a story of health, wellbeing, and recovery. It would be a story of love. Amen.