‘The Prodigal Son’ Luke15 vv11-32
It’s one of the characteristics of at least the longer parables that they draw from us different responses depending on our preoccupations at any particular time. They don’t have a simple ‘meaning’, despite what the gospel writers sometimes say. The parables originally had no titles, of course, and the titles they have been given over the centuries as an easy way of referring to them often imply a particular interpretation and so tend to shut us off from the power of a parable to take on different meanings for us as we return to it from time to time. Suppose The Good Samaritan story were called instead ‘Who is my Neighbour?’, or ‘The Prodigal Son’ were known as ‘The Wise Father’ or ‘The Elder Brother’: how differently we might then think of these stories. And we could equally appropriately call The Prodigal Son story simply ‘Growing up’, and be prompted by that title to find some unfamiliar points being made in the story.
Many traditions look at life as a series of stages, to each of which there are age-appropriate ways of thinking and behaving. Hindu tradition for example suggests that a man’s life ideally consists of four stages, as student, householder, hermit and recluse, each with its own different importance. Maybe our culture has been too much influenced by Shakespeare’s cynical Jacques speech on the seven ages of man, and as a result has tended to mock the characteristic behaviour of each age instead of seeing it as having its proper place in a man’s development. Certainly there has been a tendency to assume that a person’s age ought not to be taken into much account in deciding how we expect them to behave. Law has had an influence here: once past the age of criminal responsibility the explicit standard of behaviour is the same for everyone. Now of course there is a great deal to be said for the principle that everyone should be equal before the law, that your age should not affect how you are dealt with. But maybe Jesus’s story ‘Growing up’ offers us not so much an alternative as a supplementary way of thinking about these matters.
It is of crucial importance here and elsewhere to notice that Jesus often does not condemn behaviour where our traditional approach would do so; he even has a story about an unscrupulous manager that seems to be a direct rebuke to our readiness to condemn edgy behaviours. It’s not that he never condemns behaviour: he clearly does, and it’s always instructive to see which ones they are. The younger son in ‘Growing up’ is nowhere condemned for asking for his share of the inheritance and going off and spending it – ‘wasting it’ if you prefer – on travel and fun. He took a risk and it turned out badly though not catastrophically – he wasn’t dead, after all – , and he discovered that facing up to what had happened was the necessary first step in getting back on track; that’s two important lessons about life that a young person has to learn in order to become a truly mature adult. Neither is the elder son condemned for taking a more cautious approach. Some people wouldn’t say ‘cautious’ here; they’d say ‘mature’, and they’d want to praise the elder brother’s ‘maturity’ in knuckling down to helping his father in the family business. But the story makes it clear that where that more cautious, superficially mature, approach has left him is not a happy place to be; he seems to lack sympathy and human warmth. So maybe the story offers a warning about the dangers of premature ‘maturity’ – which is not to say that Jesus thought that what the elder brother had done in his youth was necessarily wrong, only that it had its own characteristic dangers that needed to be guarded against in some way.
Even though, in context, it’s not how Jesus used it, his ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ story is often used as a challenge to people: which of the three unhurt travellers do you think you’d rather be, or ought to be? If we use the same approach with the ‘Growing up’ story, I wonder whether, given this choice between extremes, we’d rather a young person we care about were rather more like the younger or the elder brother. I personally don’t have much doubt that I’d rather they should veer towards the younger brother’s end of the spectrum, which is to say that I’d prefer them to be a bit wild and do a few things that would be foolish or daring or at least inappropriate were I or their other elders to do them; I certainly wouldn’t want to think of them as spending an adolescence that aped an unearned, fake maturity and left them a self-righteous prig like the elder brother in the story. I think this story, and indeed some of his other sayings, suggest that Jesus would have had the same preference as me.
But of course the younger son’s hard-won but genuine maturation is made possible by his father; it was he who funded what we might think of as a kind of wild gap year and welcomed his older and wiser son home when it went pear-shaped. Since you’re reading this, it’s probably more likely that you’re in the position of the father in the story than in that of one of his sons. If so, you won’t need me to spell out what seems to be the clear implication of the story for you, nor will you need me to say much about the courage and faith that the wise father needed to behave as he did. It is horribly difficult to watch someone you care about go off on a path that seems fraught with every kind of risk, against your advice, against what you see as common sense, against social conventions. But then, it can also be pretty horrible – not least for the adult the child becomes – to discover that a lively, adventurous, promising child has allowed advice, common sense and social convention to turn him or her into a version of the prodigal son’s elder brother.