January 19, 2021

Mondays with Michael Spencer: November 30, 2015

Return of the Prodigal Son (detail), Rembrandt

Return of the Prodigal Son (detail), Rembrandt

The story of the prodigal son is often judged as the most effective of Jesus’ parables. Certainly it is the most emotionally powerful, as it touches close to circumstances that are timeless. One of my personal treasures in a copy of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” which was the subject of Henri Nouwen’s excellent book on the parable and the painting.

I’ve always been fascinated by the original setting of this story. What was the audience and setting that first heard Jesus tell this story? In the movie “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus tells the story to the “sinners and tax collectors” at Matthew’s dinner party (Mark 2:15-17), while the disciples- especially Peter- play the role of the older brother standing outside the party, looking in the door. At the conclusion of the story, Peter comes into Matthew’s house, apologizes to Jesus and accepts Matthew as a brother.

Despite the Hollywood spin on that particularly setting, it is entirely believable to me that the story of the prodigal son was told with the intention to create a particular kind of community, and not just to invite individuals to respond to God’s offer of forgiveness.

This may sound odd to many of us because we almost exclusively hear this story used in preaching and teaching as an appeal to the individual. Even with much recent attention to the older brother or the father as a focii of the story, there are still many examples of the story being used almost exclusively as an invitation to prodigal sinners to believe the Gospel of the forgiveness.

Henri Nouwen closes his book with an wonderful chapter called “Living the Painting.” He suggests three ideas that have permeated his own application of the story of the prodigal as he has encountered it in scripture and Rembrandt’s painting. The themes are, interestingly, themes that can be pursued as individuals, but are best pursued in community. (It was the “Prodigal Project” that moved Nouwen from academia to chaplaincy at the Le’ Arche Community, where he spent his last years caring for the handicapped and those who cared for them.)

First of all, there is the “homecoming” of the prodigal son himself. The story of the prodigal can be very complex when we try to deal with all the reasons that the son leaves home or that the father allows him to be so foolish, but the story comes into bright focus on the road home. There will be a homecoming, but what kind will it be? Jesus was creating narrative tension like a good novelist. The son has come to the end of his resources and his rope. He’s been humiliated by events and forced to reconsider his life and his relationship to his father.

If you are impressed with the son’s repentance, you aren’t following the story. This is the original episode of “Survivor,” and the son is calculating how he can avoid starvation and see another day. His repentance- like all our repentance- is inadequate. It’s “sincere”…..kinda sortof. It has the right words, but if you suspect this is less than enough to gain his father’s complete forgiveness, you would be right.

The “homecoming road” is the point of real surprise. Here is where I wonder if readers realize how Jesus’ audience would have anticipated these events in the real world. A middle eastern father who had been subjected to the disrespect and embarrassment of this son’s choices would have stayed aloof. He wouldn’t have left this chair, his room or his house to meet such a son. He quite possibly would have refused to see the son for many days. It would have been more appropriate for the son to find a relative who could represent him to his father. (In fact, in some gospel tellings of the story, such a mediator would play the role of Jesus going before an “angry” father.)

Instead, the father acts in a way completely inappropriate for his station and his situation. He looks at the ragtag returning son, and is- like Jesus- filled with compassion. He leaves his chair, his room, his house. He runs- yes, runs- past his servants and employees. He runs and embraces a son he believed was dead to him. Without a word from the son, he embraces and kisses him.

The “homecoming” is already under way before the son has said a word. True to his plan, the son attempts his scripted speech, which now seems ridiculous in view of the father’s emotional reception. There is no doubt that the son has been restored from the very moment that the father sees him. In fact, the son’s speech seems almost funny, as the father is clearly not waiting for it, or particularly paying attention. He is going beyond just a welcome, or even a restoration. He is treating the son as if he were returning in honor or great victory. The father has eliminated the shame of the son’s leaving and the shame of his failure (which were surely evident in his attire and his appearance), replacing it all with the symbols of highest honor and exaltation. The son is treated as a groom, or an heir.

Jesus’ hearers would have been stunned. The father’s actions were insane. His demonstration of acceptance overturned what it meant to be a father in his culture. It ignored the loss of family honor and the son’s disrespect and sin. Instead, the father follows and acts out his feelings of love and compassion- feelings that might be understandable, but were not to be publicly expressed.

Of course, this is exactly what Jesus was doing in his ministry. His audience could see it any time they looked at Jesus’ disciples, healings or exorcisms. They could see it in his treatment of women, outcasts and sinners. Jesus was welcoming Matthew, Zaccheus and Mary Magdalene. He was giving homecoming to the demon-possessed and the unclean. In his words and actions, he was the father in this story. Jesus was presenting God in a way that was revolutionary to his hearers.

But this is more than a good story. It has a purpose. Jesus was creating a community that would keep the homecoming going. The Jesus movement was a homecoming movement. An ongoing party of welcome for prodigals by a father who has thrown convention aside and adopted a new way of being family. A homecoming movement that should perpetually have the character of the father’s party and the father’s willingness to set aside shame and “morality” for the delight of grace.


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    So, was the problem with marginalized “prodigals” like Matthew the fact that they are sinners, or that other people don’t like them? One way and Jesus is forgiving sins (interpreting tax collecting and slopping hogs as sins), and the other way he is rallying the marginalized, erasing social distinctions, etc. Of course new religious movements tend to be filled with marginalized people, who then tell glorifying stories about themselves. It’s hard to know how much of this theme goes back to Jesus himself, but it is telling that his enemies call him a sinner and a nobody–basically an uppity bastard (in the literal, legal sense).

    • Both/And, not Either/Or. The marginalized people in question were often guilty of violations of the Mosaic law (and more often, the pharisaic interpretations and additions to the law). And because of that (and because most of them were linked to the Roman occupiers), they were also very unpopular – especially with the Pharisees and the Zealots. Matthew is a good example – being a tax collector, he would have earned his living by overcharging above the tax rate set (or paid for) to the Romans, making him guilty of both theft AND treason.

      • (and more often, the pharisaic interpretations and additions to the law)

        Ok, we should discuss this sometime. I hear it often, but it seems to be an assumption read into a lot of texts, and pretty arbitrary when it is applied.

        What is “the law” in it’s original form, pre-pharisaic interpretations and additions? The Ten Commandments? Just the first two? Anything Moses gave after the 10?

        Eckhart makes a very good and fair point too about the marginalized in a region starting a new religion and boosting themselves up. I don’t buy the argument that says we can trust the gospels more because Peter et al aren’t painted perfectly; a little humility goes a long way to convincing people. Reminds me of some of those more outrageous conversion stories.

        • > Ok, we should discuss this sometime.

          I want to say it has been discussed here, but I do not remember the article. Maybe not.

          > it seems to be an assumption read into a lot of texts

          I agree, at least to a point. We do love to double-down on those evil Pharisees – I think this is as much our cultural anti-establishment/anti-institutionalism as it is anything found in the text. It seems to me Jesus was more angry about people using the Law for social elevation and status-granting that he was about being morally ‘precise’ [but approaching it from that angle will make you really unpopular very quickly – people *love* to hate on the Pharisses].

          > Eckhart makes a very good … boosting themselves up

          I agree. On the other hand regarding “I don’t buy the argument …” is an argument I do not see being made here.

          This reading actually makes Jesus appear to be either passive-agressive or rhetorically adept, depending on how one looks at it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >they are sinners, or that other people don’t like them?

      Both! However, the son went back genuinely expecting humiliation, and willing to accept it [which is at least akin to being repentant – and possibly as close to repentance as many of us actually get]. And the father upended social convention by not humiliating the son. The pragmatism of the sons motives are an overlooked and important component of the parable, IMO.

      > new religious movements tend to be filled with marginalized people,
      > who then tell glorifying stories about themselves

      Certainly true; but I doubt this parable actually supports that. It is easy today to have romantic ideals about “marginalized people” as we have created an environment where it is rare to even see them; the prosperous are almost hermetically sealed away from them. On the other side there is no shortage of educated affluent white guys standing on a stage declaring themselves to be Outcasts to cheering crowds. But I think this is due more to our societies near fetishism about the Prodigal Son, and as this post points to, our lopsided reading of the parable; not so much the point of the parable itself.

  2. His ways are most certainly not our ways. “It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” Grace is always the unexpected gift. I was expecting the hammer and got the gentle touch on the shoulder. I was expecting harsh rebuke and found instead a table prepared. This reality is known to the prodigal. The blood of the lamb, slain before the foundation of the earth, calls us from isolation and we cry out. His mercy becomes our mercy. It is the deepest joy. It is love abounding. It is light and opening vistas. This is the power of life over death. This is the gospel. This is our song. This is our Lord. This is the living Christ. Thank you Lord Jesus.

  3. Slow comments lately. Here’s a fun little tune for #musicmonday.

    Free the Robots – Live in a Dream


    And Chaplain Mike, that was a great comment you left on SFL. Thanks for that, and making Internet Monk another safe place for me and many others.

    • > Slow comments lately.

      Thanks in part, I suspect, to the comment/moderation setup. It has been very glitchy recently; eating a lot of comments.

      • Adam and everyone,

        If you don’t see a comment appear, please drop me an email. It may be in the “pending” folder, which means the filter has moderated it. I set those free every time I check the site throughout the day. If it goes to the “spam” filter, I won’t know because I don’t have time to sort through the hundreds of comments that go into that folder every day. So let me know and if it is in spam I can do a quick search and set it free.

      • Don’t think it’s the comments system, lol. For myself, just nothing really worth saying with how things have been going in the world. Sorta discouraged, but more so dissociating so I don’t think about it and get very, very angry.

Speak Your Mind