My beloved spouse is Catholic and, as such, I get to hear about the most recent reading on the liturgical calendar on Sundays (or Saturdays, if he decides to do evening mass). This is the Year C readings, which includes one of my least favorite passages: Luke 15:11-32 (NIV linked). When that passage came and went on the fourth Sunday of Lent (March 27th), I sat and thought about it.
The priest did fine with his sermon.
Nothing went wrong.
But I just cringed. I hate that passage. It fills me with a loathing and dread like very few other passages do.
Let me give you an unsanctioned, off-the-cuff, hermeneutically and ecclesiastically wrong preach.
What is The Prodigal Son?
If you’re not much into Biblical stuff and/or don’t want to click the link above, below is a really inappropriate summary of the parable and a brief on what you’re supposed to get out of it.
A Badly Written Summary of the Parable
A man has two sons. The younger one, a worthless little turd, decides he’d be better off on his own. He gets his dad to divide up his property and pass down his inheritance early. The dad complies, and the prodigal son squanders it all.
In short order, the philandering son finds himself so squalid, and miserable that he’s feeding foreigners’ pigs (a Jewish no-no, mind you) while jealous of the animals’ slop troughs. He decides to come home and ask his dad for a job.
When he does come home, the dad slaughters “the fatted calf”, or I guess what we’d call “the wagyu beef” in today’s terms, gives the son jewelry, a robe, and holds an absolute rager. The older son, working hard in the fields, hears about the party and comes to the house to find that his worthless younger brother is the cause of the celebration.
The older son asks his dad, “Yo pops, why are you giving him everything when he totally played you and was a bad kid?”
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”Luke 15:31-32
What You’re Supposed to Get Out of It
You’re supposed to realize from this that God, easily identified as the father in this analogy, welcomes home anyone willing to leave their sin and return to him. It’s a tale of forgiveness, compassion, and unconditional love of God for any person, wayward or not.
There’s way, waaaaay more analysis of the story out there (even the sermon we got was more detailed), but suffice to say that’s the easy read of it. It’s a comforting story of a God that loves everyone and will give everything for you.
A Parable of H.R.R. Gorman
I was in the third grade and just won the county science fair. My mom came to the mall, where the fair was held, and picked me up. I was supposed to get dressed very quickly when we got home because my Uncle Jake had died and the viewing (a “viewing” is kind of like the Mountain version of a wake) was that evening. When I arrived at home, my dad and brother yelled at me for making them late. My mom, who had dressed before picking me up, told me to stay in my room while everyone else went to the viewing. They piled into the car, and I watched as the taillights twinkled out between the dense trees and they left. I held my ribbon in my hand, the ribbon that signified I had won despite not being rich, despite not having large material availability, despite not having great science education. There was no congratulations. Just, “You made us late.”
I remembered my brother’s football games. There was always a celebration after, or at least a bunch of encouragement. I was supposed to come, too, since no one would be at home to look after me, but I mostly got yelled at for being in the way or not paying enough attention. If I got an A, nothing; if he got a good grade, the world would celebrate and shout for joy.
At some point, I realized that I was supposed to cheer him on. I knew that I excelled at school where he struggled, and I decided I would help him with a difficult word that I had learned. I clapped and told him he did well, but my mom grabbed my wrist and yanked me to the hallway and shut the door. “What did you do?!” she asked.
“I was trying to encourage him,” I said.
“No you weren’t. You were being fake.”
“You were! I saw you. That was so discouraging! How could you?”
I was crying by this point, because I had no idea what I’d done wrong. “Why don’t you ever encourage me?” I asked.
“We have to celebrate your little brother. Like the prodigal son, he needs more encouragement than you. You do fine in school, and it will be with you always. With him, we must celebrate and be glad. You weren’t glad – I could see it – you were just making fun of him. Making him feel bad for being younger, which makes him feel stupid. You’re like the older son, and you should have just enjoyed the celebration with him.” She spanked me, sent me to my room, and I cried because I still had no idea what I’d done wrong.
Fast forward many years. I was still doing well in school. I was a member of pretty much every academic and hippy club, had gone to a prestigious (well, as much as “free” and “government sponsored” possibly can be prestigious) summer camp, and received numerous awards as a “great kid”. My brother was in a period of his life where he was screwing up hard, and I mean like real hard. Luckily he improved once my mom finally left my dad, but at the time it was just awful. I was completely ignored while he was alternately punished and celebrated. We had to “kill the fatted calf” by going out to eat at a fancy place like Outback whenever he got done with a major punishment. After promising to do better, he would receive a gun for getting suspended and be told he could go hunting that day, after which I would be expected to pick the hair off the butchered meat so we could eat it.
The prodigal son could be celebrated. The other son would be ignored, and at the very end, he will always be told to just suck it up and accept that his brother is more beloved.
I learned to forge my parents’ signature so that I could sign myself into any camp, trip, or after school program I wanted. As long as I could figure out a way to get myself home or, if it were warm enough, stay overnight at school while they didn’t notice, I could do anything. “Member of all the clubs” quickly became “president of all the clubs.” “Prestigious-but-free summer camp” became plural, and I racked up more awards. Not that they seemed to even notice. I stopped even telling them about this stuff, save for the fact that they’d need to drive me down to Raleigh for the camp (I signed the papers for them).
It was never that I thought my brother didn’t need encouragement. Clearly, from what I’ve said, he did need encouragement. He clearly needed additional help compared to me (though honestly I think that could have potentially been in the form of ADHD medication, which my parents thought was wrong). It could have been that he needed my dad to stop being alternately awful and rewarding to him. There was just so much that went wrong in our lives.
But I looked at the reward of the older son and thought, “This is a horrible story.” The story was used, in my case, to justify ignoring me. It was used to justify a comment in sixth grade where my parents set me down and said to never tell them about school again. As the older son, I clearly wasn’t worth paying attention to. I wouldn’t get the fatted calf because I wasn’t loved.
My parents would argue that’s not true. They’d argue that my brother needed more help.
But by the love of God, does that mean I needed none?
The Answer is “No”
I definitely needed more help. The key part of the Luke passage that my parents ignored is in that quoted phrase: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The idea that I would gain some reward from my parents in the future if I played my cards right wasn’t how the father in that passage worked. The older son receives his father’s joy, remuneration, and love every day. It’s an active relationship and reward.
As the older son, I don’t think I experienced that constant joy (my parents would argue that my memory is faulty, though; they’ve pretty much gaslit me into thinking I can’t remember anything right). It was like a cloud hanging over my head that if I could just be good until they died, I would get my full half and enjoy it the rest of my life. Money’s not even the point of that story: it was that both sons were fully loved by the father. I still am just so, so effing starved for my mother’s love, and I still just absolutely bend over backwards trying to get her to listen to me or love me for who I am.
But I’m worried. Worried, because she just won’t accept who I grew up to be. She ignored me while I was an adolescent, and kind of forgot that I became an adult. She still makes me feel horrible for existing sometimes, like when she makes fun of my childhood desire to invest in Beanie Babies so I could buy my first car using the stuffed animals’ appreciation.
I was the first person in my family to get a college degree. I have a masters’ and PhD in chemical engineering. I have a job, a husband, a house, and a dog. I have helped my mother move during retirement, have done my absolute best to be a helping hand during Covid while she had no one else to rely on, and given her the most expensive gifts of anyone I give gifts to.
And it doesn’t matter. It matters so little, in fact, that I’m not allowed to tell her about school or work, even yet. It matters so little that, despite doing quite well at life, telling her one little thing about who I’ve always been can get her to shun me.
I eventually had to cut off relations with my dad because he’s freaking scary. That situation is bad bad.
I’m fucking gutted.
The story of the prodigal son only works if the father is God and is always good. It’s not a good story to use as an excuse to just screw over, ignore, or debase your older son.
And so I hate that story. I hate it.
Do you have any story from your childhood that has been warped? It could be your parents’ retellings, or it could be someone else you’ve seen tell it since then. Let me know in the comments!