Lent 4C: The Undesirable Son
By: Ryan Young
Luke 15:1-3a, 11-32 is beyond doubt one of the most familiar pieces of biblical literature. The parable of the prodigal son and his family is so ubiquitous that it can be tempting for preachers to overlook it each time it arises in the lectionary in favor of one of the “more challenging” non-gospel texts. I believe that this problem arises because the prevalent reading of this parable places the reader in the place of the prodigal son. In that framework, we read this parable as a testament to the wonderful grace that God shows us when we turn from a life without God; as such it is a beautiful testament to something that God has done for us in our past, but gives us little insight into how we are to live the rest of our lives. So, I am suggesting a shift in the way that we read this parable, and for that we need to start at the beginning.
The parable of the prodigal son is the last in a trilogy of parables that Jesus tells about people searching for things they lost that were dear to them (The Parable of the Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Lost Coin are the other two), but why does he tell any of these? Luke 15 begins:
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:1-2).’”
This is what storytellers call the inciting incident. Jesus launches into this trilogy of parables because the religious and social elite object to him ministering to and with those whom they deem undesirable. They objected to Jesus’ association with those whom they deemed unworthy like tax collectors, prostitutes, the infirm, and sinners. This is precisely the position of the older brother in this text; he finds his father’s mercy toward his sinful younger brother unconscionable. So to read this text with new eyes, I suggest that we accept our roles as members of the elite and place ourselves firmly in the role of the older brother.
The text tells us remarkably little about the younger son’s actions; Jesus spends much more time telling his audience about the father and brother. We know only that the younger brother asked his father for his inheritance while his father was still alive, and that he lost it all living a morally lax life in a distant country. Whereas the father’s reaction was to have compassion on his son and celebrate the return of a loved one, the older brother’s immediate reaction is anger:
“‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends (Luke 15:29b).”
While the older brother seems to be rightly incensed, the father’s response illuminates the wisdom we might glean from this text:
“Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours (Luke 15:31).’”
The older son claims that he has earned a higher position than his younger brother; he has earned the right to be provided for. The father is quick to remind him that he has always been provided for. Indeed, he has always had access to the entirety of his father’s possessions. The older son is suffering from the blindness that privilege so often brings: the assumption that one’s status, be it social, economic, or religious, is the sole product of one’s hard work rather than the confluence of numerous factors. This was illuminated for me during the last election cycle when President Obama challenged this assumption by saying,
Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something: there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.
The response to this statement was swift. A large portion of the American population grew angry that someone would challenge the idea that their status was anything less than a function of their own efforts. The fact that so many people would balk at the idea of sharing credit for their accomplishments with their own teachers shows how deeply held this belief is.
The flip side of the assumption that one’s own place in the world has been earned by individual achievement is extending that same individualism to everyone. In the case of those of lower statuses, this implies a lack of individual achievement. The older brother grows angry because of his father’s joy over the return of his younger brother who has “devoured [his] property with prostitutes (Luke 15:30).” However, there is no evidence in the text of the younger brother squandering his money on solicitation. This is an assumption that the older brother makes, and he makes it for the same reason that the “welfare queen” myth is so prevalent, and why drug testing welfare recipients is such a popular political football. It is much easier to assume that those we deem undesirable are deserving of their positions because of their own actions rather than to risk investigating systemic reasons for their lack of well being, especially when we are benefitting from those systems.
These assumptions must be challenged, not only because they leave the privileged blind to systemic injustices, but because they cause immense damage to the psychological and
spiritual well being of those “undesirable others.” In the biblical text we can see the division caused by this mindset. The younger son views himself as unworthy of his family’s love (15:21), and his older brother agrees, even refusing to call him his brother, settling instead for “this son of yours” (15:30). Author Jonathan Kozol spent months among homeless families in New York in the 1980s. One of the most damaging effects of extreme poverty that he witnessed was the isolation it brought; the sense of being ostracized from and despised by the community in which they lived. Writing about a makeshift homeless shelter called the Martinique Hotel, he writes:
Self-hate is common among many women here. If a woman feels she is despised, and has no recognition of the forces that demean her, perhaps it is inevitable that she will feel despicable. If nothing can affirm her dignity…it seems understandable that she may see herself as worthy of contempt. Drug use in the Martinique strikes me repeatedly as a routinely exercised attempt at self-annihilation.
If we resist the desire to view ourselves as the younger brother whose forgiveness is cause for celebration, and instead take up the mantle of the recalcitrant older brother, then the text doesn’t give us quite the same nostalgic sense of gratitude for God’s forgiveness. Rather it places an imperative upon us to work for reconciliation of the “undesirable other” within our current context. Dr. Gregory Ellison, my professor of pastoral care at Candler, once told me, “We drink from wells we did not dig, and sit under shade trees we did not plant.” We are the beneficiaries of so many who went before us; we are where we are because others have toiled so that it might be so.
Jesus’ parable challenges us to examine our assumptions about status, privilege, and hardship. It challenges us to remove questions of worthiness surrounding God’s love and forgiveness, and by extension, our love and forgiveness. It challenges us to move beyond platitudes towards reconciliation with those whom we see as undesirable. This is extremely difficult, as ethics scholar Miguel A. De La Torre points out:
All too often those who benefit from unjust social structures are the first to call for reconciliation, but for a reconciliation that does not hold them culpable for what has taken place and a reconciliation that allows them to simply move on without giving up the very oppressive structures that continue to benefit them…so they can get on with their unexamined, unchallenged, and unchanged lives.
We have work to do. Difficult work that much of the world is not willing to undertake. Jesus ends his parable unresolved; we have no idea whether the older brother sees the wisdom in his father’s actions. It is as if Jesus is looking beyond the parable to his audience; to us. It’s as if Jesus is asking us, “Those who were dead have come to life. Will you join the celebration?”
 “Remarks by the President at a Campaign Event in Roanoke, VA,” Barack Obama, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/07/13/remarks-president-campaign-event-roanoke-virginia
 Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children (New York: Three Rivers Press: 1988), 124-125.
 Miguel A. De La Torre, Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation (New York: Orbis Books, 2007), 93-94.
Ryan Young is currently serving as the Director of Student Ministries for Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia where he lives with his wife, Rachael, and their dog, Zooey. He likes piña coladas, getting caught in the rain, he’s not into yoga, and he has (at least) half a brain.