Posted by: gdevi | June 16, 2013

Happy Father’s Day

Here is my favorite story about fathers and children. First, the parable, then my comments on why this is an incredible story. My students in English 225 love this story, especially.

Luke 15:11 New International Version

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’”


This is a very simple story, on one level. A young man squanders his inheritance. He becomes destitute. He comes back to his father, not feeling worthy to be his son. The father welcomes him back.  The older son is miffed at this turn of events, but the father explains that the younger son was lost and is now found.

Like all parables, this story has another level to it that has a beautiful afterlife, and a complex philosophical and psychological truth to it. It is customary to think of the opposition of material wealth with spiritual wealth as a cornerstone of all religions, and to some extent you can read this parable as an exemplum of this opposition. But it is so much more than that. In this parable, Jesus takes the primary filial bond–between a parent and a child–and shows a corrupt definition of this bond from the younger son’s perspective. He asks his father for his inheritance. In many eastern cultures, asking for inheritance while your parent is still living, is a form of symbolic patricide. You are wishing that the parent is dead, in other words.  His understanding of himself as his father’s son is that of someone entitled to his father’s wealth. He wants the inheritance. In other words, what is a son? A son is someone who has the right to inherit his father’s wealth. His understanding of being a son is of a very low, crude kind. His understanding of what a father means is even worse: father is someone who has something to inherit from.

So the crucial parts of the parable are the moments in the story where the son who has lost his “inheritance” feels deep in his heart that he is not fit to be called his father’s “son.” He wants to be called a “servant”:  “17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”

In other words, this is his (flawed) understanding of the father-child bond:

Inheritance= Son

No Inheritance= Servant

The father, on  the other hand, does not equate his bond to his child with “inheritance.”  The son comes back with nothing, a destitute, but because he has come back to the father with this incorrect paradigm of a filial bond, the father corrects it and welcomes him back and gives him all the luxury back — the fatted calf. A father is someone who freely loves his child.

So, who is this story really for? Who is the audience? It is the older son (and us, by extension), the one who went around, and, outwardly, “served” his father, and did everything correctly, outwardly, but was filled with jealousy, rancor, and spite in his heart: “this son of yours” — that is how he refers to his brother.  (The father privileges this fraternal bond when he replies to the older son — he says, “this brother of yours.” The older brother had forgotten that. ) He is exactly like the younger son used to be with the incorrect understanding of the filial bond — “inheritance” as the material marker of the father-child bond. In many ways, he is worse off than the younger son, because he mistakes filial “duty” as the defining mark of the parental bond.  Didn’t I do this that and the other for you etc? Did he stay with his father all these years because he loved his father? Did he stay with his father because he knew he would inherit his father’s wealth? He has the outward show of duty and doing things, but not really through his heart. He is still in the grips of “inheritance” and “wealth.” The younger son, though, has lost all his “inheritance.”  He “wasted” all of his wealth. Lucky for him! In return, he has gained his father’s “love.”  Not by rote, but in his heart through grief.  He feels fatherless–think of me as your servant, he tells his father. This is the most deeply moving part of this parable.

As with all of Jesus’s parables, we can find a specific Christian meaning to the story, but this story endures even as a simple psychological or philosophical story about fathers and children, or even ordinary human, familial interactions. So much of our familial interactions are messed up, aren’t they? Brothers not talking to brothers. Sisters not talking to sisters. Children not talking to their parents. Usually, it all revolves around money. What the heck, really? The parable of the Prodigal Son develops the theme of filial and fraternal bonds, a cornerstone of all cultures and religions, a motif that marks the first human family in the Abrahamic faiths — Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis. The first murder and the first crime is a fratricide, right? In the Hebrew testament, we go through many many father-child, fraternal bond stories — Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, David, Amon, Absalom and Tamar et al . Finally, we get to the story of the prodigal son, unique to the gospel of Luke, which gives us a markedly different psychologically resonant vision of filial and fraternal bonds.  It asks, why are you doing what you are doing?  This is what the parable is about. A great story, isn’t it? And so well-told with minimal but effective character development.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone!


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