One of the things I value about the parables of Jesus is that they can be understood in multiple ways, similar to a prism. One beam of white light enters a prism and several streams of different colored light emerge from the other side. Our own experience of life can be likened to a prism. When we hear Jesus telling us a parable, the prism of our lives, our cumulative life experience, our family history, our socio/economic standing and many other things function to refract the parable into something that is intelligible to us. How receptive we are to the various streams of light that emerge from the prism that is our lives will vary.
Some approach the parables of Jesus seeking to find one correct interpretation. I think this is a mistake. In Judaism, teachers recognized that texts could be understood in various ways and an approach called midrash arose that made an attempt to explore these different understandings by “filling in the blanks” in the stories with plausible details that brought a range of insights into view. I think that this same approach, applied carefully can be a valuable tool in approaching the parables of Jesus as well.
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well known of Jesus’ parables. It has been the subject of numerous interpretations, not least of which is Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal: A Story of Homecoming”. Traditional interpretations usually center on the grace of a loving father who welcomes a repentant, wayward son who had squandered his inheritance back into the family, and an elder son’s struggle in extending the same kind of grace toward his younger sibling. These understandings are powerful, full of beauty and have been a blessing and a challenge to many people.
Kester Brewin, in his book, “Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us” presents an alternate interpretation of the prodigal son parable that differs a great deal from traditional views. His is a tragic, “dark” reading of the story that I think is well worth your time investigating. Following Brewin’s approach, I offer the following reading of the prodigal son that is similar to Brewin’s but having passed through the prism that is my life, some different colors emerge.
The Prodigal Pirate – A Tragic Reading of The Prodigal Son Parable
The parable is recorded in Luke chapter 15. Jesus tells this parable (and two others) in response to some Pharisees and legal experts grumbling about him welcoming and spending time with sinners. (Luke 15:1-2)
I will present the grumbling religious leaders as the father figure in this reading.
These religious leaders were overseers of an “Estate” known as the Temple. They were well cared for inside this walled and gated Estate, receiving their income through tithes, and via the lucrative system of currency exchange, and the sale of animals that undergirded their sacrificial religious system. This “father figure” kept the keys to this kingdom and could block access to the Estate to whomever he deemed sinful. The Estate provided very well for those who played by its rules, including benefits like high social status, beautiful clothing and a never-ending supply of fresh meat and grain, but those who violated the rules of the Estate were expelled or even executed.
Into this Estate Jesus introduces two sons.
The elder son was a true son of the estate. He knew how to play by the rules. He knew what to expect. He knew who belonged inside the Estate, and who was outside. Being the firstborn, he knew what was expected of him. He worked hard and knew what he was entitled to. Perhaps he was being groomed to be a priest, a scribe or a Pharisee. His father was very proud of him.
The younger son also grew up in the Estate, and enjoyed all the benefits of being an insider. He ate the best food and wore the best garments. He had unfettered access to the religious machinery that kept order in Israel and knew how it all worked. But like many young people, he began to have some questions.
Walking through the streets of Jerusalem he sees people who don’t have the same advantages that he has - the poor, the sick, and the oppressed that his father tells him are cursed by God. He begins to wonder why he should be so blessed just because he is a son of the Estate, while these outsiders are cursed. Why should he have all that he has, including the promise of a great inheritance for no reason other than being born into the right family inside the Estate? A couple of times he secretly talked with some of the outsiders even though his father had prohibited him from doing so. They didn’t seem all that different from him.
The more the young son thought about this, the more it bothered him. He thought, “It doesn’t seem fair”! “It’s not just”! But what could he do about it? How could someone like him have any impact on his father and something as great as the Estate? Then it occurred to him; he couldn’t change the whole system, but he could ask for his inheritance, he could take what was his and play the pirate with it. He could leave and live by a different kind of code – a code based on equity, a code that recognized the inherent worth of the outsiders that his father and the Estate so despised.
But this will be no small mutiny…it will mean dying to all that his father and the estate hold sacred. It will mean becoming as dead to his father, his family and the religion of his youth. It could cost him everything but he feels like he’s dying inside the Estate. So, one day he gets his courage up and asks his father for his inheritance. His father is shocked, but for some reason he gives him what he asks for. Perhaps the father has seen troubling signs of weakness in his younger son.
The younger son then sets sail, goes to a distant country and seeks out the very people that his father and the Estate wouldn’t have anything to do with; the outsiders, the sinners, the poor, the sick and the prostitutes. He generously spends his inheritance making life a little more merry and bearable for these outcasts-the ones the Estate had blocked from access…the ones they cursed and shunned.
Somehow word of all this gets back to the elder brother, and he is livid! He accuses his younger brother of living riotously, of eating and drinking with sinners and whores. He can’t understand why or how his younger brother could have given up all he had in his father’s house to live among the cursed refuse of society.
The elder brother thought…
My brother had the same highly honored name as his father, but he let it go.
He gave up his exalted position and took on the appearance of a sinner.
He doesn’t seem to care about his reputation at all.
The younger brother kept spending his inheritance among the outsiders but after a while, the money ran out. And to make matters worse, a famine struck the land and with all his inheritance spent, he found himself in the same straits as the ones he had come to help. He went to work for a farmer and became so hungry he even considered eating the disgusting food he was feeding the pigs.
It was just then that the younger son realized what it was like to be one of the outcasts. He had wanted to help them, but now he was one of them, and it was horrible. It was foul and detestable. For the first time in his life he felt hopeless, alone and without a home.
It was then and there, in the depths of an outsider’s existence that he began to weigh the costs of his youthful idealism. As he sat there among the pigs, starving, disillusioned and poverty-stricken for the first time, his thoughts drifted back to the Estate. He remembered that back at the Estate, even his father’s slaves were eating better than he was. He had had such big plans of helping the very people his father didn’t want him having anything to do with, but now, he was one of them.
His act of mutiny, of rebellion against an unjust system had come face to face with reality. It was no longer sustainable, and he hadn’t really changed much of anything. Sitting there in the mud, among the stinking swine he thought, “I guess my father was right…” I guess allowing myself to care about the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the outcasts was all a big mistake.” And then it hit him; “It’s ME! It’s ME! I am the sinful one!” And he repented.
So he decided to go back…but not as a son. NO! As a slave. He wasn’t worthy of being considered a son…he had destroyed that by dishonoring his father, his family and the Estate. His misplaced compassion had made him unworthy of being considered a son.
He began making his way back, and when the Estate came into view, his father saw him. His heart stirred with love and pity, he ran to meet his wayward son. His son began to repent, explaining how wrong he was to have cared for those sinful outsiders but his father interrupted and barked an order to the slaves, “Hurry! Bring out the best robe! Put it on him, and put my signet ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Kill the fatted calf! Everyone, eat, drink and be merry, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
This young pirate’s mutiny was pardoned.
All will once again be as it should be.
The Estate has restored one of its own.
In this tragic retelling of the prodigal story, I note the following in support of this being a plausible alternative midrashic interpretation.
1. Jesus told this parable in response to some Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling about his associating with sinners (Luke 15:2). The elder brother’s accusation in verse 30 that the younger had devoured the father’s property with prostitutes sounds very similar to criticisms often made against Jesus by Pharisees and other religious leaders like those to whom Jesus was telling this parable. Perhaps Jesus was using this story element in a way that would highlight his questioner’s judgmental attitude rather than as a judgment against the younger son. Jesus was not in the habit of denouncing people like those the younger son was spending his time with. In fact he was famous for loving and giving himself to them.
2. Jesus does not preface this parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like”. This leaves open the possibility that this parable can be understood as a parable in response to the kingdom the religious leaders had constructed that was very unlike the kingdom of God.
3. Concerning Luke 15:13 and whether or not the younger son’s spending was “riotous”, the Greek word “asotos” only appears here in the NT. “The word does not necessarily signify “dissolutely” (riotous) per Vines Expository Dictionary. In addition “diaskorpizo” which is translated as “wasteful” or “squandered” can also mean “to scatter or disperse”. So, an alternative translation of Luke 15:13 might read, “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he dispersed his property in extravagant/generous living.” This would remove the negative connotation. Regardless, if we understand Jesus as narrator of the parable, possibly telling the story from the perspective of a pharisaical father figure and his idealistic young son, either translation could legitimately sustain this interpretation. One person’s wasteful spending is another person’s extravagance. When the woman broke the alabaster jar of perfume over Jesus, his own disciples described it as wasteful, but Jesus received it as an act of extravagance.
4. In the two preceding parables, (The Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep) the main characters go about diligently seeking what was lost. In the prodigal story, the father stays comfortably at home and takes no initiative to find the lost son. This may be a clue to the fact that this third parable is approaching the “problem” that the Pharisees were complaining about (Jesus’ associating with sinners) from a different angle. In this parable, the father figure, while he receives the prodigal back into the family, took no initiative in finding the lost son. This father actually was acting much like the Pharisees in that he kept himself apart from the “sinners” his younger son was associating with, but accepted the wayward son back into the Estate when the son was ready to rejoin the family on his father’s terms.
5. The Lost Coin and Lost Sheep parables conclude by describing joy in heaven over the restoration of something of value being restored. The prodigal parable, understood as a tragedy illustrates the sobering consequences of a young son’s awakening to how lost he was while living in the secluded comfort of his father’s Estate, and who made an attempt at finding himself amongst the outcasts, but when confronted with the cost, could not escape the gravity of his father’s kingdom. There is no concluding statement of joy in heaven at the end of the parable of the prodigal, even though the son was restored. Could it be that this “restoration” was not something that caused joy in heaven?
6. At what other time does Jesus present as positive the wealthy who keep themselves separate from those in need?