I think some well-intentioned Bible scholars might have named the story of the prodigal son incorrectly. That’s one of the problems with contemporary versions of the Bible when they give subtitles to stories. They cause us to focus on a secondary theme that may not even have been the point. It should be called the parable of the “whiny Protestant Son.”
Amy Jill Levine, New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, gave a lecture on how Jews would hear this story. She’s Jewish, so she has a lot of insight into the culture in which Jesus taught. She said any Jew of that era would have known that the end of the story was the central message to be heard.
If that’s the case, then the real lesson we’re supposed to be hearing is about the older son. And I think he was Protestant. Let me tell you why.
When I was reading the text this week, for the first time I noticed that the father divided his wealth to “them” and not simply to “him.”
The younger son asked for “the portion of goods that belonged to him.” No more, no less. “Just give me what’s mine so I can find my own life.” Families worked together to make a living. The younger son was bucking time-cemented tradition by saying, “I want out. This isn’t me. I can’t stand living like this. I wasn’t created to do this kind of work.” That would have been devastating to a father.
Of course, he didn’t really say these things – because Jesus made up the story. The point is that the son was breaking with the norms of the day. There’s a commandment that borders on labeling ‘breaking with tradition’ a sin…honor your father and mother that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.
A Mosaic commandment prescribes the punishment if you don’t honor your parent’s wishes for children be productive and obedient…death. I always wondered why “that you may live long on the earth” was part of the fourth commandment. Your parents could put you to death if you didn’t honor their expectations. That’s one way to keep tradition going.
Still I think we can appreciate the cultural scandal of a younger son asking for his portion of the family business and going his own way. Some parental CEOs of today still get hurt feelings when their sons/daughters reject the family business.
But here I am, chasing a rabbit down a trail that is away from the main point. The climactic issue gets minimized when we don’t realize that the end of the story is the point. Maybe the father’s grace as shown to the prodigal son is easier to hear.
Don’t get me wrong, the grace part is highly important for those living recklessly. Jesus told two parables about the Father’s welcoming embrace to lost sheep and lost coins immediately prior to this story. And the chapter starts by saying Jesus is talking to tax collectors and sinners. They need to hear the good news…God places no demands on those who are found. God throws a party when God finds them.
The resentment in compliant sons is that they don’t get to look down their noses at their disgusting brothers to see them grovel and pay for their prodigalness. How can the father accept them with no disciplinary action? They need to be placed on eternal probation so there’s a perpetual hammer over their head that keeps them in line.
Lest we forget, the father divided his possession to them. If the father apportioned the family possessions according to custom, the older son got a double share while the younger siblings got a single share. That means if there were nine sons in the family, the oldest got 2/10ths and the eight siblings each got 1/10th. If there were two sons, the oldest got 2/3rds while the youngest got 1/3rd. The eldest got a DOUBLE portion.
The younger son took his money and tried to find happiness. He spent all his money, albeit foolishly. And that’s partly why I don’t think the younger son was Protestant. He was able to spend his money on fun things – which is not saying I agree with his choices of trying to find his life. We usually have to make some mistakes before we come to our senses.
But Protestants tend to think work comes before fun. Protestants tend to think putting money in the bank for retirement is fun. Protestants tend to think if you’ve got a smile on your face, you’re up to no good. Protestants don’t make mistakes. If they do, they have to repent eternally, until they fail again and the cycle starts over.
Protestants is an appropriate name because these people have the most fun when they are in a group protesting about what other sinners are doing or not doing that doesn’t meet with their self-imposed restrictions.
And then when they see someone else spending their own money and making some mistakes, they get all whiny about it. They call them names, berate them, call them irresponsible, losers. Why? Because Protestants can’t let loose of their money to have a little fun, or discover the world, or find their real selves.
They’ve received a double portion of the father’s wealth – the knowledge of the Father’s love as well as God’s blessings – and still that’s not enough. They hate it when people aren’t miserable like them. They hate it when the Father embraces sinners unconditionally who haven’t paid their dues.
How do I know this? I was born a Protestant—born to look down my nose at sinners. It takes one to know one. Jesus’s parable is simply a mirror for those of us who read the Bible or go to church to see ourselves in action.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have some fun by putting a little money in the bank. Then I’ll meet up with my buddies over coffee and solve the problems of the world by whining about all my lazy prodigal brothers and sisters out there.
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