FEBRUARY 27, 2000

The Parable of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke is one of the most popular and interesting of the parables in the corpus of the Teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. It was no doubt easily remembered and later recorded because it was a story out of real life that people could relate to then and can relate to now. It is a story about the process of psychological and spiritual maturation in human beings, a story that is nearly universal in its import because the process is one that transcends time and culture. It is, in short, what we might call "a passages parable" in the lingo of the former best selling book of the same title by Gail Sheehy. It was a best-seller more than 20 years ago and then was updated and re-written and became a best-seller once again a few years ago.

Gail Sheehy claims that in terms of the type of rebellion portrayed in the parable the prodigal is traditionally the son and not the daughter. Certainly this is true of the patriarchal religious faith and culture of first century Judaism and until recently of 20th century America. But in this new era of women’s liberation which is still going on the prodigal could as easily be a daughter as well as a son, and in many households this is in fact the case.

The Prodigal is a parable about the sometimes difficult, never easy passage from the spiritual and psychological immaturity of adolescence and youth to the ever elusive, never fully achieved, (will we ever find it), maturity of adulthood. Gail Sheehy puts it well: "For as long as there has been adolescence, we belonging to its self-conscious legions have had the problem of hiding our gruesome little secret (inadequacy) while trying to appear as the attractive, confident, convivial persons we all want to be all the time. How do we humor ourselves through this contradiction between the years of youth and adulthood?"

And so we find in varying forms of the parable—runaways and rebellions; freedom sought, bought, used and abused; trying out, sorting out, trying on, putting on, acting out, putting out; quitting; being foolish, crazy, happy, sad, scared, mad; a roll in the hay, a night on the town, all day in the pad; out of money, out of booze, out of dope, out of school, out of hope, out of excuses; into religion, into God; finding heroes, losing heroes, falling in love and out of love, finding self, losing self, and determined in the end to be oneself, to be fully human. Those of us who have been there, and we’ve all been there, and we’re all still there to some degree, know that it is a difficult passage to full human selfhood. As Gail Sheehy notes: "Learning to cross the street is comparatively easy. Coming to trust out own judgment in volatile matters such as sex, intimacy, competition, the choice of friends, lovers, career, ideology, and the right values to pursue is a much longer and more demanding process." It is ultimately a lifelong process.

Eric Erickson, the psychoanalyst, speaks of adolescence and youth as a period of "psycho-social moratorium" between the morality learned by the child and the ethics to be developed by the adult. This moratorium period, he says, is "a time for horse stealing and vision quests, for work ‘out West’ or ‘down under’, a time for ‘lost youth’ or academic life, a time for self-sacrifice or pranks, for patienthood or delinquency."

We will now take time for congregational confessions of prodigal son and daughter pranks of yesteryear that our parents never knew we did and our kids should never know, or as George W. Bush said, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." I remember the T.G.I.F. (Thank God It’s Friday) Club in college and my intemperate rebellion against my Christian Science prohibition of drinking and smoking. Four cans of beer did me in one Friday afternoon. I got sick and vowed I’d never drink again, but I did. I had to learn through excess that there really was such a thing as too much.

I remember watching with fascination a water bag fight between two dorms at UMass., Amherst. The police finally got called in, and I nearly got taken in by the Assistant Dean for punitive action. I was only an innocent bystander, honest—but I escaped his clutches and disappeared into the labyrinths of the dorm. He was going to expel me, he screamed, but he didn’t know my name, and I got away. I avoided being anywhere with a hundred yards of that man for the next three years. I would have been doubly embarrassed to have been sent home as a prodigal without even the satisfaction of having done the accused deed—instigating a riot. I would add a sentence to Episcopal General Confession: "Lord, I did not do that which I might have done because I knew I shouldn’t, but the truth of the matter is I was chicken."

I remember working at a hotel resort on the Cape, the Lighthouse Inn in West Dennis, the summer before entering theological school. I worked as a beach boy, cocktail waiter, bell hop and chauffeur, along with 15 to 20 other college age guys. When the guys weren’t working they did their share of crooning, spooning, mooning, boozing, pranks and capers. A friend of mine tried to transport a life-size sign board of a whale from a gift shop on Route 28 to the lawn of the hotel resort. Needless to say the sign never made it off the gift shop roof, but it shows the absurd mentality that prevailed among those still adolescent psyches. Was I ever surprised the following fall when I found myself the student youth minister in a Congregational church in Auburn, Mass. where the owners of the Lighthouse Inn and their high school age daughter were members. My relatively innocent, not entirely harmless, prodigal past from the summer of ’59 had come back to haunt me. It was in the end a healthy haunting, a helpful reminder to me of my own prodigal proclivities which if channeled constructively could make me a more creative, caring, honest and real person. I would like to think that this realization helped me to begin that process. I am still working at it as I approach retirement.

The prodigal, and that’s all of us to some degree, takes his or her inheritance (i.e., one’s psycho-social training and heredity) to a far country (i.e., begins to pull up roots, to disconnect and distance the self from one’s past identity as a child in the home), and then spends his substance in riotous living (i.e., the self tries to lay hold of freedom and independence, sometimes foolishly and frantically), until he comes to himself (i.e., the self becomes conscious of one’s strengths and weaknesses, accepts responsibility for one’s own behavior, and learns to appreciate the values of home and culture which one makes his or her own through testing and experience).

My colleague in ministry, Scotty McLennan, Chaplain at Tufts University, has written an interesting book about Finding Your Religion—When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning. Scotty talks about different ages and stages of religious growth and development. The last four stages are the most important from the point of view of the religious quest of the prodigal—dependence, independence, interdependence, and unity. The prodigal seeks to move out from the dependent stage of faith towards independence—rejecting or questioning the symbols and traditions of religious authority. He or she may conceive of God as an impersonal force or spirit, or move towards agnosticism or atheism. Later the prodigal may reach a stage of realizing that they cannot go it alone. Something is missing in their lives and they seek a spiritual community or practice of some kind. This is the stage of interdependence, realizing the need of connection with others and with God or nature. The final stage is one of unity, appreciating the faith journey and symbols of many traditions and feeling that God or ultimate reality is in all persons and things. I highly recommend Scotty’s book. It is filled with case studies and examples from his work and teaching with students and from his own faith journey.

I want to mention another book, this one by Robert Martin Walker, a United Methodist minister, entitled, Politically Correct Parables. It is very thoughtful and entertaining and is similar to the book from another author (whose name escapes me) called Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. Walker notes that in the original parable of "The Prodigal Son" the central teaching of the story was that God was merciful and forgiving like the figure of the father in the parable who was ready to forgive his wayward son just as soon as his son was ready to return to him with genuine penance. You will remember that the Prodigal's older brother who had remained behind and been loyal to his father for many years was really miffed that his father had killed the fatted calf (in Walker's version the "weight-challenged calf") and thrown a party to celebrate his brother's return to the fold. When the father pleads with his older son to come into the party he really lets the old man have it. (Here's the Politically Correct Version):
Stop this rescuing behavior! For all these years I have been...obedient and morally responsible. Yet, you have never given me a scorched animal carcass so that I might party with my friends. But, when this negative-attention-getting son of yours comes home, after wasting your money on waged sex workers, you throw him a party! That's the most dysfunctional, codependent act I've ever heard of.

Walker concludes the parable by having "the chronologically gifted son" immediately make "an appointment for his father with a therapist specializing in codependency." From the point of view of those trying to get out from under the throes of codependent enabling behavior the parable of the Prodigal Son is not about the virtues of tough love, but rather about the foolishness of cheap grace. In this politically correct version the father needs to pay attention to the protestations of his older son and to set limits to the munificence of his mercy. I like Walker’s contrasting interpretation. I always felt the elder son got a raw deal from his father. Walker helps to right the balance.

A novel by Susan Ertz entitled, The Prodigal Heart, expresses the contrast between the two brothers in the following terms: though the younger brother was prodigal in body, at least part of his heart was always at home, while the elder was prodigal at heart, and only his body was at home—meaning he would really have loved to engage in some riotous living like his younger brother, but felt constrained by a legalistic superego. In truth the elder was as much a prodigal as his younger brother. John Sanford, a Jungian analyst and Episcopal priest, suggests that the two brothers represent two sides of a single person—"one side is roguish, pleasure seeking, spontaneous and spendthrift; the other side is duty-bound, self-righteous, unforgiving and joyless. Taken as outer figures they refer to two types of people—the pleasure seeking and the super-responsible." But when taken as inner figures, they symbolize "the two halves of a whole personality."

Some of us, reflects Sanford, "may identify with the older brother side of ourselves and are ruled by a strong sense of duty, a desire to conform and to please, and to appear righteous." The younger brother or prodigal side of ourselves is driven into the unconscious as an inner enemy that opposes our conscious attitudes and robs us of our joy of life, our compassion for others, our spontaneity. "Others", suggests Sanford, "may identify with the wayward son and drive their responsible side into the unconscious" where they become opposed from within by a repressed conscience and their enjoyment of life becomes deranged pleasure. Wholeness and healing comes with the reconciliation of these opposites into one personality, capable of joy and compassion, responsibility and duty, generosity and forgiveness. The Prodigal Son is indeed a passages parable about the process of psychological and spiritual maturation in human beings, a parable that is nearly universal in its import because the process it depicts is one that transcends time and culture.

We are prodigals all, seeking the gift of selves made whole in thee. In the words of your Transcendentalist prophet, "What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God." May we accept the gift in love and faith and give back more than we received to thy glory, a free self, given in love and service to one another and to thee. Amen.