Guest Post: Your Place in the Parable — The Prodigal Son

Wayward.

There was that word again in a Relief Society lesson.

The word that describes me.

Mentions of wayward children always make me uncomfortable. From my perspective, the discussions seem to devolve into mothers comforting each other with reassurances that they did nothing wrong, were good parents, and taught their children well. It was their children’s agency that caused the waywardness. Not them. They are the Father in the story; simply waiting for their wayward child to come home, arms outstretched.

I always find myself raising my hand in these lessons, prefacing my remarks by telling everyone that I’m the wayward in my family. I’m sure I come off as ornery sometimes, but I’m okay with that. If I’m the black sheep at home, I might as well extend that to church, you know?

“But what if all you good parents aren’t the Father?” I ask. “Both the Older Brother and the Father keep to the farm or whatever. Staying faithful and waiting for a prodigal, like myself, doesn’t mean you’re the dad.

“There are two faithful people in the story. I get tired of all you parents assuming you’re the perfect Father and not the self-righteous Older Brother. Which one are you, really? Be honest.”

Like I said, I can get ornery at church.

So, here’s a prodigal’s take on how faithful followers can determine whether they’re the Father or the Older Brother. After all, Nephi tells his readers to “liken [the scriptures] unto yourselves, that ye may have hope as well as your brethren from whom ye have been broken off” (1 Nephi 19:24).

First, let me say that these Relief Society sisters genuinely want their prodigals to return home. I believe their sincerity. But there’s a difference between the Father and Older Brother’s reception of the Prodigal, despite what I assume is a shared hope for the Prodigal’s return.

The Father welcomed the Prodigal Son.

The Older Brother got mad.

The scriptures state, “But when [the Prodigal] was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Not only did the Father not wait for his son to enter the house, he did not wait to discover whether the Prodigal had repented. The Father wanted his son regardless of his condition and embraced him accordingly.

The Older Brother “was angry, and would not go in…” (Luke 15:28). When talking to the Father, the Older Brother contrasted his own righteous living to the Prodigal’s riotous living, stating that the Father had never even given him a goat, much less a fatted calf. If anyone should have gotten the cow, it should have been him, right? He stayed. He was faithful. He deserved more and could clearly outline why.

What I find interesting about this exchange is that the Father goes out to meet the Older Brother, just like he went out to meet the Prodigal. Father types want to be in relationship with their children. They extend themselves outward, and in many cases, condescend in order to do so.

Older brothers do not do the same; they cannot meet prodigals where they are, either on the road or at the feast. I assume the Older Brother prayed for the Prodigal’s return, since that is righteous desire and he was an obedient son. But perhaps older brother types only want the results (the return) and not the consequences of it (the party, the fatted calf, the Father’s expressions of joy).

Even if the Older Brother let go of his anger and attended the feast, would he really be able to receive the Prodigal like the Father did? Perhaps he’d just be “getting over” his jealousy because it’s the “right thing to do.” But a particular performance does not always equal a change of heart.

When I ponder this story, I wonder if the Prodigal Son’s return showed the Older Brother the prodigal parts of himself which had not yet been transformed, despite his obedience. I can relate to this. The sins or actions of others often reveal my own weaknesses. When others receive mercy, it can trigger a compulsion to claim the same blessings for myself; I then begin to list my good works in order to justify my demands. While uncomfortable, these experiences are gifts because they reflect myself back to me, and I see through the glass a little less darkly.

Maybe this is what made the Older Brother so angry. He could no longer find confidence, comfort, and certainty in his works. When the Prodigal returned, the Older Brother essentially lost his position as “the faithful son” because there was no longer a “prodigal son” to compare himself to. Now who was he, exactly? How was he supposed to feel good about himself when his identity was being stripped away?

The Prodigal returning, the Father slaughtering the fatted calf—all of that meant a loss of security. Yet, it was a security he never really had because it was a false, worldly security based on comparison. The Older Brother suddenly became vulnerable. Or, rather, he was awakened to his inherent vulnerability and reliance on his Father’s grace.

I’ve found that when grace and mercy are extended, power dynamics, roles, and systems crumble. It’s honestly terrifying. In following Jesus I lose everything. I lose a sense of control. I lose a sense of knowing. I lose the sense of security I get from playing a certain role within a family, a marriage, a church congregation. I. Lose. Everything.

Grace is still there, though. Sometimes I don’t know how it will manifest, but it always does.

Here’s the thing about grace: it has nothing to do with what I get or even why I get it. Grace is about my ability to receive what is. Was the Older Brother able to receive the Prodigal in his fullness? Am I able to receive the transformation of myself and others? Am I the Father or the Older Brother?

The parable ends on a cliffhanger. Sure, we’d like to believe that the Older Brother attended the feast, that he trusted his father’s words and repented. But Jesus never tells us. He leaves the parable open; perhaps for us to find ourselves within it.

Paula Baker serves higher education populations with degrees in sociology, criminal justice, and liberal studies. She resides in Mesa, Arizona, but mostly lives in her head.

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6 Responses

  1. MDearest says:

    I love the nuance and complexity of this parable, and the way Jesus sets it up to defy the manipulation of religious committees, and communicate meaning across centuries and language barriers to those who search for it. I remember once being taught that the pig food the Prodigal ate when he was down and out was like the dried mesquite pods that drift under my desert trees in season, and feeling both revolted and compassion. I’ve always thought that the Brother feels superior in his respectability, which superiority is false since he has no humility, and the Prodigal is steeped in humility. The Father sees this and rejoices, but we aren’t told if the Brother ever does. I really like your approach to the Brother’s problem as one of clinging to the illusion of being secure in his righteousness, and thus unable to be transformed by grace. It’s much the same thing as I see, but from a different angle, and revealing different nuance.

    After I wrote this I went down a rabbit hole looking up George Bernard Shaw quotes on respectability. You should check those out.

  2. Em says:

    I like your take on this. I think in general we’re all far too apt to identify ourselves with the heroes of the scriptures, or to assume that a “good guy” can only ever do laudable things.

  3. J says:

    Yes! I’ve always loved Elder Holland’s similar thoughts in “The Other Prodigal” But this really clarified something for me. Thank you.

  4. Lily says:

    Its hard to pay tithing. I’d like to keep that money – its a big chunk of change. Its hard to keep the law of chastity at 50+ when I have never married. I’d rather not take the calling that takes up all my time. I’m tired and I do very little of anything that is relaxing or fun. So when that temple marriage goes to, yet again, someone else, it hurts. It is like being thrown under the bus when you have tried to do what God/Father wants.

    • Ari says:

      Maybe withholding your tithing is the right thing to do. It’s just a thought, but didn’t we learn recently that the church has something like $32 billion in stocks? There isn’t enough good that needs to be done in the world? What is the church saving it for? Are we saving up to buy a spaceship like the Scientologist?

      Aren’t we just financing the patriarchy?

      On the other hand, if the law of tithing is a truth, if it really is more for my spiritual benefit than for the benefit of the patriarchy, isn’t it between me and god how to define “building up the kingdom of god?” What if, between me and god, I decide that funding women’s scholarships, or providing education to girls in the developing world, does more to build up the kingdom of god than providing the patriarchy with more billions for their investment portfolio?

      If I did make that decision, if I tithed to something like that, I wonder if I could still declare myself to be a “full” tithe payer at my tithing settlement.

      I think I could, but I wonder if my bishop would deem me worthy enough to give me a recommendation to participate in the rituals of my own diminishment.

  5. Ari says:

    I love this. I’d love to be in a class with you when you bring in this gust of fresh air. In my congregation, whenever we talk about those who have “fallen away,” there is so much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth! I like to say “well, maybe it’s just where that person is, temporarily, on their quest for truth. It’s not the end of the road.” (After all, if it was, why would we do after-death ordinances for people?) When I do say that, I get the most interesting dismissive responses.

    People don’t want to give up their judgments. People WANT to mourn the “lost” because it makes us feel so much more righteous by contrast. As a rule, people don’t want to see clearly; we just want to feel righteous.

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