The Fifth Voice

RembrandtPlease complete the quiz below on Jesus’ familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son.

(ALERT: this is not an open book test. Keep Bibles Closed. Only give answers based on prior reading or your random, desperate guesses.)

1. Circle how many characters speak in the parable:

1     2      3      4      5

2. Where is this Parable found (check all that apply):

___ John’s Gospel

___ In other families

___ Luke’s Gospel

___ Only way back then

___ Mark’s Gospel

___ In my family

___ Matthew’s Gospel

3. Though known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a better title for this story might be: (choose one answer)

___ The Dysfunctional Family

___ Don’t Judge Me Until You Walk A Mile in My First Century Sandals

___ Unforgiving Jerk of An Older Son

___ (bonus point) Your title suggestion: _______________

*      *      *

In his insightful 2004 book The Four Things That Matter Most, hospice physician Ira Byock wrote, “I have long thought that the phrase dysfunctional family is redundant.” After reflecting on Jesus’ The Dysfunctional Family parable for the 4th Sunday of Lent, I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Byock.

Dysfunctional = Family

Family = Dysfunctional

Same thing, eh?

So often, when reading the stories of my faith, dysfunction is the rule, not the exception. From the get-go, Eve and Adam and their odd clan made a mess of things. Imagine yourself as a younger sibling of tricky Isaac and hungry, hapless Esau. How’d you like to get plopped into the middle of King David’s family? Royally weird! Or there’s Noah’s drunkenness, Abraham’s claim that his wife Sarah was his sister in order to placate a pharaoh, Joseph’s conniving brothers tossing him into a pit, the disciples of Jesus and their constant grumbling, and let’s not forget dear old St. Paul and his thinking one thing but doing another.

And yet I’m grateful the sacred book of my faith revealed family dysfunction. I read it, and I read about myself. I read Luke 15:11-32 and it’s never a safe story about long-ago them, but an honest mirror for the here-and-now me.

I can’t count the number of sermons I’ve heard, articles I’ve read, or casual conversations that used a character in the Don’t Judge Me Until You Walk A Mile in My First Century Sandals (DJMUYWIMIMFCS) parable for an example of what a Christian should be like. Or not be like.

For example, be like the Father and always forgive others!

And yet the Father, thank you very much, was a questionable role model. If we gloss over the DJMUYWIMIMFCS parable, it becomes a banal stereotype. Isn’t the Dad in the story just like God? He’s so forgiving! Always welcomes his children! He likes to throw a big party! Yes, yes, and yes. However, this parent raised a son who scurried away with all the easy cash he could carry from the family treasure. And the other son seemed cranky and petulant, as if he had a no-one-understands-me stick permanently placed in his judgmental derrière. If the father is only a cliché about forgiving others, we make practicing Christianity sugarcoated and facile.

I know the Unforgiving Jerk of An Older Son parable like the back of my hand. I’ll bet I’ve preached on or referenced the story in hundreds of sermons and classes. This time, when I read it, I forgot the ending.

When pondering the parable, I didn’t use my Bible, but an online worship planner with all the exciting lectionary lessons. Thus, I read Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. They were all conveniently printed on the same page! Us old guys like easy!

Therefore, whether studying Luke’s or Joshua’s verses, I don’t have the before or after verses in front of me. When arriving at the end of the Unforgiving Jerk story, I thought: the snooty scholars that select and organize the lectionary left out the parable’s final verses!!!

The parable, I internally ranted, absolutely does not conclude with the father saying:

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Isn’t there a final line about the older brother choosing to remain in the field, or giving a snarky comeback to his father’s announcement, or even a snippet of a verse describing the party already underway back at the house? Something must be missing. The ending seemed so . . . unsettling.

Nope, the snooty scholars hadn’t forgotten a single word.

Which, especially along Lent’s familiar and brand-new path, was the best way to end the story. What happened next? Did the older brother remain in the field? Did the younger son squander more or has he truly “come to his sense?” Did the father convince his sons to reconcile or spend the rest of his life festering with regrets about his decisions?

The parable ended and I was surprised. Jesus created a story where four different people spoke: two children, a parent and a servant. But aren’t the readers and believers invited to become the fifth and next voices?

How could I have forgotten it’s up to me—and you—to finish the story with how I live out my faith?

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Image: Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)

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  1. Whoa, Larry. You stopped before I was ready for you to stop!

    My other title is, “Where’s Mom?” I don’t get any other points cause I spent 20 minutes, page by page, going through John’s gospel sure that it was there somewhere!

    1. Pat:

      Yeah, where was Mom?

      And though a search through John is always a delight (well, mostly), I’m not optimistic about your quest!

  2. Another title (not original) “The Prodigal (or Foolish) Father.” The father, as an atypical Middle Eastern patriarch, makes a fool of himself–rushing out of the house, lifting his robe, and running down the road–not just to meet a prodigal son, but to embrace a son who had essentially said, “I wish you were dead, so I could get what would be coming to me right now.” And got his wish, but then squandered everything in hedonistic binging. Finally, finding himself totally humiliated, a good Jewish boy taking care of pigs, with nothing to eat but their garbage diet, rehearses a good speech (with no evidence of actual remorse) comes home hoping to con his father into a job in spite of what he’d done.

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