Text– Luke 15: 11-32
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’”
This passage is very popularly known as Prodigal Son and even more popularly as Mudiyanaya Puthran (in Malayalam). In all common sense what is left to talk about this parable that one has not heard? So I would offer some random thoughts to think aloud rather than a meditation. So let us begin.
1) Why have we loved the title ‘Prodigal Son’ so much that it has become unquestionable to think of an alternative title? I feel the explanation given my Philipose Mar Chrysostom Veliya Metropolitan is profound. I paraphrase his thoughts here. It is human nature to label and subjugate. We derive pleasure to give a negative label as this negative label is from which we derive our positive identity. Simply put if there is an alcoholic in our vicinity, we will always call him so, as there is a cheap thrill and self righteousness we derive from him being alcoholic and we being so called teetotalers. It is a matter of having a binary logic. Our common languages where we ridicule the fat, the short, the dark are all extensions of this curious human nature. Funny thing about this parable is that the Son in the parable is restored and redeemed but still we call him ‘Prodigal’. In this regard I feel the focus one needs to pay is on the Love of the Father that is inclusive and inviting. Can’t we call this parable as “The Parable of the Loving Father.”
2) The most hidden figure in the parable is the Master of the farm. One can imagine him gleefully rubbing his hands seeing the vulnerabilities of the son away from his country. The stranger for whom the pig is evil and an abomination is asked to look after it as he has no other choice. There are many similar figures in our cities that thrive on vulnerable migrants who have no choice but to engage in acts that nullify their dignity and personhood. There are a huge amount of migrants fueling the economy of the cities by doing works under substandard living conditions. For eg., the large labour population at the construction sites is a case in point. As it is said ‘they build homes to be homeless’. Mark Hovarth in his project ‘Invisible People’ captures the plight of the migrants and the homeless very beautifully. Bishop Sam Mathew of the Church of South India very rightly points out that the Church is very conveniently silent on this gross exploitation of the so called people of “Lesser gods”.
3) In a much lighter vein, the pigs of the farm had a complaint against Homo Sapiens Sapiens. One said “You humans treat us with utter disdain, as if we are the scum of the Earth. You make fun of us; we are the symbol of all evil.” The other one argued “Is it fair to have such a position after reading the passage of the Prodigal Son (intentionally retained)? The son when with you humans was profligate and wild but as Luke 15: 17 says when he was in our company ‘He came to his senses’. We became instrumental for his return to his Father.” It is said that the Council of Pigs passed a Bill to protect “Animal Dignity and Sanity” and “No Eating Human Faeces” movement was called to draw attention to their plight. (The ones who felt revolted at this nonsense can have the magnanimity to forgive me. I am pressurized by PETA to include this).
4) When we read this parable we tend to read it in isolation. But we need to realize that Jesus is responding to an accusation. Let us see what it is. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”(Luke 15:1,2). It is in accusation of extending fellowship to the so called sinners that Jesus responds with a series of parables out of which this parable is the last of it. For the Pharisees and Scribes, God was only for the righteous and the pure. But Jesus here was introducing a Radical God who runs after sinners to redeem them. He not only waits for the sinner to return but he runs to him to accept him as he is. Jesus countered labels like sinners that entrapped people from being transformed. He focused on a God whose love was greater than the sin of the sinner. We live in a society that is fatalistic. We have no hope in reconciliation and transformation. We are also convenient with theories like “He is from that community, he will not change. It is in his blood” or very common label “They are cultureless people; we cannot hope much from them”. It is ironical for people like us that most of the times we take the position of the Pharisees and reject the message of Jesus that is inclusive and accepting. Is there a God like this? Yes there is a God like this.
5) The Elder son is symbolic of ‘us’ who live by self righteous claims. It is these tendencies that make us more exclusive and help us highlight our boundaries. The Elder son took credit for being not like his younger brother. So when his younger brother was accepted back he felt cheated and threatened. Shankarshan Thakur narrates a true story. In a Village there was a nine year old boy from a low caste. He used to sing very well. So one day the temple authorities decided to call him to sing bhajan at the temple. The boy was completely elated when his mother informed him about this opportunity. His mother oiled his hair, gave a good bath, and made him wear a white kurta and dhoti. She put tilak on his forehead and neatly combed his hair and kissed him to do his best. The boy entered the temple and bowed in front of the elders. He was just about to take his seat to sing, when an elder caught his hand. He ruffled the boy’s hair and tore his kurta and told him “You forgot you are from a lower caste and you tried to be like us. Be where you are, know your place”. The boy choked with tears and ran home and told his mother, “One day with this ruffled hair and myself clothed with banyan I will rule this land”. This boy was none other than Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Let me conclude quoting a controversial placard outside a Church in New York that read “Only Sinners Permitted”. I think that very much captures the core of this eternal parable of love, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church