A Version of the Prodigal Son

seen as exile and separation, conflict of ambition and loyalty

Introducing two sons. One wise, loyal, sensible; that which convention calls ‘good’. The other active, curious, impatient. Unstable. Dodgy sort.

A certain man had two sons. Me and My shadow. Light and dark, or what is perceived as our good and our evil. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. It is too easy to suppose good is the one which society praises and encourages. Status. A well paid job. New clothes, better house, reliability, hard work. Or, if you belong to a newer and different society, bad language, showing off, superficiality. Either way, is what is seen as ‘wrong’ or even ‘evil’: that self which is different; the one believed to be wayward and fickle? The same one which may also be one of compassion, which questions accepted thinking, which discovers and imagines? Only get you into trouble lad, that will. Lose all your friends, get you in with a bunch of weirdoes. People will talk.

We can’t believe in ourselves. Either of them. We learn - we are taught - to distrust the other half. Reconciliation would seem to come about only when both brothers turn to their father and each goes to his father’s house in his own way. It was the light-hearted wayward one who was able to apologize, to repent and expect at least some form of forgiveness. His ‘good’ brother could not envisage that much.

It’s the elder brother who plays God as God is too often perceived. He is nagging conscience, taking the view of ‘well you’ve blown it now! You’ll never come back. Not after What You’ve Done. I’ve been here working my fingers to the bone expecting no reward, knowing my duty - we can manage without your sort.’ Our good or conscious self scolding our other self, rejecting it because it doesn’t live up to our own expectations.

It’s an odd thing, the Bible. You can be familiar with some of the stories for years and still find something you’d never spotted before. This time, for the first time, I noticed that the younger son asks permission to go. He doesn’t just disappear or split off in disobedience. Is this son the part of us which still hasn’t grown up? It needs to develop further, find itself, make mistakes. But it does not intend any harm. It is not rebellion, lack of communication. This is a self asking God’s permission to find its own identity. And the father, surely knowing the possible mistakes, not only allows him to go but gives him the wherewithal to make it possible.

The exuberant response of the father to the prodigal’s return has been used to show the abundant generosity of God, but perhaps it is also a way of meeting people where they’re at. The younger son had been exuberant the wrong way, outrageous, beyond the limits, and he was greeted with exuberance demonstrated in the right way. But later in the story the father leaves the party and finds the other son alone, probably in the dark. Flamboyance is not his style nor, here, is it the father’s. This is the place of understatement, ‘shall we go in?’ ‘OK, might as well’ and perhaps a hint of a guiding touch to his son’s elbow, ‘it’s all right, no need to make a scene’. By which Brother major is reassured.

We aren’t told how the brothers met. The story ends before that because at this point it becomes everybody’s personal story. It’s where we bring our own greatest regrets, worst sins - or what we believe to be such - our blame, our excuses before God in whatever way he calls us. For some reconciliation would seem to be flamboyant so these are the ones we hear about. For others it will be much quieter, difficult, if not impossible to talk about. Yet, in my own experience, it is the prodigal son who first hears the voice of God and turns homeward. The other one is usually being far too sensible.

Ann R Parker

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 7th November 2002