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March 18, 2007 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family

Barbara Brown Taylor
Episcopalian Priest and Author

Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
Luke 15:1–3a, 11b–32

God of compassion, you are slow to anger and full of mercy,
welcoming sinners who return to you with penitent hearts.
Receive in your loving embrace all who come home to you.
Seat them at your bountiful table of grace, that, with all your children,
they may feast with delight on all that satisfies the hungry heart.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Prayer of the Day for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA)


The beauty of a really good parable—in the case of the prodigal son, perhaps the most beloved parable of all time—is that it meets generations of listeners wherever they are: in first-century Palestine, in fourth-century Rome, in sixteenth-century Geneva, or in twenty-first-century Chicago. Everyone has a weird family. Everyone has at least thought about running away from home. And whether or not you happen to have one yourself, almost everyone knows what a pain a sibling can be—especially when there are only two of you, so that the “good child/bad child” thing hovers over you no matter which one you happen to be at any given time. For these reasons and more, the parable of the prodigal son stays young no matter how old it is, giving all kinds of people all kinds of ways to make the story their own.

The problem with a really good parable—especially one as beloved as this one—is that it can become limp from too much handling. Like the velveteen rabbit, it can lose its eyes, its whiskers, and a lot of its stuffing, until it conforms to the arms of whoever picks it up. After a while, you hardly have to hold it anymore. You can just sling it over your wrist, with the head on one side and the body on the other, trusting it to stay put while you go about your business. That’s how you know you don’t have a live parable anymore, capable of leaping from your arms and leading you out to where you did not mean to go. You have a domestic pet instead, as captive to you as you are to your culture.

In twenty-first century Chicago, there is nothing remarkable about a young man deciding to leave his father’s home, where he will never be anything but the baby brother, to go seek his fortune in the world. This is so American that it’s hard to remember this boy is not from southern Illinois. From Daniel Boone to Lance Armstrong, the rugged individual is a national icon. The younger son did what young men are born to do. He may have hurt his father in the process, but his father understood, since he probably did the same thing himself. The difference was that the father made good and the son did not.

By failing at his individuation project, the son fell short of the American ideal, but all was not lost. In place of worldly success, he won wisdom, returning home to beg his father’s forgiveness—which his father gave him before he asked. The boy who was lost to his father was found. The son who was dead came back to life, and though he still had some things to work out with his elder brother, he was restored to his family and to his father’s love, sadder but wiser for all that he had brought upon himself.

Told in this way, the parable is indeed the parable of the prodigal son—a story about the vastness of a father’s love, available to a wastrel son who returns home with true repentance in his heart. The way most Christians tell it, it is about our individual relationships with God. When we decide to go home and say we’re sorry, we too can be sure that a banquet awaits us—the improbable feast given in our honor by a father whose divine grace exceeds all human reason.

That’s a perfectly good story. It is also, I think, an American Protestant one, which is fine for those who want Jesus to be more like us. If we want to be more like him, however, then it is worth wondering what this story might have meant to a Middle Eastern audience hearing it from a Middle Eastern storyteller in the middle of the first century. What does Jesus know about the dynamics of this story that we do not know, because he told it in a different world?

His world was largely agrarian, for one thing. Chances are that nine out of ten of Jesus’ listeners were rural farmers, like the family in the parable. Their land was their livelihood. They received it in trust from their ancestors and they held it in trust for their children. There was no courthouse where they could record their claims to it. Those claims were kept in the memory of the community, where honor was everything. Break faith with the community or lose its respect and your property lines might be “forgotten,” just like that.

A great deal depended on being and having good neighbors. When you needed help getting your crops in before the rain came or raising a barn—or having a baby or digging a grave—you counted on the neighbors, the same way they counted on you. You traded a dozen of your chickens for one of their lambs. You invited them to your parties and they invited you to theirs. If things worked out the way they were supposed to, then your children married their children, strengthening the kinship bonds between your clans and linking your farms in a patchwork family quilt.

In this world, an individual had little meaning apart from his or her family. Identity was conferred in the plural, not the singular. Since I live in the rural South, I think I understand this. People do not look at you and say, “Well, there’s Sherry Lovell.” They say, “She’s a Lovell,” and they know exactly what they mean by that. They might even say, “She’s the Lovell’s youngest—was all set to marry that Wilbanks boy, until she got it into her head to go to the big city. Came back last month with two little ’uns who don’t look like anybody—like to broke her family’s heart, and the Wilbanks’s too. Those two families used to be so tight, and now they don’t have a thing to say to each other. But you know how the Wilbanks are. They’ll be all right. Why, I hear that boy of theirs is already engaged to a Stovall. Now won’t that be a match!”1

I understand the whole family thing—the family name, the family history, the family standing in the community. But there are other things about Jesus’ Middle Eastern world that I have no reference for—such as the huge honor owed the patriarch of a clan and the elaborate code for keeping that honor in place. Patriarchs did not run. Patriarchs did not leave their places at the heads of their tables when guests were present. Patriarchs did not plead with their children; they told their children what to do. According to the rabbis, “Three cry out and are not answered: he who has money and lends it without witnesses, he who acquires a master, he who transfers his property to his children in his lifetime” (Richard Rohrbaugh, The New Testament in Cross-Cultural Perspective, p. 96).

Told in this kind of culture, today’s parable becomes the parable of the dysfunctional family—a story about a weak patriarch with an absentee wife and two rebellious sons he seems unable to control who is willing to sacrifice his honor to keep his community together. It’s a reunion story, not a repentance story.2 It’s about the high cost of reconciliation, in which individual worth, identity, and rightness all go down to the dust so that those as good as dead in their division may live together in peace. Given the shape many of our churches are in right now, we may need this parable more than the other one.

When the younger son asks for his share of the family property, he deals his father a double blow. He not only means to break up the estate; he also means to leave his father, who counts on both of his sons to care for him in his old age. If there is a mother upstairs listening from behind her bedroom door, then she gets clobbered too. When her husband dies, everything she has goes straight to her sons. Losing one of them is like losing a kidney. She needs at least two to ensure her survival. But the younger son is not thinking about his mother, his father, his family’s honor, or his village. He is thinking about himself—what he needs, what he wants, who he hopes he may turn out to be. Staying in relationship is not high on his list of priorities. Being his own person is. Getting out of town to find himself is.

Whatever his reasons, he asks for his share of the family property, and his father responds to the double blow with a double turning of the cheek. He not only divides his property between his sons, though he is still very much alive; he also allows his younger son to sell his share, so that the boy can liquidate his assets and take them with him when he goes.

The “for sale” sign is not up very long, apparently, but long enough for everyone in town to see it. What kind of patriarch cannot prevent his son from carving up the family farm? Does the boy have no shame? What is a bag of money, compared to land that has fed his ancestors for generations? When people see the father in town, they do not know whether to shun him or feel sorry for him. Because they cannot decide, they stop inviting him to their parties, but he does not look like he is in the mood for a party anyway.

It is as if his son has died, and after a while people stop talking about whose fault that is. The father is still part of the community, and the community protects him. The only way that boy of his is ever going to step foot back inside that town is to come back ten times richer than he left, with fabulous presents for every member of his family and enough left over to buy back the farm. Then he will have to throw a banquet and invite the whole community, honoring them as extravagantly as he shamed them when he left.

But of course this is not what happens. Instead, the younger son loses everything, and he loses it to Gentiles—Roman citizens, pagan pig-owners, complete strangers to the God of Israel. He might as well have used his birth certificate to light an Italian cigar. What he does is so reprehensible that the Talmud describes a ceremony to deal with it—a qetsatsah ceremony, to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles. Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people (Kenneth Bailey, “The Pursuing Father,” Christianity Today 26 October 1998). After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.

The prodigal’s hope, apparently, is to reach his father before the village reaches him. He has his confession ready. He isn’t returning home out of love, and he won’t pretend he is. He is returning home out of hunger. He is returning to apply for a job as a hired hand on what is left of the family farm. If he can earn enough to pay back what he has lost, then perhaps he can dodge the qetsatsah ceremony. Once again, being in relationship is not on the prodigal’s list of priorities. Being in groceries is. Being under a dry roof is.

So he heads home, rehearsing his confession as he goes. He is ready to take the initiative. He is ready for lunch. But someone must have seen him coming and told his father, because his father is on the lookout for him. His father sees him while he is “still far off” and is filled with compassion. Then his father does one of those things that patriarchs do not do. His father runs to his son—runs so that everyone can see his pale ankles, runs so that his robes get wedged between his legs and flutter out behind him like an apron; he runs like a girl, like a mother instead of a father; he runs and puts his arms around his son, and kisses him right there on the road, where everyone can see them.

“Great men never run in public,” Aristotle said. The father’s flouting of this advice may spring from affection but, of course, it is protection too. If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village all at the same time. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay. The father runs like a girl to greet his son, before anyone can treat him like a hired hand.

Then he turns to his slaves and tells them to bring his son the best robe in the house (which would be his own robe), to put a ring on his finger (a signet ring, perhaps?) and sandals on his feet (only slaves go barefoot). Next he orders his servants to kill the fatted calf—not a goat or a lamb or a dozen chickens, but a calf, a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast of roast veal for the entire village. It is a feast to restore the family’s honor as well as a feast to restore the family’s son. It is a banquet of reconciliation for anyone who will come.

And just like that, before anyone really has time to process what a genius he is, the father throws a banquet before the townspeople can throw a qetsatsah. The prodigal is saved, though not in isolation. He is saved by being restored to relationship with his father, his family, his clan, his village—who are also saved by the father’s willingness to be a really poor patriarch. The reconciliation of his community means more to him than his own honor. The restoration of relationship means more to him than being thought great, right, or even a good father. His son’s salvation costs him almost as much as his son’s abandonment of him in the first place, yet he never says a word about the price.

If there were ever a man who deserved a happy ending, this is the man. But you know as well as I do what happens. His other son shows up, hears the music and the dancing, and refuses to go into the house. I told you it was a dysfunctional family. Maybe he is upset that he has not been asked to take his place at the door—since in the Middle East, to this day, elder sons stand barefoot at the doors of their fathers’ houses to welcome their fathers’ guests. But I don’t think that is this son’s problem.

This son’s problem is that no one asked him whether he wanted to be reconciled with his good-for-nothing brother. No one asked him how he felt about spending what was left of his inheritance taking care of three people instead of two, or being known as the prodigal’s brother, or wearing the second-best robe, since the best one was already taken. The elder son is the good son! He has done everything right, and he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with the self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much grief.

So the elder son refuses to come in the house—a terrible insult to his father, right there in front of everyone. The only way for the father to save the evening is to stay right where he is at the head of the table, ignoring his elder’s son conspicuous absence until his guests leave and he can go outside to slap the boy silly, but you already know this father, right? His honor means nothing to him where relationships are concerned. He will do anything to keep his family together.

So he goes out to his good son the same way he went to his bad one—only not running this time, because honestly, he’s worn out with these warring, wasteful children of his, with how little it means to them to belong to one another, with how much more interested they are in being fulfilled and fed or blameless and right than they are in being reconciled with each other, as if securing their own identities were more important to them than living in peace with him and one another.

If they would just ask him, he could tell them that peace always involves a profound crisis of identity.3 You can’t have peace and stay exactly who you are or even who you want to be. Sometimes you have to make huge concessions, sacrificing things as concrete as fields that have been in the family forever, along with things as intangible as honor, greatness, rightness, and self-respect. Sometimes you have to run like a girl to protect your kin, even those who have done you irreparable harm. It’s all a matter of priorities, and for this father, reunion is all that matters. Reunion finds the lost and brings them home. Reunion brings the dead back to life.

The father makes this case to his good son, who is as pig-headed as his bad son, but it is not clear that this child buys his argument. It feels good to stand in the yard, after all, even when that dishonors the family and divides the village. It feels good to know who’s right, who’s wrong, and which one you are, even when that shames your father and breaks his heart, causing him to die a little right before your eyes.

Meanwhile, there is a banquet going on. You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat. Your father won’t make you go in the house. He’ll just stand in the yard with you to protect you, the same way he protected the brother. What’s left of his honor is in your hands. You can go to the party as you are, as long as you don’t insist on staying that way. The father’s banquet is for the reconcilable, thrown for anyone who will come.

1. While these names really are prominent names in Habersham County, the details are completely made up.
2. With thanks to Richard Rohrbaugh and Kenneth Bailey for this central insight as well as the material that supports it.
3. My thanks to Jonathan Sacks for this stunning insight, as spelled out in his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations.

Copyright © Barbara Brown Taylor. Reprinted with permission.