Tough Love for the Prodigal Son

I hate the parable of The Prodigal Son.

I realize that this is a very unpopular position to hold, absolutely detesting one of the best-loved of all the parables in the New Testament. But there you have it: I dislike it. I always have, and I always will.

You recall the story, I’m sure, of course: A certain man had two sons… Son Number One takes his inheritance, traipses off, and blows it to hellangonagin.  Then, having (as they say in AA) finally hit rock bottom, he makes his way back to good old Dad and confesses the error of his ways.  Dad not only forgives him, but throws a mammoth party to welcome the wastrel back. (A party, I might add, to which Dad somehow forgets to invite Son Number Two. Very telling, that point.)

In the meantime, Son Number Two, who has spent the intervening years (while his brother was off carousing) laboring for Dad on the old home farm, arrives one evening from a hard day and stumbles into the big welcome home feast. Stung, Son Number Two complains bitterly to his father that, despite all his years of loyalty and service, Daddy Dearest never threw a bash for him, nor even gave him the wherewithal to throw a party of his own for himself and his friends.

To which complaint Dad basically responds by saying, “Hey, yeah, you’ve always been here, hanging around, but I really missed your brother.”  Proving once again that many an otherwise-discerning parent will tumble to the appeal of the runt of the litter.

Or so I interpret the story.

And it’s wrong. Absolutely, treacherously, cruelly wrong.

I have seen this story play out in real life, time and time again; I suspect many of us have done so. The wastrel, the drug addict, the alcoholic, the ne’er-do-well, rambles off to roust and revel, showing up now and again on Mom and Dad’s doorstep when the cash reserves run low, occasionally confessing the error of his or her ways and perhaps even briefly establishing a sensible existence.  Then, having been replenished, Wastrel heads right back out into that singular lifestyle once again–or simply hangs around for free room and board, sponging off the Parents indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry get an education and begin working boring 9-to-5 jobs. They show up for family gatherings, bring birthday and holiday gifts to family gatherings, acquire spouses, and produce grandchildren. Eventually they begin caring for aging, ailing parents, shuttling them to doctor visits and hospital stays, mowing their lawns and straightening out their checking accounts.  They, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry, are just there—always there, doing the job of being good offspring and doing it well, but rarely lauded for a job well done.

And then the Parents pass on, and the sad truth comes out: they have left everything—every last cent, every fatted calf–to the ne’er-do-well. To the child they rarely saw and to whom they were no more than a revolving wallet.  To the runt of the litter.

Because, as they will sometimes have the grace to explain, “He just can’t take care of himself.” Because, “You’ll be okay, but she’ll need the money.”

And I say again, it is wrong. The parable is wrong; the real-life scenarios are wrong.

We need to give our love, our recognition, our gratitude and our appreciation to the sons and daughters who, like Son Number Two, “lo, these many years” serve and attend and care and demonstrate their affection–daily, weekly, continually. The ones who run their own lives well; who stick around and do the job of being good offspring.  The ones who are there every day; or who, if they live miles or states or countries away, are still constantly in touch.

The ones who are hardly noticed, because they don’t create chaos; don’t demand attention and bail money. The good sons and daughters, who deserve a fatted calf and a huge blowout party and acknowledgement–who should be cherished, just for being themselves.

I wish that, when the Prodigal Son returned, his father had handed him a hoe and a shepherd’s crook and ordered, “Get out there and show me exactly how sorry you are that you threw away everything I ever gave you. And you can have a room in the servant’s quarters and daily rations, but don’t ask for anything more until you’ve given me at least as much help as your brother has.  And I don’t want to see your face again until that happens.”

And then I wish he’d called Son Number Two to his presence and said, “Kid, put on your party duds. I am going to throw you the most amazing bash that’s ever been seen outside of the Pharaohs’ palace!”

That’s how the parable should have ended.

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