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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Tales as Old as Time

Joshua 5:9-12  •  Psalm 32  •  2 Corinthians 5:16-21  •  Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

The story of the Prodigal Son is a story of two brothers, equally wounded. The younger brother is stuck in a position of dependency. He was apparently a spoiled youngest and has not learned to fend for himself. Returning to his father, he practices the lines that he hopes will put him back in his family's good graces enough to continue to be cared for. The older brother is stuck in a position of pleasing others. He was apparently a do-gooder oldest and has spent his life pleasing others as a way to get attention. Finding his father, he declares his outrage in finding that once again, his brother is getting attention when he has been the one doing all the work.

 

While the younger brother is the classic under-functioner, busy finding ways to get others to be responsible for him, the older brother is the classic over-functioner, busy finding ways to do things for others. Who knows how often the older brother functioned for the younger brother, feeding into the same pattern over and over again. Each is totally stuck in his own learned approach to life, an approach missing one thing: responsibility for self.

 

It is easy to see the lack of responsibility for self in the younger brother, busy partying and not working. What is harder to see, but equally the case, is the lack of responsibility for self in the older brother, busy doing everyone else's work but neglectful of himself. One reason this story may resonate so deeply with us (everyone knows this one!) is that it clearly outlines sin as a lack of responsibility for self. Sin is ultimately an inattention to oneself and the challenge to become one's most mature self, which can only be accomplished in relationships. In relationships with people and with God, a lack of responsibility for self leads to the blaming of the other. For example, in another story that most of us know, Adam and Eve begin by blaming each other for the problem of the apple, and ultimately also blame God.

 

Even the Church has contributed to this problem. Often misinterpreting the command to love others as the command to do for others, it simultaneously 'blesses' the over-functioner who is neglecting his or her own life to do the latest church project, providing that opportunity to please others which the over-functioner craves and propping up the under-functioner yet again. In no way does this diminish one's responsibility to the poor, but that is different from one's responsibility for the poor. More generally, a responsibility to another and a responsibility for another are hugely different.

  

It's a tale as old as time: older brother against younger brother. And it's astonishing how long the story lasts. Not just in childhood. Not just as adults, as the story of the Prodigal Son portrays. But right up to and beyond the death of the latter of the two parents of the children to die. In the sorting of that last will and testament, sibling rivalry may again erupt, in an amazingly accurate recapitulation of the entire felt experience of each person, who is channeling his or her immature seven-year-old self. Each of us has a chance to change the story, every day: becoming a new creation as our efforts towards becoming responsible for self in relationship with others leads to more maturity, not only in ourselves, but in the systems we are a part of.  

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