One of the things I value about the parables of Jesus is that they can be understood in multiple ways, similar to a prism. One beam of white light enters a prism and several streams of different colored light emerge from the other side. Our own experience of life can be likened to a prism. When we hear Jesus telling us a parable, the prism of our lives, our cumulative life experience, our family history, our socio/economic standing and many other things function to refract the parable into something that is intelligible to us. How receptive we are to the various streams of light that emerge from the prism that is our lives will vary.
Some approach the parables of Jesus seeking to find one correct interpretation. I think this is a mistake. In Judaism, teachers recognized that texts could be understood in various ways and an approach called midrash arose that made an attempt to explore these different understandings by “filling in the blanks” in the stories with plausible details that brought a range of insights into view. I think that this same approach, applied carefully can be a valuable tool in approaching the parables of Jesus as well.
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well known of Jesus’ parables. It has been the subject of numerous interpretations, not least of which is Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal: A Story of Homecoming”. Traditional interpretations usually center on the grace of a loving father who welcomes a repentant, wayward son who had squandered his inheritance back into the family, and an elder son’s struggle in extending the same kind of grace toward his younger sibling. These understandings are powerful, full of beauty and have been a blessing and a challenge to many people.
Kester Brewin, in his book, “Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us” presents an alternate interpretation of the prodigal son parable that differs a great deal from traditional views. His is a tragic, “dark” reading of the story that I think is well worth your time investigating. Following Brewin’s approach, I offer the following reading of the prodigal son that is similar to Brewin’s but having passed through the prism that is my life, some different colors emerge.