On Not Returning to Daddy: Heretical Reflections on the Prodigal Son (Sunday Homily)

Chelsea Manning

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 32: 7-11, 13-14; PS 51: 3-4, 12-13, 19; ITM 1: 12-17; LK 15: 1-32. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091513.cfm

A few weeks ago, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for blowing the whistle on the U.S. military and the officials who run it. In her job in Military Intelligence, Ms. Manning came across thousands of documents and videos exposing war crimes routinely committed by U.S. troops and their superiors. She released more than 700,000 of those documents in the hope that they would start a national dialog about the morality of the War on Terror. For her trouble, Ms. Manning was tortured for months. Following a court martial, she has been imprisoned instead of the criminals she reported.
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Last May, Edward Snowden, a data analyst working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the National Security Agency and the CIA, released a trove of documents revealing that the U.S. government has been spying on all U.S. citizens. Those spying on us have been secretly reading our e-mails and recording our phone conversations.

Such intrusion stands in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Mr. Snowden released the documents to start a national conversation about the justification for secretly suspending such constitutional guarantees. For his trouble, he was threatened with arrest and imprisonment by the very agents whose alleged crimes he was exposing. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia where he has been given temporary political asylum. His asylum has largely been justified by the fear that if returned to the U.S. he would suffer the torture and mistreatment inflicted on Chelsea Manning.
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Please keep the Manning and Snowden cases in mind as we reflect on today’s gospel selection.
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Didn’t we just recently read the Parable of the Prodigal Son at Mass?

I checked.

Well, yes, if you count the 4th Sunday of Lent less than six months ago. In fact, this famous story repeats so many times in our Liturgies of the Word that most of us know it nearly by heart.

Personally, I must confess a bit of boredom with the tale. It even crossed my mind to skip a homily this week, and simply refer my readers back to last Lent’s reflections.

But on second thought, allow me to take another shot at it with the Manning and Snowden cases as background. This time I’ll take my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. There Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

But what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and never looking back?

The French intellectual Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there.

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him. (Doesn’t that sound a lot like the male hierarchy’s claims within the church in relation to the Bible? It’s also reminiscent of our government’s position regarding the Constitution. Our president’s interpretation is the only valid one.)

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable makes me think of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and how in these pivotal times they have followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable as he goes over the wall into the unfamiliar realm of uncertainty, danger, and creative possibility.

In both cases, making that move required great courage. It meant escaping the safety and comfort that the confines of the patriarchy provide. Today Chelsea Manning sits in Leavenworth Prison in a far different “America” than the one she was trying to save. Snowden lives in exile in Russia without any hope of return to the country he too was attempting to help. In Manning’s case, leaving the father’s estate even meant transcending the patriarchy’s strict boundaries around sexual identity.

Because of the courage of Manning and Snowden we’re all better off and the patriarchy is weakened.

What does all of this mean for us as we reconsider Jesus’ overly-familiar parable in the light of Gide’s retelling? I think it might mean that we must:

• Be courageous and think for ourselves even about values seemingly endorsed by Jesus.
• See that patriarchy and male values of power, prestige, profit, individualism, competition, violence and war represent the roots of our world’s problems.
• Recognize that comfort in “our father’s house” is not good for us, our children or the planet.
• Do all we can to reject the patriarchy and its values and never look back
• Value people like Mr. Snowden and Ms. Manning as exemplary heroes showing us that it is indeed possible to leave “Our Father’s House” and its values for the sake of God’s Kingdom or however Snowden and Manning might understand the new reality to which they summon us.
• Appreciate the symbolic importance of Chelsea Manning’s rejection of military machismo in favor of the feminine world and its values of inclusion, community, and cooperation.
• Admit that our male-dominated church is a central part of the reigning system of patriarchal dominance along with its exclusively male understandings of God as Father. Act accordingly.
• Always be careful on the steps.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “On Not Returning to Daddy: Heretical Reflections on the Prodigal Son (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Mike, your commentary tells me that you, like me, use parables as jumping off places and catalysts for your own spiritual musings. I see the father in the story as symbolizing God the Father (Mother) of all creation. The welcome the son receives means to me that there is no condemnation in God, we are always loved no matter what our errors. For a recovering alcoholic like myself this is a most welcome understanding. As Douglas Klotz points out in his Aramaic Prayers of Jesus, we are invited to give stories and spiritual teachings our own meanings that meet our own spiritual needs. I see an important aspect of Jesus’ teaching to be that we should not stop at the letter, but go deeper to find the life giving spirit for ourselves. I honor your interpretation as true and meaningful also. Scriptures are rich in posssibilities for our creative imagination…

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Mike — and for taking the time to read the homily. Taking John Dominic Crossan’s lead, I see the parables themselves as jumping off points for wide-ranging discussions. Crossan points out that we’re mistaken to think that Jesus just spouted off these stories while passive crowds listened. Instead, it probably took an hour or more to tell one of these stories, with people interrupting, commenting, and elaborating. So in the case of “the Prodigal Son” people with negative experiences of father may well have made remarks contrasting their experiences with the father of the story. The process should continue today with remarks such as mine, your own and others hearing this parable read. The process helps us make connections between the temporally and socially remote world of Jesus and our own quite different contexts.

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      1. Thanks Mike. Your reply makes me realize that I also had several responses or levels of interpretation to the prodigal story. My own father was very harsh with me, and drove me away from him. So I guess the story makes me feel that I wish we could have reconciled. I also saw the story as counter-cultural for its time. In those days too, from what I understand, forgiveness was in short supply, and it was perhaps unusual for a father to be so lenient towards his wayward child. The stereotypical patriarch of those times was ridgid, unyielding, and punitive. Jesus’ message to me was that the Kingdom of Heaven was not like that at all…

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