This is the first article in our Lenten Meditations 2019 series.
As a therapist, when I read the story of the Prodigal Son, I know something has to have been left out. A real family has dynamics that are necessarily more complex than what this story describes. For example, my therapeutic instincts tell me there has likely been some trauma in the life of the younger son, prior to that self-inflicted trauma brought about by his leaving home, though the story mentions nothing of that. Also, the older brother’s behaviors betray the possibility that he is living in compensation of some real or imagined deficiency in himself. Finally, the father’s one-sided response to the younger son belies what, on the surface, appears to be pure and unconditional love.
Something is hidden. What, though, might that be?
Can we playfully explore these psychological questions while remaining faithful to the story as it is told? One way of doing this is to insert into the story a hypothesis that is plausible, from a textual standpoint, and that bridges the gap between the description of this family and what we see of families in real life. To explore one possible hypothesis, I invite the reader to imagine that this family has, at some point, lost their wife and mother, leaving the father as a single parent. If we posit this scenario, we have some basis for understanding the behaviors of this story’s cast of players, and particularly of the enmeshment that seems to typify their interactions with each other—whether it be seen in the desperate attempt of the younger son to find his independence, the exaggerated adaptation of the older son to the environment of his father, or the father’s immoderate embrace of his younger son, and his overlooking of behaviors that might reasonably evoke concern in a loving and wise father.
What is gained by looking at the story in this way—by imagining a full range of human dynamics as its subtext? For one, it can enhance our theological interpretation of it, by grounding it in a narrative that is first compelling and realistic to us on a purely human level. As is the case with good metaphors—they require first a literal understanding of the thing to which something else is being compared—so the parable (and parables in general) requires that the human level of understanding be solidly established, before we can effectively derive elements intended to state theological truths.
While not attempting to supplant traditional exegesis, in which explicitly psychological themes have little import, this approach may still have benefits, if it allows us to see a closer connection between sacred stories and our everyday lives. Given this, it may be useful to flesh out more of what this specifically human element in this story might entail.
The younger son, we are told, says, “Father, give me the portion of the goods that falleth to me” (Lk 15:12). This could be seen as simply the request of an ambitious young man. Is his departure merely the result of youthful exuberance, though? The details hint that other factors may be at play. He doesn’t just leave home, but goes “into a far country” (v. 13). Is he running to something—or away from something?
As a therapist, I wonder what he was thinking and feeling when he decided to leave. Could he be seeking unconsciously to meet a need that originates from some earlier period in his development? To learn these things, we need to know more about his personal history and his family dynamics. The fact that he has “wasted his substance with riotous living,” ending up even without food, indicates, at the very least, a gross miscalculation of his ability to sustain himself. He lacks wisdom in the ways of the world, and has little insight into his own impulsivity: again, characteristics not out of range for a young man, but deserving of further exploration, just the same.
The older brother demonstrates his own struggle in his over-adaptation to his father’s needs. The story presents him as dutifully at work “in the field” (v. 25) when his younger brother returns home. When he speaks to his father, he complains, “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment” (v. 29). A picture of this brother emerges as one who does good and helpful things, yet does so with resentment. We might ask why this older brother is still at home. Can we not assume he had as much opportunity as his younger brother to strike out and make a life? Again, if we imagine that this family has lost both mother and wife, we can understand the heavy obligation he tries to fulfill, caring for his father by helping out with the affairs of the house.
It is especially interesting to look at the father himself, through a lens in which we do not immediately idealize him by seeing him as a symbol of God—but seeing him, first, as a bereaved single parent, realistically portrayed. This father is most famously known for his generous welcome of the wayward son, who, realizing the error of his ways, decides to return home. When the son “was yet a great way off,” we are told, “his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (v. 20).
As if that were not demonstrative enough, the father then tells his servants to “bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry” (vv. 22-23). If we refrain from idealizing the father’s behavior, we can sympathize with the older brother, when he sees his father as being unjust, and perhaps also crazy. The father’s exultation at his son’s return indicates paternal love, for sure, but also an oversupply of emotion, explainable only if we understand that the event of the return is attached to something of even greater significance—for example, the retrieval of a family that has been shattered, dispersed by the loss of its mother and wife. This family is now three men, expressing and enacting an unspoken grief.
The welcome of his son has a desperate quality, leaving him blind to anything else. The father’s behavior is indeed crazy, but not in the sense that it is unrealistic. It is, in fact, painfully realistic, and all too familiar, especially in families in which loss or trauma creates a dynamic in which making things okay assumes utmost priority. Compensation for loss, even for losses that realistically can never be recouped, becomes the unconscious agenda that dictates the interactions of family members with each other. Mending of the injury becomes the family’s secret, unspoken pact.
Our reluctance to acknowledge the craziness of some biblical figures, whether they are presented within a purportedly historical narrative (for example, in the stories of the Old Testament patriarchs), or as characters in a parable, may be due to our understanding that they are intended, in some manner, to serve as pointers to divine truths—in some cases, as with the father in this story, even presenting a type of God Himself.
This understanding often causes us to conflate the merely human significance of the story with its theological interpretation, thereby distorting our understanding of both. We idealize these biblical figures to the extent that we no longer see in them any resemblance to our own reality.
Conversely, admitting their craziness does not detract from their capacity to serve as signs of theological truths. Another example of this can be found a few verses prior to the story of the Prodigal Son, when Christ asks, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it” (v. 4)?
While not a shepherd myself, I can question the wisdom of leaving so many sheep for the sake of one. While I am certain there are plenty of good explanations, from people who know more about shepherding than I do, as to why a shepherd might act in this way, the story does not ultimately depend on the shepherd being sane, effective, or utilizing proper technique. Even the possibility that the shepherd is acting irrationally does not deter from the story’s ability to convey something essential to God’s love. What if the very point of the story is that God’s pursuit of the lost sinner can be understood by us only as something that appears, from a human standpoint, to be irrational?
How often have we heard, from someone who has been spared from the expected consequences of some misbehavior, accident, or mishap, “It doesn’t make sense that I should have come through that alive,” or, “I can’t understand why God would keep loving me”?
The craziness of human characters in biblical stories, rather than needing to be explained away, can serve to depict more aptly the nature and love of God that can never entirely make sense from within our normal human frames of reference.
So it is with the father of the prodigal son: that his irrational generosity, his love that might itself be described as prodigal—even if it be influenced by unprocessed grief or codependent enablement—is nonetheless a type of God’s frenzied love for us.
Perhaps a portrayal of a father’s love in a conventionally healthy family would not have sufficed to illustrate God’s going outside the edges to meet us on our equally crazy return to Him.
See our Call for Meditations if you would like to write for this series.
You may wish to bookmark our Triodion & Pentecostarion 2019 for easy reference.
V. Rev. Isaac Skidmore holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and a PhD in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria CA. He served as rector at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church (OCA) in Ashland OR during a decade of its growth as a mission parish, where he remains attached as auxiliary priest. He practices as a licensed psychotherapist in Southern Oregon.