Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Wiggles & Wonder and is shared today with permission.—Allison
There’s a silly saying you’ll sometimes find on Etsy signs and t-shirts:
I’m the oldest: I make the rules.
I’m the middle: I’m the reason we have rules.
I’m the youngest: The rules don’t apply to me.
While it’s certainly meant to be silly, but as an oldest sibling, I’ll be honest – it seems pretty true. And I think there are some Biblical siblings who might agree.
In the Circle of the Church Year, we may be in Lent, but in the rhythms of the lectionary, it seems we are living in the Time of Parables. And so, following last week’s consideration of the Fig Tree that was given a reprieve, a chance at more time (we don’t know its ultimate fate), we encounter an even better known Parable: that of the Prodigal Son. Now those are some brothers who have a sense of double-standards, right?
Now, part of understanding the Prodigal Son, or any Bible passage, whether we’re approaching them on our own, with the guidance of clergy, or with children, is remembering that even elements like the title – “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” – is something applied later in the space of readership and interpretation. Jesus did not tell the story with that title, and that leaves us with additional openings for understanding and interpretation.
So, who do we think we are when we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son might be about the irresponsible son who wastes his inheritance, or it could be, as some retitle it, about the Forgiving Father. Or, it could be that there’s another alternative: It might just be that we are the resentful brother.
I confess, as an oldest sibling, I have been known to feel and express significant frustration when my sisters seemed to be held to different standards, even though it’s become clear over the years that those differences were ultimately based on different needs and abilities. And the same could be said of this Parable.
When the youngest son goes out into the world and does what so many young people do – behave irresponsibly out of lack of readiness or understanding – what he needed when he returned was not to be shunned or shamed, but to be embraced as part of the family. He hadn’t done anything horrible. He’s made a mess, sure, and maybe there’s a stern talking to to come later, but for now, how glad his father is that he is back and things aren’t worse.
But what about the other brother?
When we read Bible stories, we always want to cast ourselves as favorably as possible. Sure, we might not be the Forgiving Father – that’s clearly Jesus casting himself in his story, right? – but we could at least be the forgiven son. Except we usually aren’t. So often we are the ones who resent when someone else is given the forgiveness we would want if we were in their position, when grace is extended to the other. Not only does the Prodigal Son get a feast, but he’ll probably get the top bunk, too.
Unlike with so many Bible stories, casting ourselves as the Prodigal Son is something of a best case scenario in regards to our interpretive habits. He’s a person who has messed up. And none of us want to admit to that, even as we walk as members of a faith in which we confess our sins constantly.
No, instead of the simple flawed character, in so many cases we attempt to cast ourselves as the savior, especially when we read the Old Testament and don’t have to contend with the presence of Jesus. The wise writer Erma Kim Hackett terms this “Disney Princess Theology.”
The crux of Disney Princess Theology is that we (specifically white Christians) are alway the hero or the victim, but we are *never* the perpetrators of evil in scripture. But children have an advantage as new recipients of these stories – a few of them, actually.
First, while a Godly Play framework resists projecting meaning onto stories in favor of letting children enter them through wonder, the questions we ask matter, and that means looking at the story from all angles. In the story of the Good Samaritan, for example, we wonder who every characters’ neighbor is, not just the injured party and the Samaritan. We wonder about how different identities might shape the response to a needy individual. We open other avenues to the heart of the story.
Second, children are natural storytellers and, while adults have a habit of casting children as those with the easiest, most rose-colored lives, they actually have a deep understanding of being the one wronged or excluded. Children have minimal control over their lives. They are subject to other’s decisions and behavior in ways adults are not, while still having their own perspective on those relationships. So, how do they hear and tell these stories? If they are asked about a particular player, how do they understand that individual’s experience?
How we tell stories matter, and stories like that of the Prodigal Son, one that we all know so well, are especially important to look at closely. What can we discover together when we hold it up to the light?
Allison “Bird” Treacy is the Sunday School Director at the Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, MA, as well as the writer behind the all-ages formation newsletter Wiggles & Wonder and an advocate for both inclusive classroom practices and disabled leadership in church spaces. Though she has been leading children’s programming in church contexts for more than half her life, Bird has been teaching Godly Play in congregations along the East Coast for seven years. She lives with her wife and cats in Brighton, Massachusetts.