A Punch to the Gut

Associations to Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke: 15:11b-32

For 18 years I was the Presiding Chaplain of the South London and Maudsley  NHS Trust. The Trust included the Bethlem Royal Hospital, known simply as the Bethlem.  Bethlem  has given to the English language a corruption of its name – Bedlam- now used as a synonym for unruly chaos. The famous artist, Hogarth in The Rakes Progress, immortalized Bedlam, in an 18th century series of prints http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Rake’s_Progress

Hogarth chronicles the life of one Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant who comes to London and wastes all his money in a life of depravity and debauchery, living the life of a high society gentleman. His dissolution finally leads him to the ultimate degradation – incarceration in Bedlam. The eighth of Hogarth’s paintings shows Tom in the state most feared by any human being, that of being abandoned to madness.


In the first painting in the series immediately on the left, we see Tom, surrounded by servants mourning the death of his father, being        measured for a fine suit of clothes. He is rejecting the hand of his pregnant fiancée Sarah, whom he now pays off. However, Sarah, will not give up. Hogarth depicts her in successive prints with babe in arms following Tom through the events of his rise and fall.

In the final eighth painting Tom is depicted semi-naked, in a state of madness. He is surrounded by others similarly no longer clothed in their right minds. One man seems dressed as the Pope. Another , is a king, naked but for a crown on his head and scepter in his hand. Tom and his fellow patients are the objects of mockery by a group of fashionable ladies who following the custom of 18th Century ladies who lunch would visit the Bedlam for an afternoon’s entertainment of viewing the mad folks.

William_Hogarth_019Behind Tom, kneeling on the floor is a woman who among the throng seems to be the only person attending to him with a look of compassion and a caress of tenderness. This is, of course, Sarah, who, even in his madness Tom continues to reject. We know the sad ending of the meteoric rise and fall of Tom Rakewell. Tom is a man who spurns the only person who really loves him. There cannot be a tragedy greater for any of us than to spurn the ones who love us in preference to the ones who attract us?

Morality Tales contrasted with Parables

In contrast, Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Prodigal Son leaves the story open ended. Jesus taught in a very specific literary medium known as the parable. The parable is a form of teaching specific to the Middle Eastern context of first century Palestine. It continued in rabbinical teaching within Judaism, but was soon lost in the developing life of the Early Church. Early on, the parable medium used by Jesus comes to be misunderstood as allegory. Allegory is a classical Greek medium where one set of images comes to represent a second set of images in a story. Allegorically, the father in Jesus’ parable represents the unconditional love of God, and the sons represent two kinds of human response to unconditional love. It’s a short step from allegory to morality story, where the parable is given a specific moral meaning, e.g. we need to beware of abandoning ourselves to our libertine instincts.

The parable operates as a literary device by contrasting the familiar themes and images drawn from everyday life and presenting them with a twist at the end. This twist is a kind of sting in the tail of the tale. The hearer of a parable identifies with the familiar images in the story only to be left at the end in a state of shocked dilemma. The dilemma results from a sudden clash of images at the end of the parable. This clash presents us with a choice. Will we allow our worldview to be challenged and turned upside down by new insight or will we reject the challenge and obstinately cling to the familiar.

The Shock of the New

So what is shocking to us about this parable? Many commentators like to draw attention to the cultural anomalies in the parable. The fact that the son asks for his inheritance prior to his father’s death, which in patriarchal culture is tantamount to saying to his father you are already dead to me, has no impact to shock me out of my familiar world view. Likewise, the father running to greet his son, an action of humiliation for a patriarchal father, passes over my head.

Interesting, though these first century cultural anomalies might be to some, for me, the punch to the gut in this parable is not the way Jesus presents conflicting images for first century Palestinian hearers. As a 21st century Christian these are of only minor and obscure interest to me. They don’t translate as shocking in the world of my  familial relationships.

I find this parable shocking because unlike Hogarth’s morality story of Tom Rakewell’s, aka. the Rake’s, progress we don’t have the satisfaction of knowing the end of the story. Instead, the parable leaves us only with our responses to it. We are the end of the story. The ending of this parable is written in our personalities and lived experience.

A Psychological Profile of the Characters

The Prodigal Son

For me, the question is with whom do I most identify in this story? As a preacher and pastor, I extol the virtues of risk taking. Without risk we never experience anything new. Last week I explored the call of Moses as an example of the spiritual journey as always a journey into the new – https://relationalrealities.com/2013/03/02/a-place-beyond-the-wilderness/ .Yet, there is a fine line between calculated or even impulsive risk taking and recklessness. The son in this story is reckless. Having also practiced as a psychotherapist, I know about recklessness not only in the lives of my patients, but in my own, at times, barely controlled, impulses towards narcissism.

My diagnostic profile of the Prodigal Son is that he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. His recklessness is the result of his seeing other people and situations as simply an extension of his own wants and desires. He cares little for his father, or brother, nor for the women he consorts with. They are simply the momentary extensions of his own wishes- needs, and to him have no life independent of what and who he needs them to be to fulfill his desires. At the lowest ebb of his life, is it the emergence of sorrow and repentance that reminds him of his father’s love, or is it his narcissistic expectation that his father will once again meet his needs regardless of his actions?

Well, we don’t know! Yet, isn’t this a punch in the gut to have to consider ourselves caught in the endless tension between true repentance for which heart rending sorrow is the appropriate emotion, and narcissistic expectations of being forgiven, because that is simply what we desire because things have not worked out for us.

The Older Son

So much Christianity is risk adverse. So many Christians become trapped within the imagined safety of notions of obedience and duty. The spiritual life becomes reduced to playing it safe and following the rules. I see this tendency in those who come to me for spiritual counsel. I also know conformity’s stifling, life denying grip upon my own life. I note my resentments and harbor my grievances born out of my fear of embracing my liveliness.

Psychologically and spiritually speaking, liveliness has two components. The first is Eros. The older son, sacrifices his erotic engagement with life. The energy of Eros is not about sex. The Prodigal and Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell both discovered, mindless sex is the short-circuiting of Eros. The erotic is the energy for connection and engagement with our internal capacities for excitement and connection to the world.

The second component of liveliness is potency or healthy aggression. The older son stifles his aggression. Whereas his brother acts out his aggression in his narcissistic using of others, the older son stifles his aggression. In doing so he is robbed of his potent engagement with life. He is consigned to the futility of a life lived in calculated obedience to the norms of his culture. His, is not true obedience. True obedience is the deep listening of the heart to the responsibilities of relationship. His sibling resentment tells us that his, is an obedience calculated to keep him safe within the norms of rule following. In return he expects his justified reward.

The proof of my analysis rests on the older son’s reaction rage at his father’s generosity. He is consumed with envy, which has a murderous qaulity.  His denial of his potency, i.e. his healthy aggression, threatens to overwhelm him with murderous rage. My guess is that if you are like me, you are not strangers to this experience.

The Father

What of the father in this story? Can we identify with him? I suppose we all would like to see ourselves in the image of the father’s generosity. Yet, in positions of authority or power can we really forego the privilege and respect that social norms tell us is owed to us? Are we able to risk being taken advantage of and to still act with generosity?

The test of our likeness to the father in the parable is to be confronted by a choice. Are we drawn to right believing or to right relationship? When tested by others whose difference from us poses a real challenge to what we stand for and hold dear, are we able to forsake ourselves enough to choose between being right and being in relationship?

A Punch to the Gut

If we can be honest with ourselves, we might feel this parable as a punch felt deep in our gut. Jesus challenges us with an image of God as unrestrained generosity. It is as if like the father in the parable, God never stops being on the lookout for us. God waits always watching for our approach. When we are spied from a distance, this God of ours, runs-out to embrace us.

We are made in the image of God. So our images of God matter https://relationalrealities.com/2013/02/23/images-of-god/. It’s a punch in the gut to accept the challenge from Jesus in this parable – that the possession of truth expressed as rightness of belief is not enough. Only the abandoned unrestrained generosity of love, expressed as a need to preserve relationship with one another, will do!

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