A few days ago I wrote an article about how American people who read the tale of the Prodigal Son generally fail to remember that there was a famine in it. I reflected on my surprise that I, too, had missed the famine even though I’d studied the story quite a bit.
What is especially surprising to me about this blind spot is that I am not a person who has been immune to poverty. (See my earlier article called “The Poor” or my entire book Broke is Beautiful.) So why did I not respond to the plot detail of the famine?
Famine is different from being hungry. Famine is a collective experience. Due to matters beyond anyone’s individual control, everyone goes hungry. This type of trauma brings people together. This is different than the way people tend to experience being poor or broke in America. Being without money is often an isolating experience in our culture. We tend not bond over our financial woes but to try to hide them.
Could our blindness to famine have less to do with the abundance of food in our environment than with cultural assumptions about the role of the individual in society? Could it be that in a society that praises individualism, we tend not to see collective woes? Does a culture that lauds the self-made man downplay the whole idea that there could be forces that are entirely beyond our control?
“Christians in other parts of the world understand the story (of the Prodigal Son) differently,” wrote Richards and O’Brien in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. “In cultures more familiar with famine, like Russia, readers consider the boy’s spending less important than the famine. The application of the story has less to do with willful rebellion and more to do with God’s faithfulness to deliver his people from hopeless situations. The boy’s problem is not that he is wasteful but that he is lost.”
The son in the story asks to receive his inheritance early and then he goes out in the world to find his own path apart from his family. He is not careful with his money and when a famine hits he is left absolutely destitute. He’s reduced to working slopping pigs even as he goes hungry. Americans find it hard to see the young man’s leaving as the real problem in the story. In our culture it is expected that a young man will leave his family and go out on his own. In fact, if he did not, he would be considered an irresponsible loser mooching off his family. So what he hone in on is his wastefulness. He didn’t value the gifts he was given. This is what we tend to take away as the primary lesson.
Revisiting the story and looking at it through fresh eyes, it seems clear that the expectation of the family was not that each man was to go off on his own. He was expected to stay with the family and to help support them. The son’s mistake was in thinking that he did not need his father or his family. His problem was that he was lost.
We are generally encouraged to read the Bible as a guide to how to live our individual lives. So we focus on what the son did or did not do and try to find the moral there. The real focus of the story, though, is not the character of the son but the character of the father. Or perhaps it is better to say that the focus of the story is the relationship between the father and the son. Jesus was using this story as a metaphor for how his community should conceive of God and their relationship to him.
We look to stories for information about how to find our individual places in the world. The story of the Prodigal Son is about being part of a family and finding a home.