Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to the field to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the husks that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ” Luke 15:11-32
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16
Is it possible that the story of the Prodigal Son is the first story I remember? Or that I remember it alongside Snow White, Goldilocks, the Three Little Pigs? Fixing it in my mind (they weren’t wrong, the iconoclasts; they knew the power of artifacts) was one of my most treasured possessions, what we would now call a sticker book. At that time what are now called stickers were referred to as “seals,” the model being Easter Seals, which you bought in order to pledge your determination to stamp out polio. They were not common, these books of seals, and certainly a book of Bible stories was not. I can recall the taste of the glue on my tongue: sharp, cutting, even painful, and the drastic importance to me of the correct placement of the sticky image onto the blank square that was meant to frame it.
The seal of the Prodigal Son presented him bare-chested among the pigs. But in my imagination, I created other costumes for him: the robe, which I saw very clearly. It was striped, magenta, orange, red. And the ring, a large signet ring that I knew went on his index finger, although I had never seen anyone in life wear any jewelry on that digit. I saw his legs, smooth, tanned (was I confusing him with the Old Testament Jacob, as I confused his robe with Joseph’s many-colored coat?). But there were other images that were more vivid to me than these, images that I felt kinesthetically rather than saw. The first were the husks provided for the pigs; he longed for the husks, envied the pigs: even husks had not been provided for him. I imagined used-up corncobs, tossed on the ground after a summer picnic. Dried out; devoid of succulence. I understood that he would have to wait even for these until the pigs had had their fill; without articulating it, I knew that he was less valuable to his employer than the pigs were. This frightened me: that kind of hunger.
I was the child of an ardent father, so I could imagine the heat of a father’s embrace that was led up to by a yearning run: the unseemly speed of the father who could not wait to see his child. Who runs for him, unable to bear the slowness of the normal progression, the son’s ordinary pace. I could feel the warmth of the father’s ardent arms; I knew the boy’s safety, his sense of relief. Forgiveness. From a very young age, I understood that there was much for which I needed to be forgiven, although this was an abstract category, because in life as I lived it, any offenses I committed were minor. Nevertheless, I was terrified by the sound of two words, “reform school.” I knew something could happen, some policeman somewhere would see through the carapace of my customary good behavior and take me from my home to some place of banishment, punishment, that my wastrel ways had earned. To be released from that sentence, to the arms of the father. I could not then, and cannot now, imagine a more desirable fate than this.
This story is one of the most important reasons that I can think of myself as a follower of Jesus, despite many good reasons not to be. Jesus made up this story, and although Raymond Brown has reminded us that Jesus is not a writer, he is a creator of fictions. Everything in the story came from his mind, as everything in every story I have written, everything in the fictions of the writers I love, Chekhov, Flaubert, Proust, Virginia Woolf, comes from theirs. I approach the Prodigal Son now as a person who has spent her life reading and writing fictions. And from that perspective, I find it the perfect story. It contains all the elements required of a story if it is to satisfy and move. From the first words, we are presented with a situation compelling in its terms and complications. The pacing is rhythmical, dramatic, the details thicken the situation; the difficulties increase, until the final end which leaves us at a party, rather than a place of neat resolution.
Of the four Evangelists, only Luke presents it. Luke, the most domestic, the most poetic, the most contemplative of the four. It is the third of three parables that speak of the importance of recovering loss. The first is the parable of the lost sheep, which makes the point that the good shepherd searches for his lost sheep, and treasures the lost one the most dearly. The second parable of the series, the woman and the lost coin, tells the story of a poor woman who sweeps her house, searching desperately for a lost coin, and focuses on her joy when she at last recovers it. It is a response to an accusation of the Pharisees and scribes, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We are told that there is a father, and he has two sons. The younger son wants his money, now. We know this will lead to no good. We doubt the father’s wisdom, granting such a heedless wish. Had he said no to his young son, the boy would have been forced to stay at home and share the sensible location, the prudent placement of the elder brother.
But the father says yes. Thus far there are only shadows, traces or hints of characters. The father and his greedy son. Of the older son we as yet know nothing.
We follow the fate of the younger son. He shoots his wad. He blows it on whores. Of the three characters who will populate the story, the youngest son is the least completely drawn, and in a way we know him least: he remains of the three most a type, least a character. A spoiled boy—we aren’t even convinced of the sincerity of his apologies to his father. He plans his words in advance; first we hear him rehearsing them, and then repeating them in his father’s actual presence. The father’s emotions are named; he is “filled with compassion.” We know the elder son’s emotional state; he is angry. But the boy—he seems to have the lack of self-consciousness of the irresponsible user.
The father has not much interest in the apology. It is something that has to be said, something to be got through. It is certainly not something that makes possible what follows it.
As a child, and as a young person, I paid no attention to the older son. If you had asked me, I would not have been able to tell you that he had a place in a story. The young are prodigal; providence is a virtue of the middle-aged. I have gone from being heedless to being careful: I have become much more the son who never left home and worked hard than the traveling boy, the squanderer. And so, reading it recently, my heart goes out to the older brother. Of course he is outraged; his sense of justice has been thrown into a cocked hat. He has worked hard for his father; his brother has run away and squandered everything in a particularly disreputable way. And what has he earned for his good behavior? Not even a goat. Certainly not a party. His father has betrayed him, and he responds to his father with what is usually the child’s first ethical statement, “It’s not fair.”
A great deal is at stake with this unsettling story. Suppose it says that loyalty counts for nothing? Suppose love is unearnable, unearned? Suppose instead of a situation of rights, there is an economy of grace? Suppose it is unfathomable, as divorced from the rational as the impulse that sends the father running to meet his child on the road? That animal impulse, that full of the heat of blood? Suppose that life is larger, odder, less predictable, and more surprising than we had thought or even hoped. Particularly those of us who by the very virtue of reading this particular example of English prose are more likely to be descendants of the careful brother than the prodigal?
“Everything I have is yours.” The good boy is not left bereft. But what has been lost has been found. What is acknowledged here, what is given the greatest weight, is the terrible blow of loss. The loss that has seemed final, and then: reprieve. Resurrection. A new chance. A rebirth whose wage is celebration. “We had to celebrate and rejoice.” Had to: an injunction, a duty. The duty of celebration. In King James: “It was meet that we should make merry.”
And the story ends here. With an assertion of the rightness of celebration. The propriety of joy.
But what of justice? The difficulty of accepting an economy of mercy is echoed in the parable of the vineyard, which recounts the incident of a landlord who pays the same wages to workers who have worked all day as to those who have worked only an hour. When the workers complain, they are greeted with the question “Are you envious because I am generous?”
It is an impossible question, calling for an impossible honesty, one that makes self-love nearly impossible. The answer: yes. I am envious because you are generous. I am envious because my work has not been rewarded. I am envious because someone got away with something. Envy has eaten out my heart.
It is to me one of the most ethically complex, therefore greatest questions ever presented. A question with no answer. A circle without a break. Except the break of mercy, the break of grace.
But why, then, should we strive, why should we give our best, our all? Does this kind of striving only lead to envy?
The radical challenge of Jesus: perhaps everything we think in order to know ourselves as comfortable citizens of a predictable world is wrong.
And then how do we live?
And justice? What is to become of that?
Excerpted from Reading Jesus by Mary Gordon. Copyright © 2009 by Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Be sure to also read KtB Senior Editor Nathan Schneider’s interview with Mary Gordon on Religion Dispatches.
Mary Gordon is the author of six novels; the memoirs The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother; and a collection of short stories. She is the recipient of a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the 1997 O. Henry Award for best story, and the 2007 Story Prize. Currently New York's official State Author, she teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.