Parable of the Prodigal Son: A Mismatching Experience

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is primarily Jesus sharing his experience of his heavenly father.  Kenneth Bailey (1989), one of the foremost scholars in middle eastern culture, views Jesus as a metaphorical theologian with his extensive use of parables and everyday examples in his teaching. Jesus uses this parable to define the term “father” in the story. 

About the Author

Jesus was also commenting on those who were in the audience while he was teaching –  the pharisees, represented by the old brother, and those viewed as “sinners,” represented as the younger brother. Our goal is to first “rediscover its authentic Middle Eastern cultural assumptions and to understand its theological content in light of those assumptions” (Bailey, 1989, p. 109). But there are many other principles regarding human personality, relationships, growth and healing that were presupposed in what Jesus said.  We will discover these also, especially as they relate to “mismatching experiences.”

I want you dead.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So, he divided his property between them.

We don’t know exactly why the prodigal son wanted his inheritance and out of the family. One possibility was as the younger son who had a dutiful older brother who did everything right, he knew he could never live up to that kind of performance level. He would never be good enough. So instead of working harder or just isolating, he rebelled not feeling he would ever measure up.  He was also convinced that the father looked at things this way – performance, obedience and doing the right things were the main things in living a responsible, holy life. But from the end of the story, we know the younger son misunderstood the father’s true heart which was more relational and based in forgiveness.

We also need to realize that there were deeper and more negative feelings in the prodigal son instead of casually asking for his inheritance. When the prodigal son asked for his share of the estate, in Middle Eastern culture that is unheard of.  Essentially he is saying that he wished his father was dead. In the Jewish culture, this ask would never have occurred because there is no law or custom entitling the son to the father’s inheritance while the father is living (Bailey, 1989). The traditional father had only one response. He would be angry, even rageful and refuse the request and then drive the son out of the house either verbally or physically. The son would be dead to the family. (Bailey, 1989)

So, it is worth noting that the father’s response starts out as a “mismatching experience.” The father can contain his son’s misunderstanding of who he was, his resentment and the rage hidden in his passive-aggressive request while still drawing close to him. But he has to wait for a later experience with his son in order for all the elements of a “mismatching experience” to be there that will result in profound growth and healing.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

The younger son did not stick around because of the powerful culture in the Jewish village. The elders and most others were outraged at the prodigal son’s request and abhorred that the father granted it without any confrontation. The looks of condemnation and the withdrawal of relationships created a powerfully shaming atmosphere. In the household we can assume from the elder’s son’s later response, when the prodigal returns, that the same atmosphere existed. So, the prodigal son sells everything quickly and takes off to a place he hopes will be more affirming. It will be much easier to spend his inheritance without all the shameful looks he would get if he stayed in his village.

Of course, true to his impulsive and entitled nature, he blew through the money quickly. Then a severe famine happened, and he found himself in need. But the shame of returning home made him explore other possibilities. Ironically the only job he could get was one that once again went completely against the Jewish culture he was brought up in. Jews were not to come in contact with pigs.

I have a plan.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father

So often we think the prodigal son saw the error of his ways and was repentant when he we read the phrase, “he came to his senses.” He wasn’t. He was just hungry and needed a warm place to stay. This phrase means he figured it out himself about one final solution to his dilemma. His focus was still on himself. If he was repentant we would have heard hints of “I have shamed my father before the community” or “I have rejected my father’s love and caused him great hurt” or “I have cared for nothing and no one by myself.” But we don’t. (Bailey, 1989, p. 132)

Rather, he rehearsed a speech that was mainly manipulative and to avoid the humiliation from his father and the Jewish community. For his solution to work he had to convince his father. So, his first line of Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, is just like Pharaoh’s confession to Moses and Aaron during the locusts (Exodus 10:16). Pharaoh said it to “work” Moses. There is no remorse, repentance, or change of heart in the prodigal. He just wanted to “work” his father. He knew he had to convince his father to give him a chance to become a craftsman for his plan to work. A craftsman was a “hired servant” in the first century Jewish culture.

The reason it was so important to be given a chance as a craftsman is that is the only way he believes he can get back in the household. In the first century Jewish culture (and even today) there is no such thing as a “forgiven son.” He either returns as a servant, which doesn’t get paid and too below him (his sense of entitlement is still there), or a craftsman that does. He needs to get paid for the plan he developed in a faraway country to work. His plan, to earn enough money to pay back the inheritance he lost. This would settle his account which would help restore his honor in the community also. We know this because of the Arabic and Greek meaning of the phrase, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” It is not a statement of him never being worthy. Rather, it refers to him not being worthy now. So, he can earn back his restored status in time. This reveals his implicit emotional learning that drives his deficit character structure of integration. Everything was about performance. You were loved only if you performed well. If you didn’t, you were shunned or challenged to do better. There was no concept of being a forgiven son who could be loved when he deeply messed up. The only way to be restored was to shape himself up. 

Furthermore, he did not want to be reunited with the family. He wanted to be a self-supporting  craftsman who did not live at home. He still did not understand the father’s true heart and the anger and resentment was still there for his father and the culture of the family. He did not like always having to perform for the father’s love. (Bailey, 1989)

So, as he returns he is full of resentment, still basing his worth and identity in performance rather than forgiveness and doesn’t really want to reconcile or live with his father and the rest of the family. He is far from repentant.

The father’s mismatching experience. 

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. 22  “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate

The father, seeing his son a far off, took off running. First of all, he was looking for his son to return, every day. Other Jewish fathers would not be looking for their son as intentionally as this father. They would have been glad to have gotten rid of their troublemaking, underperforming son who brought him shame and disgrace in the community. They would have just waited at the house for him if he decided to choose to come home.  He would have to come to the father. Or they would have had his mother answer the door and then tell him your father will be with you in a little bit. Secondly, the father would have had to run through the village and pull up his robe so his ankles would be exposed. In the Jewish culture, this is extremely humiliating. He could have avoided this if he just stayed home and waited for his son to arrive home. Thirdly, the other Jewish fathers would not only wait to talk to the Prodigal Son but probably put him on a strict regime for maturing into the Jewish son he should be. They would definitely not throw him a party.

The main reason the father runs through the village to the son is to prevent the humiliation that would happen if the son walked through the village to his home. The father decided to take on the shame and guilt so the son would not be overwhelmed by it. (Bailey, 1989)

Another notable issue was the father had no idea why the son was returning. For all the father knew, he could be coming home to ask for more money. In fact, we now know the son returns home not because he was repentant but because he was hungry and cold and wanted to earn his way back into the family and village.

When the father arrived and hugged and kissed him he probably could smell the stench of pigs and alcohol. The father didn’t even inquire to why he was coming home. He was just glad to see him even in the midst of his filth and rebellion. He highly valued his relationship with the son and deeply loved him but not because of his performance (which the prodigal son is about to experience and figure out). 

It is at this moment of throwing his arms around the son and kissing him over and over that the father created a very powerful mismatching experience (specifically around the character structure of integration). He saw the bad choices, impulses, and behaviors of his youngest son, and that he had not yet changed, yet he was able to deeply love his son and those “bad part” as much as the good parts. He could experience both the good and the bad in his son and still love him deeply. 

We know that the son was able to experience that mismatching experience in the moment and very quickly. He could feel his own shame deeply as the father hugged and kissed him. It got under his defenses of performance and manipulation and the son realized his immaturity and bad choices. Even worse, he could feel the level he was stooping to in being manipulative. Yet what an unexpected response from his father. He would never have guessed the father would be so accepting of his huge failure and that he could be his forgiven son with all the respect and honor restored. How do we know all this took place? Because he intentionally dropped the last line of his rehearsed speech, “make me one of your hired servants.” He realized he no longer had to perform or earn his way back in.

The older son misunderstood too. 

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So, his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

This implicit emotional learning gets exposed again in the older son. He is furious at the father’s reaction because the older son has internalized this value and his younger brother has not earned the right to be reinstated. He is so outraged he refused to come inside. So, the father goes out to him just like he did with the prodigal son. The father focuses on relationship not performance which is why he can rejoice, reinstate and celebrate. First, the son’s true feelings come out when he says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” The word he chose, “slaving,” tells us he resents his father and the pressure he felt to be the good, obedient son. Then the son reveals how he feels duped when he essentially says, “You are pulling a fast one. All these years I thought it was all about performance so that is what I did. Now you are demonstrating it is something different.” The father reinforces this when he said that we could celebrate at any time, it did not have to be around performance. I loved and respected you regardless – “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” We never know if the elder son comes back inside.

So, the elements of a mismatching experience are all here in this parable. 

  1. The father knew which character structure capacity had the deficit which determined how he would interact with his son upon his return home.
  2. The prodigal could feel in the moment the implicit core emotional learning – shame because he messed up and felt like there is no way his father could be okay with him.
  3. The father then related in a different manner that what the prodigal son imagined he would.
  4. The father had activated and repeated the mismatching experiences at least three times. First it was giving him his inheritance without losing the relationship or judging him. Second, the father ran out to the son to demonstrate he still loved and enjoyed him in the midst of this huge faux paw instead of the son having to come to the father. Third, was the kissing and hugging the son.
  5. The neo-cortical anchoring took place but we aren’t privileged to read about it. Yet with Jesus’ emphasis on parables and being a metaphorical theologian, much of the “neo-cortical anchoring” to place by nature of the story. But also we imagine there would be many conversations on how the father’s heart is different than the prodigal (and the elder son) thought it was.
  6. We observed small changes – he changed the last line of his rehearsed speech.
  7. The parable ends before we can see the start of the symptoms ceasing.

Conclusion

For each of us, the Father’s heart is often different than we imagine. It is only when we experience this difference in our direct experience with him or as we experience it with those in his family/body (I John 4:11-14; Ephesians 4:16) that we begin to change those deeply embedded core emotional learnings. We begin to replace them with these new experiences. 

As we draw close to a person, while they are feeling the guilt and shame, is the only way that shame is dissolved. But we need to do this repeatedly at first.

Have a question for one of our therapists?

Submit it through our Ask Page, and it will be answered in an episode of MyCounselorLIVE!

Counseling resources from our therapists, straight to your inbox.

Get counseling resources from our therapists, straight to your inbox.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You May Also Like

Leave a Comment