Hearing Our Stories

The Prodigal Son (close up)

We Orthodox are currently gearing up for Great Lent, visiting several New Testament accounts that we look at every year in preparation for the season of penance and reflection: Zacchaeus, the Publican and the Pharisee, and now the Prodigal Son. What we probably won’t hear in the parish is a queer reading[1] of any of these texts, so let me indulge for a moment…

The parable of the Prodigal Son appears in Luke 15:11-32. Most of us are familiar with the setup: one father, two sons, the younger of whom takes his inheritance and squanders it on “prodigal” living.

In children’s church my teachers focused on God’s unconditional love, shown by the father who runs to greet his lost son. From my youth on, preachers have tended to focus on the attitude of the older son who stayed home, but apparently out of duty rather than love for his father.

Only after seminary did I realize how a first-century Jewish audience might hear a parable that begins, “A certain man had two sons…” as an echo of the Patriarchs and the trope of the younger, trickster brother who wins his father’s favor over the older.[2]

In the Orthodox lectionary cycle, the parable of the Prodigal Son is paired with 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 in which Paul warns the men of the Corinthian congregation about the dangers of joining their members to a harlot.[3] It was this passage that set me up to hear something I’d not noticed before in the subsequent reading of the parable.

When the older son returns from his labors to find that his brother’s return has precipitated merriment and the slaughter of the fatted calf, he responds to his father:

Grumble, grumble, grumble…
“But as soon as this son of yours came,
who has devoured your livelihood with harlots,
you killed the fatted calf for him.”

And there it was:

with harlots

Now when Jesus set up this parable, he gave us bare facts. The younger son wasted his possessions (διεσκόρπισεν τὴν οὐσίαν αὐτοῦ) with prodigal living (ζῶν ἀσώτως). The word we translate as “prodigal” is an adverb that shares the root σώζω (“save; keep; preserve”) with words like salvation. The passage literally means that the son lived in a wasteful way, not preserving what he had.  It is the opposite of living κοσμίως, (which shares the same root as cosmos) or in a well-ordered or moderate fashion.

But what struck me in the reading was the older son’s assertion that his brother had gone off to engage in sexual sin. Indeed, the 1 Corinthians reading is set up to resonate with this very line.

But how did the older brother know that?

I’m going to make a guess here and say that he didn’t. But he assumed the worst… This younger brother, who in Hebrew stories so frequently is lavished with his father’s attention, the one who abandoned his domestic duties to chase after pleasure… He took his fortunes and squandered them… with harlots!

Now the phrase we translate as “with harlots” is μετὰ πορνῶν, and in the genitive plural form it isn’t actually grammatically clear whether this is the feminine πόρνη (“harlot,” “prostitute”) or the masculine πόρνος (“catamite,” “fornicator,” or “whoremonger”). I draw this to your attention because I’m about to go all queer on you…

How often the faithful cluck their tongues, fantasizing about alleged sexual indiscretions of those who have wandered out of the church. These accusations are so clichéd that some have argued that beliefs about sex have become more important in the church than beliefs about God.

Maybe the younger brother spent his money on prostitutes, but pulling back our typical, heterosexist lens, the ambiguity of this passage offers some alternative readings. Maybe he spent his fortune in the company of johns and pimps, or maybe he spent it on call-boys

And now suddenly we find ourselves in a whole other set of fantasies among today’s begrudging faithful who seem obsessed with what lesbian, gay, and bisexual folk are up to outside the four walls of the church…

Christianity has a long history of condemning same-sex sexual activity. This is nothing new. But the last few months have seen a lot of vitriol against folks who so much as claim a non-heterosexual orientation, regardless of whether or not they are having sex. The proponents of spiritual friendship and celibate couplings fare no better than their sisters and brothers when it comes to allegations of sexual sin.

I don’t have an explanation for why so many of the faithful are busy dreaming up sex acts that are well beyond what most people will ever experience. I leave that to them and their confessors. But I wanted to share with you the thrill of that moment last Sunday, when the assumptions around the text split open and I saw myself in the story. True, it was in the accusation of the older brother. But then again, I’ve known from childhood of the Father’s love for those who wander and return…

For today, let’s eat, and drink, and dance…

Dancing, Embracing, Feasting - a close-up of an icon of the Prodigal Son

[1] In a future post perhaps I’ll lay out some of the strategies for queer readings. For now, the operative principle is looking for ourselves in stories whose readings don’t normally acknowledge our existence. Put another way, aside from about six passages in the Bible, most people rarely think of gays as a part of the salvation story. ^

[2] Recently Amy Jill Levine has provided further context, noting that the younger son’s reasoning at the pig trough sounds a lot more like scheming to get back into his father’s good graces than true repentance. ^

[3] My seminary NT professor, Greg Carey, has written a short essay pointing out the inherent misogyny in this passage. ^