|Painting of the younger son returning to his father. Image source.|
It's the story usually referred to as "The Prodigal Son." And I have a question: What was the younger son's sin, exactly?
Back when I was a good evangelical, I would have answered this way: His sin was leaving his father- running away and going to live on his own. He was supposed to stay there at the father's house. Because the father represents God, and the most important thing EVER is to have a relationship with God. You can't go out on your own. You can't act like you don't need God. If you try, you'll fail- just like the younger son failed.
But I don't hold that view of God anymore. So now I'm wondering if this was his sin: Initially, he had a relationship with his father, but he didn't care. He treated his father like a walking bag of money. Give me your money, you owe it to me because it's my inheritance.
After all he'd done for the son, the father finds out his son doesn't care about any of it. He just wants as much money as he's entitled to, and then he's happy to leave his father behind, cut him out of his life completely.
That's gotta hurt.
It wasn't "the son was supposed to live at his father's house, but then he left, but then he came back so in the end the situation was back to how it was supposed to be." Maybe actually, his disrespect and cruelty to his father caused incredible pain, and there's no way to make up for it. That's why it's so amazing that his father accepted him when he came back. It's not "okay great, now things are back to the correct way." Maybe it's "after what you did, things can never be the same"- but the amazing part is that the father forgave him.
Not so much "you are not living in the correct way" but "after all I've done for you, you just want to use me for my money." Well, technically, back when I was a good evangelical, I believed both. I believed that God had given so much to everyone, and by not believing in [the correct version of] God, people were actively disrespecting that God day in and day out, not caring about having a relationship with that God, just enjoying what God had given them. And that it made God so incredibly hurt and sad- it was like a punch in the gut, every single day that a non-Christian just lived their normal life and didn't believe the "correct" things about Jesus.
But I don't believe that anymore.
I now believe in a Christianity that's not so much about agreeing or disagreeing with certain statements of fact, but about relationships between people. Treating people right. So in the "prodigal son" story, it wasn't about choosing to leave home when his father expected him to stay- it was about how badly he treated his father, how he didn't appreciate all that the father did, and just wanted his money.
Related: Speaking of "the prodigal son," here's a rather bizarre article from John Piper answering the question of whether parents should financially support their "prodigal" children. I call it "bizarre" because it never actually defines what a "prodigal" child is. Based on my own experience in evangelical culture, I would say that people seem to use that word as if it means "living in a different way than their parents want them to" and it can mean anything from drug addiction to shady illegal behavior, to dating a non-Christian, to coming out as LGBTQIA, to living with a romantic partner, to rejecting Christianity, to not regularly attending church, to wearing fairly modest clothes that their fundie church calls immodest, to dating without parental approval, to believing in a different form of Christianity than their parents do, and so on. Most of these things are totally fine [as I see it], but Christians believe it's their job to make rules for other people's lives and then use "hate the sin, love the sinner" to force people to follow those rules.
Related post: Mind-Blowing Interpretions for 2 Familiar Bible Stories