“The Prodigal Son: Undoing the Criminalization of Poverty and Youth”
Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
So Jesus told them this parable…
Jesus told them this parable about a younger son who, under the rules set out in Deuteronomy to prioritize first-born sons, inherits one-third of his father’s wealth. His older brother inherits two-thirds. This family has animals, land, and slaves—and also relies on daily hard labor of family members side by side with slaves to maintain themselves (near the end the older son says to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you”). Don’t think the older son is exaggerating in this complaint: under the Roman Empire, male heads of household had legal jurisdiction over their family members that paralleled a master-slave relationship.
With this background in mind, there is a way we can interpret the younger son not as a pampered kid throwing a hissy fit but rather as a rebellious slave. Slavery in this empire, in Jesus’ time, was brutal but less static than in our own nation’s history—debtors and prisoners of war often cycled in and out of slave status, getting their freedom by working off debts. This younger son’s act of demanding the smaller portion to which he is entitled, setting off on his own, and spending it without concern for respectability—rather than working side by side with the elder brother and the enslaved members of his father’s household—might’ve been understood by the crowd around Jesus as the younger son giving his middle finger to the law and social order of their time.
Of course, like all one-man rebellions, it fails. He burns through his small stash quickly and finds himself worse off than before, worse off than the slaves in his father’s house. He crawls back intending to reinsert himself near the bottom of the hierarchy. His father refuses this. Instead, the younger son is rewarded for his small-scale revolt against the system. He is celebrated, even more than his obedient and preferred older brother. His older brother is outraged. Their father, their owner, pleads: “‘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.’”
This seems a little dramatic. The younger brother was never actually dead. Or wasn’t he?
Was he dead as long as he remained obedient to the system? Was he dead as long as he worked hard, side by side with other slaves, for an inheritance that may have never been enough to get him out of poverty? This then begs the question, when did he come to life? I don’t know if that’s clear. But because of the work I do, I’m inclined to say: even though it flopped, he first started coming to life when he said, “Screw this, I want life on my own terms,” and departed from his father’s house. And he seeks to live lavishly. He seeks pleasure instead of grueling labor. He funnels what little he’s received to pay the wages of other people shut out of respectable means of life—particularly sex workers. The older son accuses him of “devouring” their father’s property “with prostitutes.” So: with the pittance the younger son received, sex workers got paid. Paid with wages that went to feed their own children, pay their own rent, survive how they needed to survive, respectability be damned.
I’m inclined to read it this way because at Chaplains on the Harbor, we work with a lot of people, especially younger people, who do not have the option of securing their survival in a respectable, dutiful, obedient way. Grays Harbor County leads the nation in the rate at which it incarcerates minors for non-criminal offenses; the county where we work throws kids in jail for things like truancy and running away from home at a higher rate than anywhere in the country. A lot of our young adults have been cycling in and out of the system since they were fifteen. Grays Harbor County has precious few jobs, and almost none that pay living wages. When you are young and entering the workforce in Aberdeen, or Westport, or Hoquiam, you have severely limited options. You can wait patient and hungry in the long line of applicants to Wal-Mart, or hustle for your survival for more immediate results. What this also means is we have a generation of young people—my generation, millennials—wholly criminalized. Westport alone, a town of two thousand people, has four hundred people with active warrants out for their arrest, mostly for low-level and poverty-related offenses: driving without a license, minor drug offenses, sex work, petty theft.
I don’t want anyone to mistake me for saying that having to hustle for survival is something romantic or easy. It’s very dangerous. It’s very high stakes. It involves a lot of compromising your personal ethics—almost as much as busting your butt making poverty wages for one of the richest corporations in the world does. It is not a choice people make lightly. It is a choice people make when they take sober stock of their resources, risks, and reality. At Chaplains on the Harbor, we value the insight and intelligence that goes into making those assessments. We work with street geniuses. We work with poverty scholars. We work with leaders who understand in the realest way possible what it means to take risks, just like the crowd who gathered around Jesus when he told this story understood the risks they were taking to draw near to him and one another. We respect and at times celebrate their one-woman and one-man rebellions against a social and economic order that would rather have them suffer in obedient silence. And, like Jesus, we don’t stop there. We share his story, our stories, and we bring people together to build a movement, to build a new social order where the last shall be first—on earth as it is in heaven.
I want to close with one of these stories about our folks drawing near to one another, at great risk, and with great love. We’ve started hosting a program at our church called the School of Hard Knocks, where each week our people gather to discuss hard issues they’re facing. The crowd includes leaders from our local tent city, church ladies, kids who’ve been in and out of juvie, people living in slum housing and RVs. At our first class, they wrote a group letter of love and encouragement to circulate among all our people who are currently in jail—a letter letting them know they were not alone in their suffering, and always welcome among us as we work together for a world where nobody is poor and the profiteering prison industry is a distant memory. One of our young men in solitary confinement received the letter. We found out a week later: he was reading it out loud to others in solitary, by shouting the words through the toilet drain in the middle of the night. His voice echoed into their cells, through the toilet, telling them they were loved, valued, wanted, respected, and deserved a world where they had better options.
We had this story recounted to us by others who had heard his voice. And: we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of ours was dead and has come to life.