Note One: This is a remix of my original series of posts on the subject, which you can read here: I am Loki.
Note Two: This is the story of how the movie Thor helped me understand the prodigal son story. But I want to say upfront: if your parents are abusive (physically, emotionally, verbally, etc.), you are in no way obligated to ever go home to them. Even if they accuse you of being a “prodigal.” Even if they say you are “bitter.” Take care of yourself. This is just the story of how Thor helped me come to terms with the prodigal son story and your mileage may vary.
* * *
There is a story as ancient as time.
They both seek to be blessed and loved.
One brother is favored. The other brother is not.
The ending isn’t always the same. Sometimes a brother is killed (Cain). Sometimes he must flee (Jacob). Sometimes he is sold into slavery (Joseph). Sometimes he demands his inheritance and leaves of his own free will (Luke 15).
It is a story we still tell. Even to the point that is serves as the emotional backbone of an entire superhero franchise.
For a story to be repeated so many times, it must be important. It must bear truth.
For a story to be spoken by Jesus, it must be truth.
For a story to be put in a Marvel movie, it must have a hero and a villain. And the clear hero of the Thor franchise is Thor, while the villain is his brother Loki.
* * *
There is a son who demands his inheritance. He doesn’t want to stay home and work under his father’s rule. He wants to strike out on his own, be his own man.
His father allows him.
But things do not go the way the son expected, and soon he seeks to come back to his father’s house.
His father runs out to greet him, kisses him, and throws him a party.
There is another son.
This son stayed home. This son believed that staying home and serving his father was for the best—possibly for his own gain and possibly because he honestly wanted to do what was right and serve his family. This son never strayed. He never wandered. He never caused his father to worry.
And he watched as his father stared out the window, almost every day, hoping that a wayward child might come home.
So maybe he worked harder. Trying to please his father, to erase the sadness from his face. If he just worked harder, if he was just a better son, if he just did more, maybe his father could forget all about the son who abandoned him.
And one day the son is working out in the fields, doing his duty to his family. He looks up and sees in the distance that there seems to be a commotion at the house.
He sees a servant and asks what is going on.
“Your brother has returned!” the servant responds joyfully. “We’re throwing a party!”
Returned? A party? But no one told him. Were they going to let him work in the field through the entire party? Was he going to be out here doing his duty to his family for no reward while his brother who abandoned them was getting a party?
So he sulks in the field—doing his work, his duty, because it seems that’s all he was ever good for anyway.
The father comes out eventually, perhaps suddenly remembering he has two sons. But he does personally come out—finally—and personally invite him into the party.
But the son is hurt. And his hurt manifests in anger.
He says angry words, which his father hears, but his father does not hear the words on his heart. For even though he is a grown man, his heart is crying a child’s lament: “I just want you to love me.”
And for that he is the villain of this tale. For that he is immortalized by churches as the brother whose heart was too encased in bitterness that he wouldn’t join the party.
Was his heart hard? Yes, his heart was glass. It had withstood all the scratches of the past several years. It was scratched when his brother left, saying “I don’t care about this family.” It was scratched when his father would stare out the window lost in sadness instead of paying attention to the son he had at home. It was scratched every time the son started a conversation with his father about his own hopes and dreams, only to have the conversation turn back to the lost brother.
But his heart was glass, so it could withstand that. Because hard materials can be scratched without compromising their integrity.
But his heart was glass, so when he wasn’t invited to the party—when his own father briefly forgot about his existence—his heart shattered. Because hard doesn’t mean tough. And glass is brittle.
Because despite all his hard work, it seems in the end, no one really cares about him.
* * *
The prodigal son story always bothered me. From my teens years, through college, and graduate school, even after college, this story filled my heart with anger.
I had heard too many preachers expound on this subject. I had heard to many “prodigals” speak of how comforting it is that the father saw the “prodigal” from the window, meaning the father must always have been there at the window waiting for him.
If the father was waiting at the window, didn’t that mean his other son was being ignored? Why didn’t the father even consider sending a servant out to get the other son? He had to find out from a passing servant for goodness sake. Doesn’t that show the father in fact doesn’t care about him?
“But everything you already have is mine,” says the parent. Because yes, father, what I care about is your financial wealth, and not your attention, time, or love. Obviously.
* * *
There is a king, called Odin, who has two sons, close in age. He raises them in competition, telling them they are both meant to be kings.
But there can only be one king of Asgard.
The oldest son takes after his father. He is all brawn and athleticism, quick to make merry and quick to anger. He is brash and bold. A golden child. He is called Thor.
The younger son takes after his mother. He is quiet and reserved, slow to speak and slow to anger. But his mind is frighteningly fast and others can not keep up with its twists and turns. He is called Loki.
The two are inseparable. They are best friends and bitter enemies.
Only one child can receive the father's ultimate blessing and birthright. Only one child can be king.
In the end, it seems that it is Thor who will become king, but on the day of his coronation something goes wrong. Frost giants--the Jotun, who are the mortal enemies of Asgard--attack.
The father, who is still king despite the started coronation, thinks no action should be taken. Thor thinks Asgard should bring its full might to bear on Jotunheim.
Thor says, "As king of Asgard...!"
"But you're not king. Not yet," his father reminds him.
It will be Thor's inheritance to be king, but it is not yet his inheritance to have.
Once his father leaves, Thor devises a plan to go to Jotunheim anyway. He decides to punish them himself. As if he was king. But he's not.
He starts a war.
In the end his father is there to save them, as fathers do. And there are harsh words spoken between father and son. The father calls his son vain and cruel. Thor calls him a fool.
Odin realizes his son is not ready for the inheritance he is demanding, maybe not ever ready for it. So he banishes him.
Leaving another son left behind.
Quiet Loki. Cunning Loki. Mischievous Loki.
Loki, who more than anything just wants to be loved.
But while following his brother to Jotunheim Loki discovered something horrifying.
He is actually a Frost Giant.
Suddenly Loki is re-watching his whole life with a different lens. Things that didn't make sense as a child--times when he was treated differently from Thor for no apparent reason--suddenly make sense. The pieces fall into place. Because Loki is a Frost Giant, and his parents have known that all along. That's why he's different.
That's why no matter how good he is, no matter how hard he works or tries to excel, he is never going to be king. Because a Frost Giant is never going to sit on the throne of Asgard.
Loki is confused and angry, but ultimately nothing has changed other than life makes more sense. His desires are still the same. He still wants to be his father's son. He wants to be Thor's equal. But most importantly, he wants to be loved.
Odin has a heart attack and is placed in a coma. Suddenly Loki is king. Because he's the only one home. He's the only one there to take care of Asgard. Because Thor was brash and demanded his inheritance before it was rightfully his. Now Loki has the burden of the entire family, people, and world on his shoulders.
Loki, the son left behind, must do his duty.
And Loki is king. He is now within his rights to demand the retribution from Jotunheim that his brother also wanted. But Loki learned from Thor's blunt force attack on Jotunheim. He cannot win such a battle. So Loki devises a clever plan. Perhaps too clever.
He invites the king of Jotunheim into Asgard to kill Odin, as if Loki is a traitor. The king takes him up on the offer. But right when the king is in Odin's throne room, Loki kills him. In one fell swoop Loki topples the Jotun's government and saves his own father.
A clever plan. Too clever for anyone else to understand. They can't understand it, so it backfires.
The prodigal son returns at the climax of Loki's victory.
Thor claims he's changed. He is a better man and able to be king after maybe three days on Earth. And as always everyone falls all over the prodigal son returned.
Suddenly Loki is the bitter son in the background, the villain.
But he did it for his family--his adopted family that he still loves regardless. He even killed his own biological father--the king of Jotunheim--to prove how much he loved his adopted family!
But it's not good enough. It never is. He is always second. Always one step below. Always the bitter, angry brother in the background.
In the end when Odin looks at Loki and says, "no Loki," Loki breaks.
He did everything for Odin. He just wants to be the son Odin wants, the son he esteems, the son he loves, and instead Odin looks at Loki as if he's the biggest disappointment.
And in that moment, Loki realizes there is nothing he can do. He will never be equal to Thor. He will always be Loki, the mischievous one. Never the thunder god.
So he gives up.
Because it's hard to love them. It's too hard to continue trying. It's too hard to get continuously rejected. So he gives up.
He lets go.
Everything in Loki's life was done to be a better son, a better part of the family, to prove himself an equal part of the family. Instead they think he's the villain.
And if they're going to think he's a villain, he might as well be one.
* * *
I don’t know if it’s true for everyone whose sibling goes prodigal, but for me when a sibling went astray, I wanted to work harder, to be a better child. Not necessarily for myself—but because I didn’t want my parents to hurt anymore. I thought if only I was better, if only I was a perfect child who demonstrated that it wasn’t their parenting, but rather that other child’s own personal ways that led them astray, maybe they’d feel better.
I did everything right.
I got nothing I wanted.
Because you can’t erase another child’s delinquency with your own inerrancy.
But Lord did I try.
I failed. I felt like a failure. I felt taken for granted.
I felt unloved. Because the amount of time and worry my parents expended on this prodigal child—on a child who wasn’t even there—was more than it seemed I ever got.
And I felt that either my entire life was going to be this: being a perfect child who cannot afford to slip up and do anything wrong lest I cause my already hurting parents even more pain and disappointment.
Being the non-prodigal results in things like this. I call my parents weeping, over a serious issue in my life. But oh hark! Call waiting pings! AND IT’S THE PRODIGAL. “Oh joy! The prodigal is calling! We must answer! Just to hear their voice!” The parents hang up on the weeping child who needs them with a “we’ll call you back.” I am left on a dead phone line not sure how to progress. How long will their phone conversation last? Will they call me back?
I didn’t know. I just knew the prodigal was more important than me.
So I hardened my heart against these parental infractions against me, because isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? The good child just takes it, right? We don’t leave. We don’t fight. We just submit.
Our heart gets harder.
Our heart gets brittle.
Every time the prodigal hints they might come home, we throw the party! And when the prodigal doesn’t follow through or leaves again, it’s the child left behind who picks up the pieces. And for that the good child gets no praise. No reward. Because their behavior is expected.
So perhaps it’s no wonder I would walk out on sermons about the prodigal son. That I would get in fights with people in my Bible Study over what this story meant, that usually ended with me in tears.
* * *
There is a moment in Thor where Loki and his mother are having a conversation by the sickbed of Odin. They're talking about why Odin and Frigga never told Loki he's a frost giant. His mother is trying to explain. Loki doesn't get it, and he's worried about his father, who seems so frail, so sick, so old. Loki loves his father and doesn't want him to die. And his mother tells him to never lose hope, not for his father or for Thor. And Loki responds:
"What hope is there for Thor?"
Oh, that question. That is not a question where Loki is condemning Thor. That is not a question of wishing the brother was gone. The emotion of the question is, "Why are we talking about this right now? We're supposed to be talking about me and the fact that I'm a frost giant and you never freakin' told me? Can we please get back to me?"
But of course he doesn't voice that. Because that would be selfish. And we're not supposed to be selfish, no matter how much we work just for our parents’ attention.
Oh that feeling. I know that feeling so well. In the past decade, I would say that 75% of my conversations with my parents revolved around my older siblings. And to this day I have put it up with it with little complaint just so I could talk to my parents. Because that's the topic they cared about. And I just wanted to talk to them.
So Loki is at home without Thor, and he's enjoying as much as he can. This single child attention is all he ever really wanted, even if it is tainted with the occasional discussion about Thor.
And then the prodigal returns.
He claims to have changed. He claims he's different. And it doesn't matter that you've been working the fields at home or just saved your father's life. Your mother goes from mid-hug with you to flinging herself into Thor's arms. Leaving you just standing there.
Leaving you bitter.
And the story of the prodigal stops there, but the story of Loki goes on. Because Loki goes where I've always thought to go.
When you have a sibling go prodigal and you see all the attention that gets them--attention you want--you have this serious temptation to go prodigal yourself.
I can't explain to you the number of times I'd seriously considered going prodigal, for a short while, so that I could get all that attention, worry, and concern to myself. And then I could come back to open arms and a party.
I'd considered it so many times. I'd been deeply tempted. But it would hurt my parents, and I wasn’t callous enough to hurt them on purpose.
But Loki, Loki who has done everything for his parents, for his family, who has tried so hard to no avail, he does it.
He gives up. He let's go. He goes prodigal.
And it does get him attention. It works. His father goes to great lengths to send Thor to Earth in The Avengers in order to bring Loki home. He’s getting attention. What he always wanted.
But the cost is too great.
The cost is villainy.
* * *
The story of the prodigal son doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It comes in a context of people complaining to Jesus that he hangs out with degenerates. Specifically, the people complaining are Pharisees and scribes, i.e. religious people, who are basically complaining that Jesus should hang out with them, the good people, and not the sinners/bad people.
Jesus responds with three stories.
In the first story, a shepherd with 100 sheep sees one go astray. He chases after that sheep, leaving the others behind. But then he brings that sheep back to the flock, and everyone celebrates that the lost sheep has been found!
In the second story, a woman with ten coins loses one. She searches the whole house looking for it until she finds it and now has ten coins again. Everyone celebrates the lost coin has been found!
The third story is the story of the prodigal, and it differs from the other two. The first half, verses 11-24, seem to be very in line with the first two stories. A man loses a son. When the son is returned to him, he celebrates for his lost son has been found!
However, even in this first part there is a difference. The father did not go out looking for the son. He did not abandon his son at home to go find the prodigal. The father remained home, and the prodigal had to return of his own free will.
The other difference with this story is that it doesn’t stop in verse 24, it keeps going, and we get the perspective of the son left at home. The shepherd’s story doesn’t tell about how the sheep feel to be left behind by the shepherd. Presumably coins don’t have feelings to consider. But sons do.
If Jesus was just telling a story about God rejoicing when lost things are found, he would have stopped in verse 24, so why did he continue?
Well, who is Jesus talking to here if not the brothers left behind?
The father in the story isn’t rejecting the older brother. He is explaining himself, just as Jesus uses these three stories to explain himself to the Pharisees. But I also think Jesus is not rejecting the Pharisees here. Jesus is often harsh to the Pharisees in the gospels, but I don’t think this is one of those cases.
The Pharisees here are the sheep who haven’t wandered, the coins still in the purse, the brother at home. They’re already there. That’s the whole point of what the father says to the older brother. This story is an explanation to the Pharisees that they’re already home, and Jesus is trying to find the ones who are not and bring them home.
But the story of the sons is left open ended. It doesn’t end with the older son defying the father or the older son going into the party. We’re left hanging. Because ultimately, I think this story is an invitation to those very people Jesus is talking to. They’re not sheep. They’re not coins. They’re sons. And they can either join the party or leave.
No one ever talks about that.
When this story is preached the other brother is either villainized or worse—ignored. They just stop the preaching at verse 24. Because we other brothers aren’t important to the prodigal story, right?
But that’s not what Jesus is saying. Because this isn’t a sermon for prodigals. This is a sermon for the “other” son. Jesus is trying to reach the Pharisees. He is trying to explain to them why we celebrate for the prodigal, but that doesn’t mean God loves them less. It doesn’t mean they can’t come to the party.
God isn’t punishing them for not getting lost.
God is giving them a choice.
They can come to the party or not.
* * *
Loki could have come home at the end of the story.
He could have let Thor help him up. He could have seen how much his brother loved him—risking his own life just to save him despite all the villainous acts Loki had done. He could have had an honest talk with his father about how the false competition Odin had placed Thor and Loki in all their lives hurt them, and that Loki was no longer willing to play the competition game but he still loved them all.
But he didn’t.
Loki chooses to fall into a void, to possibly die, rather than face his family. He ultimately ends up in the clutches of Thanos—tortured and abused—before making it back to Earth where he regains familial attention, but not in a good way. As a supervillain.
* * *
I don’t want to be a supervillain.
* * *
Whenever I thought of the prodigal's brother, whenever I thought about my own situation, all I could think was "it's unfair", and then my mind would start churning justifications, times when I've been hurt and neglected. And you know what, it's not fair. I have been hurt. I have been neglected. I have been wronged.
But churning, holding on, acting on those justifications when it can't change anything--because you can’t change anyone else—that was leading me towards a path of villainy. It was leading me towards a path where I chose to go prodigal even though I knew it would hurt people.
It didn’t matter how many times people said “bitterness will eat you up” or “you have to let it go.” Because the hurt ran so deep, the wound was so raw, and I knew I was justified. People could say let it go all they want, but how do you let something go when your heart is in glass pieces on the floor? You can’t glue it back together the same. Nothing will ever heal that.
My justifications weren't wrong. The “other son” is not wrong when being mad he wasn’t invited to the party. Loki's justifications of the unfairness of his life aren’t wrong. Thor has been favored over him. Brawn is valued more than brain in Asgard. He will never get to be king or equal to Thor no matter how hard he works, because he's a frost giant. He is completely 100% right.
And it doesn't matter.
No, that's not right. It's not that it doesn't matter. It's that somehow I've got to choose to be better. Because if I don't, if I don't choose to change my path, I'm going to come back in The Avengers with an alien army and try to subjugate the world.
I don't want to be a super villain.
I have to choose not to be a super villain.
This seems a simple conclusion--choosing a different path--one I should have realized a long time ago. But in Christian circles we have a saying, where things go "from your head to your heart." This idea has been in my head all my life, but it was the movie Thor that moved it into my heart.
Because my life isn't about them, my family. It's about me. I can't change them. I can't make them treat me differently. But I can change me.
Because I may deeply empathize with Loki, but I don't want to be him. I don't want to be Thor either. I want to be me. I want to be who Loki would have been if he hadn't snuck frost giants into Asgard and tried to destroy Jotunheim. I want to be who God wants me to be, and that's not a person who holds onto anger.
I can't change what's happened to me. I can't change how others will treat me. But I can change who I become.
It's all about choice.
And I choose not to be a super villain.