Friday, March 15, 2013

Reflections on the Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son
by Pompeo Batoni
Last Sunday’s Gospel reading in the latin Catholic Church regarded the parable of the prodigal son, a story at face value intended to show the folly of the way of the Pharisees in view of the righteousness of God whose mercy encompasses all of Creation. The reading which I will analyze will be that of Luke 15, verses 11 to 32. My hope is to express perhaps some of the mystery behind God’s righteousness, His mercy, and the divine image which He has placed in each one of us in the spark of human nature and human dignity. Please remember to read the Gospel before my own words!

Most Holy Redeemer guide us!

See here for much better analyses of this story:

A Philosophical Reading of the Prodigal Son (video) [Very thorough and intellectual]

 The Father’s Two Sons: What the Prodigal Son Tells us About Divine Sonship (article) [Brief, brilliant, insightful, and the inspiration behind this post]

Synopsis of the Parable
As the story begins there was a father with two sons. The first (and younger) son asks that his inheritance be given to him early, at which point the father divides their inheritance and gives each half of his estate. The impulsiveness of the younger son drove him to travel to a far country living in a wasteful way. A famine caught the younger son off guard and he found himself working for a man in that foreign country who treated him worse than the swine of that man’s farm.

The son realizes that his father treated his servants better than as he lived now and strives to return to his father as a servant, begging mercy, and declaring his sinfulness before his father and God. The father upon the return of his son shows him all of his love and affection taking in a dirty, hungry and lost child of his back into the embrace of his compassion. The father welcomes him back as a beloved son despite his son’s overwhelming shortcomings. The son is given a bright new robe, a ring on his hand, shoes on his feet, and a calf is killed and cooked in celebration of the returning son.

All is not well in the family however, for the oldest brother who claims to have worked as his father’s servant is bitter and angry at this mercy and compassion, demanding justice and fairness. The brother is enraged and refuses to dine with his father and brother. The son who has received everything he has from his father, asks his father why he who was more righteous and upright did not deserve to have all of the gifts given to the prodigal son. The father’s reply is simply, you already have everything that I possess. And there the story ends.

There are one and many means of interpreting this story, and so, Father, from whom all things proceed and have life, look with kindness upon me, Your unworthy son, and grant me the grace to write well of You.

A broken family
It is clear from the outset that this story concerns the intimacy and sacred communion of the family: two sons, and a father. But far from the ideal of the family, Jesus presents us with the story of two sons who cannot match their father’s generosity and love, and at the outset of the story we begin to see that the three do not abide in a perfect reciprocate relationship of love. The younger son goes forward to his father and asks for the portion of his estate that he was set to inherit from his father.

This is in many ways an insult to his father. The young son has not even wait for the death of his father, but instead his relationship with his father is so distant that it is as if his own father were dead to him. We are not told of the father’s immediate reaction, but only that the younger sons demand sent the father to divide his belongings between both the younger and the older son. The younger son promptly gathers all that he has of his father and sets out to a far country, perhaps to make something of himself. The youngest son, sending himself out from the love and communion of his father, becomes trapped in riotous living, among other sinful ways of life.

The youngest son returns, but the oldest son cannot accept the return of his brother who is met by his father as soon as the father spots his youngest son edging back to his estate at the horizon. The father’s love is unbounded, but the oldest son does not even refer to his own father as father, instead looking to him as master, and neither to his brother as brother, but simply as other.

The righteous and oldest son does not truly partake in a special communion and love in his family. In fact, we see that his first reference to his father is one of debt (the son refers to his relationship with his father solely as servant to master), the same attitude that the youngest son had taken towards his father. The youngest son looked to his father and saw in him only an inheritance to take apart from the actual life of his father. In the youngest brother’s mind, his father was only good for the material goods that he had provided, while in the oldest brother’s mind, his father again was somebody to respect, to honor, but only as the means to work out his own debt to his father. For the oldest son, his livelihood comes from the value of his service to his father, and he does not see beyond this fact.

Neither son sees his father as loving father with which there is no debt, only gift and love. By definition a gift is given freely and cannot be repaid. And it is only the youngest son who returns to his father after squandering his first gift who finally learns of the father’s mercy. The oldest son becomes calloused and cannot see that his father’s house, the Kingdom of God, is entirely built on love based in truth. Neither does the eldest son see the compassion with which God can transform any sinner into the most dazzling saint. This eldest son does not comprehend that everything that he has comes from his father, and that this is not a relationship of commutative justice (i.e. you give me this service and I will provide you an equal service in return), nor could it ever be. “What do you have that you have not received?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

So lies the tension of this family which underlies an important message that Jesus is striving to teach us about His Father and His Father’s Kingdom.

Life with the Father
What are we to make of this parable of Jesus’ who is striving to teach the Pharisees and the local people of His Father’s Kingdom? Who else here is the father, but His own Father then, who lays down all that He can for the good of His sons and daughters. And yet, in the Father’s unwavering and prodigal love, many of us fall away from the family of His own love.

In the spiritual life we know that the Father is the source of our joy, of our peace, and of our ultimate comfort in this life. As St. Augustine tells us, what do you possess, if you do not possess God, and our holy father St. Augustine tells us that every heart is restless unless it finds its return, its source, and its home in the dwelling place of the Father. The youngest and eldest sons in the parable are like lukewarm Christian followers of the Father in that though he “nominally” lives in the house of the Lord neither one of them is part of the family of the Lord. The youngest son might be like those of us who who simply fall away from our faith, though he does not lie about being apart from his Father's house. The eldest son is like those who continue to go to mass, do good deeds, but their hearts are not in the Father's house and they lie to themselves about the relationship that they have with God, looking to God as benefactor instead of Divine Spouse.

What is the standard then by which we can consider ourselves to live in the house of the Lord, not nominally, but as part of His family? The principal rubric is simple and it is told to us by St. Paul in first Corinthians 13, that even if we delivered our body up for the dead, prayed endlessly, and made prophecies, if we do not abide in love for others and for God, we cannot be a part of God’s family. But this does not mean that we are estranged from God if we fall away from Him. The Father provides for both the prodigal son and the righteous one, despite their shortcomings, and readily meets each at the horizon of His unabounding love. In the parable the father meets both of his sons, the youngest one at the horizon as he wanders back to him, and the eldest one at the fringes of his estate as the eldest son turns his back on the father and brother.

Our relationship to God is not one founded on debt it is pure grace and gift. If you have seen the film Les Miserables (2013) this is the error that Javert the inspector makes. He simply does his duty which is commendable and pursues justice relentlessly. But fulfillment of duty’s reward is simply that, that natural virtue of the completion of one’s duty, praiseworthy, but ultimately incomplete. God desires the heart. He desires to draw us into His family, and without this love we too fall away from the Father. Neither the youngest nor the oldest son could be in the presence of the father on account of their lack of love, but it was not the father sending them out, but their hardness of heart that pulled them apart from the communion of love with their father. So too it is with our own sins that we leave the Father’s house, but we are not lost, not quite at all!

Our Father meets us at the fringes; at the horizon of our lives

It is in our weakness that we meet the tenderness of the Father. At least this has been my own experience by which I have seen most clearly my own Father’s mercy and compassion. In the story of the prodigal son, we read of the youngest son when he decides to return to his father’s house after so much misfortune and sin, “And he arose, and went on his way to his father. But, while he was still a long away off, his father saw him, and took pity on him; running up, he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

Do we not see here that each of us is in some manner, shape, and form deformed by our sins? In the prodigal son, the youngest son becomes so destitute that he envies the goods that pigs are eating. So too then with us, some of us become so entrapped in sin that things that are not good for men and women to eat (or do) become desirable. This is the form of sin that deforms us, and the further spiraling out of control that demons and the Devil try to capture us in. The Devil often tries to tell us that our Father cannot still love us and that we are unworthy of His love, as the youngest son believes that he cannot return to his father’s house and possibly be worthy of his father’s love.

But no. The Father’s love is so prodigal, so vast, so infinite that He meets us at the very fringes of our lives, of the moments when we least expect Him. He meets us all when we are such a long way off from Him. Sometimes in the gift of repentance and hearty tears, sometimes in the breathlessness of an existential silence, in other times through the very face of His Son made incarnate for us each Sunday, and of course in every other way possible. He comes to us, in His majesty, lifting us up to Him, granting us His supreme affection, throwing His compassionate arms about our broken hearts and souls. His love reaches us even before our confession of repentance and as always His grace precedes our conversion, as evidenced in the very next verse (verse 21) in the story where the father’s loving embrace of his son precedes the youngest sons declaration of his contrition and desire for reconciliation. The Father’s love is always made manifest to draw us back to Him, and so much joy is there in Heaven over a repentant soul that a celebration among all of the sons and daughters of God can hardly be contained.

A final Sacramental reading

This celebration is not only in Heaven but also in the Church as expressed corporately by the Church Militant who is the Body of Christ. It is expressed entirely in her liturgy and in the profession of faith through the expression of the Divine Mysteries. No sooner has the prodigal son come back to his father and confessed his love for his father, that his father clothes him in the brightest robe, grants on him a kingly ring in his hand, shoes on his feet, and a great feast is made for each to enjoy as a community of love.

This then is a figure for the spiritual life where confession of faith is met by baptism, by which we were taken as dirty, naked, and wretched, and yet given a home in the warmth of the most regal and immaculate robes. In Baptism we put on Christ, and cleansed of our sins we are called to a royal priesthood. This is the symbolism then of the ring given to the young son, to be a part of the royal priesthood, but also to have at his full disposal every gift and good of the estate. The ring would have been a sign that the youngest son was able to command the servants of the estate and that he was being restored back to his authoritative position on the estate. In one respect then the ring represents Chrismation by which all of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are made most available to us, making us resplendent and rich in virtue. But again in a second way the ring represents a kingly in the Kingdom of God this rulership is not authoritarian, but rather pastoral and self-giving. The father is calling his son to the same sort of rulership and tender nature that he regularly expresses to his sons and servants. This is why in Confirmation we are said to be sent out as Apostles to be a light to the world. Finally, then the feast is convened and it is very evident that is the Holy Eucharist that is being implied here.

That most Blessed Sacrament is the feast of unity which draws together the entirety of the holy sons and daughters of the Father. It is the Son who is the entire Bond of Communion between man and God. This is why He came and became Incarnate, not to condemn, but to show mercy and uplift mankind from the misery of his sin upwards to partake in a heavenly and divine nature. The Son’s sacrifice is absolutely the bridge between mankind’s prodigality and sinfulness to his restoration into God’s family of love. As the liturgy says, “With arms outstretched between heaven and earth, Jesus died interceding for us with his Father.”

Happy and blessed are those in the Church who see the return of prodigal sons! "It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found." (Luke 15:32)


I hope that my exposition here of some thoughts on the prodigal son. I hope that it is clear that both the youngest and eldest son commit the same sin against their father, by which they cannot entertain a lively communion and bond of love with him. Their sin is that they take advantage of their father’s generosity and do not enter into familial love with him, only seeing him as some sort of dispenser of material good and benefit. The youngest son completely disregards his father and takes everything he can from him while the father is still giving, but in so doing he alienates himself from his father’s loving house, sending himself out into wastefulness and great sin. The eldest son completely disregards his father taking what he can from his father after fulfilling a certain quota of “piety” and services for his father. The eldest son only sees his father in so far as he can attain material benefit through fulfilling his duty for his father. If his father were to die, the eldest son would likely not be particularly sad but simply accumulate what wealth he could from his duties. Neither one knows how to love their father, but it is the son who lovingly is re-embraced by his father. The youngest son having actualized his alienation from his father rather than clouding it in false piety and half-hearted service as the eldest son does. And so it is explained by Christ that He would rather have us hate Him than be lukewarm towards Him.

It is when we are completely honest with ourselves about our sins and still make a deliberate attempt to return to our Father that we can be reconciled, though it is always our Father who draws us to Himself. We cannot clutter up our souls by pretending to be pious and loving when in actuality our faith is more a philosophy than an entrance into the loving communion of God’s embrace. To lie to ourselves about our relationship with God is to be like the eldest son, when in fact it is the youngest son who is more worthy of his father’s love at the end of the story.

Do not be afraid if you see such prodigality in your own soul! Return to the Father’s love which is infinite in broadness and which transforms sinners into saints. Become a man alive! Trust in God and keep Him forever in your heart!

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