Lent is all about sonship, and what kind we will choose. It’s about Christ’s Sonship first, and then our being children of God through, with, and in Him. Lent reaches its final purpose and meaning at the Easter Vigil when the catechumens are baptized and the faithful renew their baptismal promises – i.e. when we become or are renewed as children of God.
The readings reflect this. The first Sunday of Lent puts before us the Son’s temptations away from the Father. He had just heard the Father’s voice at the Jordan: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Now the devil tests the Father’s words by proposing another kind of sonship – one not bestowed and willed by the Father, but based instead on his own suggestions: If you are the son of God. . .
Our Lord triumphs by trusting in the Father, receiving what He gives, and rejecting any counterfeit sonship. As if to confirm this victory, the second Sunday of Lent gives us the Father’s voice on Mount Tabor: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The whole season, then, is about rejecting counterfeit sonship, scouring away what is not of Christ, and preparing ourselves to be reborn or renewed as children of God.
It is in this context of sonship – both real and counterfeit – that we should hear today’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Of course, it’s really about two sons. Although very different, they have this in common: each chooses his own kind of sonship, apart from the father. Or, better, each one embodies a different way that we fall prey to the devil’s lies and craft sonship of our own.
The younger son’s rebellion is the more infamous. He “swallowed up [the father’s] property with prostitutes,” as his brother bluntly puts it. This “life of dissipation” might strike us as his gravest sin. But, in fact, it’s just the terrible fruit, not the root, of his rebellion.
The root sin of the prodigal is to want sonship on his terms: “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” This harsh demand reveals his desire to have all the benefits of sonship – his inheritance – but without the father. Note that he wants not only to be away from the father, but that the father not exist at all. “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me” means in effect, I want what comes to me when you die. . . .I can only live the sonship I want when you are gone. . . .I wish you were dead.
The younger son is Adam grasping for the fruit, trying to have on his own terms what the Father desires to give freely – and being bitterly disappointed. This is the sickness of fallen man. We want the things of God without God. We want the goodness of creation without the Creator, the dignity He gave us without any responsibility to Him, and the eternal life He promises without His path.
The post-Christian West wants the intellectual, moral, and spiritual patrimony of Christendom – but without Christ. In the end, we, like the prodigal son, find that we cannot have one without the other. The Father’s gifts without the Father soon betray us. And we, like the prodigal, find ourselves among the pigs.
Then there’s the older son. He too has a sonship of his own design. It’s just not as obvious. The younger son sets his own course in clear contrast to the father. The older son sets his terms for his relationship (or the lack thereof) with the father, but not so clearly. He, too, wants the things of the father without the father. Rather than being dissolute and irresponsible, however, his terms are mercantile and (he hopes) profitable.
“Look, all these years I served [or: slaved for] you and not once did I disobey your orders.” That is the voice not of a son but of an employee or even a slave. It betrays the older son’s distorted view of sonship and poor understanding of his father. He sees himself as working, not in union with the father or for the family’s good, but only out of obligation. The older son is home alone: in the father’s house all this time but not of the father’s house.
If the prodigal son represents those who stray and even rebel against the Church (the Father’s house) the older son represents those who, while in the Church and perhaps even laboring for the Church, function only out of a sense of duty.
Unlike the prodigal’s dissolute living, this vice threatens those who take the faith seriously and, again unlike the prodigal, do not want to leave the Father’s house. They risk being in the Father’s house but without a sense of being His children. The danger for them is to allow the things of the Father to substitute for the Father Himself – to seek piety rather than holiness and to settle for external observance over filial obedience.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Although we hear these words from the younger, both sons could speak them. Both sons lack a genuine relationship with the father. Each in his own way twists it out of shape, fashioning a sonship for himself.
In light of this parable, it is common to try to recognize ourselves in one son or the other. But the reality is that we resemble both to some degree. At this halfway point in Lent, then, we do well to ask not if but how we act like each. When and how do I prefer the blessings of God to God Himself? And likewise: When and how do I reduce my relationship with the Father to a mere quid pro quo?
Only by repenting of these false sonships can we be renewed as children of God, in the authentic Sonship of Christ.
*Image: Return of the Prodigal Son by an unknown artist of the Neapolitan School, c 1630s [Dulwich Picture Gallery, South London, England]