“A man had two sons.” So begins our Lord’s most famous and familiar parable. Some have described it as the Gospel in miniature. It’s even better to see it as all salvation history in miniature.
“Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” Thus speaks the younger son, the prodigal. He is asking for his inheritance ahead of time, which is a rotten thing to do. For starters, it deprives the family farm of important capital. What they might have used for investment and profit is gone (which might explain the older brother’s resentment).
More important is what the son’s demand reveals about his view of his father. He demands now what should come to him only when his father is dead. He does not want his father, but only the things (literally, the substance, the life) of his father. In effect, he says to his father, “I do not want you but yours; I wish you were dead.”
The son’s demand is an abuse of his sonship, a distortion of the freedom and privilege granted by his father. But the father allows it, which is one of the parable’s most confounding aspects. It’s an image of the radical possibility of human freedom to defy even God.
Off the son goes. After some time, he discovers that it’s impossible to have his father’s life without his father. Cut off from the source of his dignity, he finds himself reduced to the level of an animal. He longs “to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed.”
Then those momentous words: “Coming to his senses. . .” – or, “When he came to himself.” That is, when he realized the truth about himself and the source of his dignity. By rejecting his father, he had become alienated from his very self, less than an animal. The only way back to himself is to return to his father.
Then there’s the older brother, at home with the father. Far from an afterthought or addendum to the story, he is in many ways the purpose of this parable, addressed to the Pharisees and scribes who resented the prodigals surrounding Jesus. Convinced of his own righteousness, the older son has actually made the same mistake as his younger brother: he has separated his father from his father’s gifts.
But in his case, he sees the father’s gifts – to share his substance, to participate in his work – as a burden and slavery. “Look, all these years I served you,” he impudently responds to his father’s entreaties. He doesn’t see that the father’s gifts are meant not for servitude but for dignity and freedom.
To separate the things of God from God. To want God out of the picture so that we can have what is His, but without the difficulty of Him. This is fundamental to all sin. We see it first in the rebellion of Satan and his angels. They want their angelic beauty, power, and dignity on their own, without their Creator.
Hardly an asymptomatic spreader, Satan then infects Adam and Eve with this spiritual virus. He leads them to demand their inheritance, to “be like gods” without God. They rebel and grasp for the Father’s gift, while simultaneously rejecting the Father. They are the first to say, “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.”
Mysteriously, the Father allows it, again as a radical possibility of human freedom. Adam and Eve likewise discover to their horror that they are at odds with themselves. Literally no longer comfortable in their own skin, they put on fig leaves. Mankind then awaits the day that it will “come to itself.”
The gifts of God exist and endure only in a vital relationship with God. Ours is not the God of the deists, who imagined an aloof, disconnected deity whose benefits we can enjoy without his presence or interference. No, the Father’s act of creation continues and maintains us in being. No creature can exist without the Creator’s constant presence. Cut off from their source, the Father’s gifts eventually run dry or, worse, become corrupt. To preserve His gifts and their goodness, we must remain united to Him.
To want the things of God without God. We see this writ large in our culture. The wizardry of our biotechnology seeks authority over life without the Author of life. The secular environmentalists want Creation (“nature,” as they call it) without the Creator. The result is predictable: the more we banish God from our world, the less human we become. We are alienated from ourselves, now not even knowing man and woman.
To want the things of God without God. We find this in our own sins. Every time we use the gifts of God – our freedom, our intellect and will, our bodies – independent of Him, then we say with the prodigal, “I want your gifts, but not you.” Like the older brother, we allow this to infect even our devotions. The liturgy becomes our creation, not a gift. Pious practices become a way of doing things for God but not the things of God.
In Christ, man comes to himself at last. In Him, we see the fulfillment and joy of living a human life in radical and vital union with the Father. By His grace, we are restored to the Father and thus to ourselves.
*Image: Return of the Prodigal Son by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 1619 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]
You may also enjoy:
Eduardo J. Echeverria’s Marriage in light of Creation, Fall, and Redemption
Charles Péguy’s The Work of Salvation