Thursday, 11 November 2010

Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

(This is an extract from a larger article published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly)


We know how a child normally identifies with her father or mother, how a teenager identifies with a sport hero or a movie star, or simply with an adult whom he admires—who could be a teacher. Later on the young man or woman will identify with what he or she does and achieves, or what he or she acquires and owns, or with his or her affective conquests. But when someone really becomes an adult—which is not simply a question of number of years—that person will discover and realize her identity: who she is independently of all the superficial egos and of all the images that she has or others have of her. She is the person who has some talents and does not have other talents, who has things and can lose them, who has successes and failures, and who always remains the same person through all the upheavals of life, while becoming more and more herself.

That process of becoming an adult and an autonomous person, both humanly speaking and spiritually, is very well expressed in a number of parables of the Old Testament as well as of the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, we have the story of Job. Job has everything in which people normally find their psychological, social, and spiritual identity. He is a good man; he has a good reputation in society; he has a wife and many children (seven sons and three daughters), numerous possessions (fields, camels, sheep, oxen), and also male and female ser­vants to take care of all those possessions. He has good health and good friends.

He loses all of this, including the understanding of his wife and of his friends and his health. Then he makes the wonderful discovery that, even after losing everything, he is. He exists. He is the same Job who had all those things and has lost them. The Job who now has nothing is the same person who was a rich, powerful, and influential man. Having nothing to lose any more, he is free. Therefore, he can stand before God and speak very strongly to God. Nobody in the Bible speaks like that to God. This is not arrogance; it is parrhesia—confidence and freedom—the freedom of those who have nothing to lose. At the end he will be able not to recover what he has lost, but to acquire again similar riches (what is lost is lost). That will not change who he is. He is free.

In the New Testament, the same growth process is described in one of Jesus' parables, that of the prodigal son (better called the parable of the prodigal Father). We have here a family whose life seems to be happy and without sorrow. It is a well-to-do family, since there is a fortune to divide among the children. There are fields, flocks, and servants. What the par­able wants to show is the different attitude of three of the characters.

One of the sons has enough of that quiet family life, although it seems to have been harmonious, easy, and pleasant. He wants to live his own life. The life he shares with his father, his brother, and the rest of the fam­ily does not fulfill him any longer. He needs personal achievement. He wants to be somebody and enjoy life. He wants to exist as an independent and isolated individual and not as a member of a whole, a desire we hear in our communities, at times.

What does the father do? He does not express any objection. He must certainly have made his own mistakes during his youth, and he ac­knowledges his son's right to make his own. What is important to him is that his son have a life. The conditions in which he will realize his life are important but secondary. The prodigal son then tastes all the pleasures of life. They are real pleasures, but at the superficial level of existence. Gradually he squanders everything he has, and, as a matter of fact, he experiences the same losing of everything that Job did. The only differ­ence is that he inflicts it upon himself while it was imposed on Job by the Tempter. Then he comes to himself—he has therefore reached his iden­tity in that way—he has found himself in his own way. There was some­one who lived in the past with his father, and who left his father who had a fortune that he has squandered, who has enjoyed the pleasures of life that he cannot afford any more. This person is capable of conversion and of returning to his father. He is free enough to return. He does not fear to be disinherited, since he has already had his inheritance and wasted it. He does not fear to be rejected as a son, since he does not claim the right to be considered a son. He simply wants to be a servant (this word is perhaps the most important of the parable). And when the father sees him coming, he runs to him and embraces him, because his son is alive. The father does not see the ungrateful son, he does not see the fugitive, he does not see the debauched person. He sees his son who is alive, and he wants to celebrate life with his family and servants.

Not everyone is able to celebrate life, especially life in others. The second son is the most pathetic figure of that parable. He is like the good Christian, or the good religious, always faithful to all his obligations, but who has not understood the meaning of life, and especially has not un­derstood anything about love and mercy. He is unable to celebrate. In fact he has nothing to celebrate. When he returns from the fields and he hears the music and the dancing, he asks what the meaning is of that music and of that dancing. That poor man, with all his virtue and his faithful observance, has not made the journey to maturity and adulthood that his brother has made.

Let us now return to the story of the young rich man. He asks Jesus what to do in order to have eternal life. His goal is certainly good—eter­nal life. He is very concerned about the "doing" He asks what he should do, and when Jesus quotes some of the commandments of the Decalogue to him, he says that he has done all of that since his youth. Then Jesus invites him to get rid of everything and come and follow him. In reality Jesus invites him to do voluntarily and freely exactly the same letting go of everything that was imposed on Job by circumstances and that the prodigal son imposed upon himself. He is unable to do it. He is not free. He has not achieved adulthood.

[...] We want to identify with Christ. It is certainly a noble desire! But perhaps it would be more important to ask ourselves, "With whom does Christ want to iden­tify?" The answer is quite obvious in Matthew 25:31-46. Christ identifies with the little ones, the needy, and the downtrodden. "I was sick, I was hungry, I was in jail, I was persecuted .... What you did to the little ones, you did to me." It is when we belong in one way or another to one of those categories that we can be sure that Christ identifies with us.

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