In English, our parable does not convey
the force of life and death
at work in the original Greek.
Our English keeps going on about property.
The Son says “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
The Father divides his “property.”
The son squanderes his “property”.
But in Greek, the son asks for the father’s “being.”
The father divides his “life” between his sons.
The younger son then squanders his “being.”
This isn’t about money or property.
The money is a symbol of life.
The son wants his life cut loose from his father’s life.
So, like King Lear, the old man hands over his own livelihood.
The son takes the money and runs.
Having no more need of his impoverished father,
the prodigal son abandons him.
The son’s selfishness sets this plot in motion.
But it is not guilt that makes the young man come home.
It’s what happens next.
He squanders his being.
We can get distracted by the part about dissolute living.
It doesn’t matter whether he spent his life
carousing in a casino or climbing the corporate ladder.
What matters is that he has squandered his life,
his resources, his energy, and his time
on things that are not real and do not last.
Cut off by his own selfishness, he is now spiritually
and existentially dead.
When did he notice that his heart no longer beat?
When did he realize that he could no longer hear birds sing?
Not until the famine hit.
Not until the useless things he had spent his life on ran out.
This is no spiritual awakening
– only a drunk noticing that the bottle is empty.
That’s when he contrived his next manipulative scheme.
He would go home to his father with crocodile tears,
and say the kind of rubbish the old man liked to hear,
“Father I have sinned . . . .”
and at least the old fool would give him a decent job.
I am concerned that we may not be able to relate
to the prodigal son because
we do not experience ourselves as sinners.
We have ways to fortify our consciences against guilt.
So let’s leave the prodigal son at this point
and turn our attention to the whiskey priest
in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
Grahame Greene tears down those fortifications of conscience.
He tells the story of the whiskey priest, a bad priest,
a drunk who sells the sacraments,
fathers a child by one of his church members,
is a coward, a liar, and thief.
It is 1920’s Mexico when the church was banned,
so the priest is in hiding.
He gets arrested for possession of brandy,
and spends the night in jail,
sure the police will recognize him
and execute him in the morning.
In the hot, crowded jail cell with a throng of criminals, he notices:
“This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust
and crime and unhappy love. It stank to heaven. . . . but it was
possible to find peace there. . . . He was
moved by an irrational affection for the inhabitants of this prison.
A phrase came to him. “God so loved the world.”
The next morning he sees the wanted poster
with the picture of himself as a young priest.
He no longer resembles the picture, and he thinks,
“It is not very like me now.
What an unbearable creature he must have been
in those days – and yet in those days
he had been comparatively innocent . . . .
Then in his innocence he had felt no love for anyone;”
Later the whiskey priest recalls the innocent time
when his conscience was easy.
And he thinks,
“God might forgive cowardice and passion,
but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety?”
What does this have to do with us?
I fear many of us, myself included,
have cultivated the habit of piety.
It is not the same piety our grandparents practiced.
Their generation had fairly attainable moral standards.
Their code limited violence, theft,
and some forms of sexual indulgence.
We have dropped a few of their “Thou shalt not’s”
and have added a few new “Thou shalt nots.”
Our moral code allows us to say words in public
that would have made our grandparents blush.
But there are countless things they said unabashedly
that would get us socially ostracized.
We are about as moralistic as our grandparents
– not much more, not much less.
We construct a neatly doable moral code,
stick to it close enough, and feel at ease.
But, all the while, we seek our own will instead of God’s.
We come nowhere near loving God with all our hearts,
nowhere near loving our neighbor as ourselves.
We anesthetize our consciences
with our politically correct habits of piety,
while our souls wither from failure to love deeply
and we squander our lives on things that do not endure.
“Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
Isaiah Chapter 55
It was not guilt but poverty that sent the prodigal son home.
It was discovering that his life had been squandered it.
It was like the Kris Kristofferson’s song lyrics,
“Lord help me Jesus. I’ve wasted it.”
I’ve felt that. I’ve sensed the waste of my life
despite my habits of piety.
Maybe you have too or maybe you will someday.
So the son went home with a confession
written on his cuff sleeve.
It was a new habit of piety, this confession.
He was hoping to get a job.
But his plot was foiled by grace. Jesus says,
“(W)hile he was still far off his father saw him
and was filled with compassion.
He ran out and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
The son did not need to confess to be forgiven.
He had been forgiven all along, loved all along.
The meaning and value of his life was there all along.
He just hadn’t been there to experience it.
He was so shocked by his welcome
that he began to stammer the confession,
without any ulterior motive from his heart,
“Father, I have sinned . . . I am no longer worthy
to be called your son.”
But he never got the chance to ask for the job.
His Father interrupted him,
and shouted to the servants,
“Quickly bring a robe – the best one – and put it on him . . .
let us eat and celebrate,
for this son of mine was dead and is alive again . . . .
And they began to celebrate.”
The Father didn’t need any confession.
Though the Father’s love did make the son need to confess.
The Father wasn’t thinking about the sin of selfish living,
but the consequences of spiritual death.
His son had been dead. But now he was alive.
So let he could not do anything but celebrate.
If our consciences were sufficiently alive and sentient,
we might feel contrition and repent.
Eventually, enough selfishness, enough neglect,
enough failed attempts at self-deception,
break through and we feel contrition.
But usually what we feel is the emptiness of a life
lived too much for too small a version of ourselves.
Usually we recognize that the idol of our egos has clay feet,
that we have polished our resumes too much
and loved life too little.
Usually we feel the emptiness.
If we are not too fatally sophisticated, we say something like,
“Lord help me Jesus, I’ve wasted it.”
Then while we are still far off,
our Father sees us and is filled with compassion.
We take a few faltering steps toward him
and he comes running toward us,
enfolds us in the arms of grace
and infuses our hearts with life
so deep, so wide, so rich, so strong,
the only word we have for it is “eternal.”Then we and all creation celebrate.