Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
I think the Lord Jesus must have used this parable frequently in his preaching, as it is so rich in its suggestions and applications. I’m sure that Our Lord embellished it depending on the audience, adding color and description—here for humor and there for poignancy.
The version of the parable that we have today is from the combination of a great author and a great editor. St. Luke was the editor, who shaped it to fit his own narrative, and placed the parable in a specific context and pared it down to concision, with not a wasted word. Even then it invites several applications.
Of course it depicts repentance—the repentance of the younger son, his turning and returning, from where he was to what he had despised before, his suing for mercy. It also depicts the hope behind repentance, that if you do it, you will be taken back with mercy and love, and unconditionally.
What’s easy to miss is the subtlety of how faulty his repentance is. His fault is not that he begins his repentance with self-interest, that he repents because he’s in a very bad spot and he’s got little choice. I doubt that there’s any repentance without some measure of self-interest in it. You don’t have to be so pious that the motive of your repentance is selfless and pure.
The fault is in his careful planning of his repentance—that he wants to control the outcome, and preserve his independence, and not have to endure the radical grace of full and undeserved restoration. He will have his father as a boss and not a father, for the food and the security, and not for the fellowship.
His solution will shame his father no less than his departure did. He had shamed his father by asking for his inheritance ahead of time, which meant, “You are dead to me.” Then he sold if off quick, without bargaining or investing, so that his father had to watch half of his ancestral land being taken by someone else who got it on the cheap. But now for his son to come back as no better than a servant in the fields? The other servants and the neighbors will shake their heads at the father with a son like this, so shameful even in his return. Is it true repentance to further shame his father?
There is something here about how we deal with our guilt, and how we handle the temptations of guilt. The first temptation of guilt is alienation. Alienation is a presumption in the story. The son must have been alienated from his father to begin with, and then he alienates himself totally, living in an alien country. Then his plan for repentance continues the alienation, but right up close.
You can see this in the case of Adam and Eve. Before they ate the fruit, they had easy fellowship with God every evening, when God took his walks in his garden. But when they ate the forbidden fruit they felt naked and ashamed and they hid from God in the trees of the garden. That’s the guilt, when you want to hide. The alienation. The separation from God, and then also from each other, as Adam blamed Eve, and from the world, as Eve blamed the serpent.
I think that the serpent represents the seductive desire of Nature, but if there is a tempter, he is not interested in your actual sin. Human sin is boring to the tempter. His interest is the guilt that results from your sin. We learn from the Book of Job that the interest of Satan is your alienation from God, your alienation from your rightful status as the image of God in the world. Your guilt corrupts you, cripples you, makes you unhealthy, consumes you and slowly kills you, and it corrupts your relationships. The destructiveness of guilt is the topic of half the operas in the opera-house.
And then we try all different strategies to relieve the guilt. Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Otello, Il Trovatore, Boris Godunov. To relieve the guilt while keeping control. To relieve the guilt without humiliation. And that’s the second temptation of guilt—the manipulation that we do to deal with it. Deception, secrecy, our devices on top of our desires. The careful planning of the prodigal son.
The third temptation of guilt is judgment of others. You see that in the older son. He judges his brother. But look how he is guilty too! He shames his father too! He compares his working for his father all those years to slavery, corrupting their relationship. He accuses his brother of spending his money on prostitutes, but how does he know? Is that what he would do? He will shame his father by not sitting next to him at the party. He judges his brother and he judges his father and he alienates himself from both in his self-righteousness.
It’s the third temptation that is the religious one. You know that old joke that basically all religions are the same—it’s just guilt with different holidays! Whenever I see somebody particularly loud in judgment of others, I wonder what his secret is.
The fourth temptation of guilt is also in the older brother, and that is to refuse the radical grace of God who simply cancels the guilt. Our refusing to accept it goes with keeping up the alienation and trying to maintain the manipulation. To accept the grace is to surrender the control. But that’s hard. Your guilt tempts you to believe that there can’t really be a grace that is so free.
Well, you have experience to back you up. Haven’t you had it that you when you did come clean you still had to pay for it? That your full exposure got you in even more trouble? So you find it safer just to deny your guilt, that it was not your fault, that you had no choice, or you didn’t know any better. But the strategy of God is different. The strategy of God is despite it all, unconditionally, to accept you and embrace you, so that in your state of safety and security you can admit your guilt, as much to yourself as to anyone else. God reconciles you first, so that you reconcile yourself.
There is gospel for you here. Your own repentance will always be imperfect, impure, and like the prodigal son always at least a little selfish and self-interested. God knows it, God is no fool, and your forgiveness never depended on your deserving it anyway but on the prodigality of God.
That’s a relief for us miserable offenders, who have no health in us! We can laugh in repentance—the joke’s on us. And that’s in operas too, in the comedies like Falstaff, and Cosi Fan Tutte, and The Magic Flute. It’s a wonderful little stage-play St. Luke has given us—no wonder he’s the patron saint of artists.
There is a deeper layer to this parable. Jesus tells it autobiographically. It’s about himself. The parable depicts these strange words from Second Corinthians, that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, and that for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.
St. Paul understood the deeper parable, that the younger son is a picture of Jesus Christ himself, when he left his Father in heaven for the distant country of human flesh, and squandered the wealth of his divinity. He ate with sinners and prostitutes, the comfort women of Roman soldiers and the mothers who sold themselves to get the cash to feed their hungry children. He ate their unclean food and got unclean himself.
And he brought this back to his Father in his unclean sacrifice upon the cross. Here is Rembrandt’s version of the Prodigal Son. Here is Jesus, the prodigal son of God, with nothing to show for himself but his part in our misery. He who knew no sin became sin for us, in order to bring us back to God.
Notice the father and the son. Look at the complexity of God, God in God, the soles of God’s feet, the knees of God, the arms of God, the bosom of God, God in God and this is also you in God. The Father holds the shape of the cross, the Father absorbs all the guilt and despises all the shame on him.
This prodigal God doesn’t care. Let them think what they think and say what they say. But “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, without regard for your deserving it, I will love whom I love, I am who I am, I will be as I will be, I am the Lord, and my nature and my name is Love.”
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.