The Prodigal Son


     “and when he came to himself, he said, … I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son”
In the parable of the prodigal son we have an allegory: a story teaching us about human relationships, namely, our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other. The story has three major characters, the Father, the younger son, and the older son.
The father easily can be compared to our heavenly father. He comes across as loving, exceedingly generous and very forgiving. The elder son appears as the opposite. He is not forgiving, he is accusatory, and self-centered, as we often can be. The prodigal, the younger son, is certainly the biggest character in the story, and he easily also can be seen as us in our daily lives.
Even today it is possible for a child to ask his parent for an advance on his future inheritance if he knows that one is coming his way. Documents get signed to prevent gift taxation and to make certain the heir can not come back for the same amount again upon his parent’s death.
This younger child took his share of his father’s inheritance and headed off to, as we might say, “do his own thing”. Before long his money was spent and he was starving. He had left his father’s estate of plenty and happiness and ended up impoverished and unhappy. This in itself could be the “moral” of the story.
This change in his financial state bears immediate comparison to Adam and Eve in garden of Eden. There they had a perfect life of contentment and plenty and closeness to God. By setting out to take care of themselves they ended up moving away from trust in God and lost Eden. In short order life became very hard for them also.
Turning away from contentment cost Adam and Eve everything they had, as it cost the Prodigal son here. The parable relates that he went “into a far country” which is analogous to heading away from God into a life of sin. In short order, the son really ended up in the gutter. He ended up feeding pigs, an animal which the Jews in Jesus’ audience regarded as unclean, contemptible, and something to avoid even touching. A modern comparison might be to see someone who once was successful having become homeless or maybe to see, a former preacher ending up as a security guard at a strip club.
The prodigal had been existing in a wonderful state of harmony and closeness with his father, but that was not enough to keep him happy or to keep him on the straight and narrow. Just as we heard in our Epistle today, closeness to God guarantees neither holiness nor the performance of good works. St. Paul recounts how God had been in the actual camp of the ancient Israelites as they moved from Egypt to their promised land. He had protected them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. They could hear his booming voice now and then. He would talk to Moses face to face, as we do a friend, and leave his face glowing for all to see.
Yet, the Israelites, despite all the physical closeness of God, fell away too. They turned to their passions, eating and drinking, and getting up “to play”, a nice euphemism for debauchery. They got punished for not appreciating their uniqueness and closeness to God. The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan and his family. Fiery serpents attacked others. (To me a rattlesnake has been always a cause for concern here in the West, but pondering one that also is fiery seems worthy of a Hollywood horror movie—which probably will get done.)
In America today, the presence of churches on countless street corners, the availability of the Bible and theology on the Net, the presence of the Eucharist liturgy and pastors on daily television has not led to a closeness to God greater than back in the early 1960s. In major ways society has moved further from God in spite of all these avenues for closeness.
As we all remember, Adam and Eve were forced from the Garden of Eden for their failure to appreciate the closeness of God and “how good” they actually had it. Just as the prodigal quickly fell into dire straits after rejecting the happiness of his father’s home, the next thing we read after Eden is about Cain slaying Abel. We ourselves quickly can fall into trouble and unhappiness when we reject the way of the Lord, and decide we know what is best for us.
After suffering for a while the prodigal, as we heard, came to his senses and realized how much he had lost, and began trying to work his way back to his prior state of happiness. This is the road that all Christians daily are on—working our way to happiness and contentment with God. As with the prodigal we too realize that we have erred and strayed like lost sheep and are not at all worthy to be called God’s child.
This sense of unworthiness which we should have, and which the prodigal came to, is appropriate. We can do nothing which of and by itself makes us worthy to be an adopted child of God. Yet, what do we see and learn of God about this matter from our parable? The penitent child is welcomed back with open arms, just as we would welcome back a wayward child of ours.
The Aurora shooter’s mother stated this week in her son’s sentencing hearing that she still loves her son. Of course she does; parents do, even when almost nobody else likes ones child.
This parable has probably an infinite number of other lessons within it, but just a few can be addressed in these few minutes. We learn that God, like the father in the parable, is loving and much more forgiving that we are, as captured by the older son in the parable. He was NOT thrilled to see his younger brother return and immediately assumed the very worst that his kid brother MUST have hung out with prostitutes.
We also see that turning away from happiness with the Lord, like the prodigal turning away from his idyllic state with his dad, can lead us quickly down to dire straits. We also see that closeness to God in this life, unfortunately, does not guarantee happiness about our state nor the ability to do good.
Being happy with God and doing good requires us to “come to” ourselves, come to our senses. This often happens after we end up in dire straits. But, we need not court disaster to move closer to God! All we need is to allow God to operate within us. Our opening collect recognizes both our inability to do good on our own and our need for God operating within us to accomplish any good works, to produce good fruits.
Yet, this attitude, the Christian attitude of need for and total reliance upon God’s operation in our lives, stands in stark contrast to our modern world. Modern society teaches and reinforces the idea that we are autonomous beings—I am in charge of my life and we each are the center of the universe. This positions seems in fact to undergird the Supreme Court’s recent decision granting homosexual marriage nationwide. Thus, in today’s modern view there are six billion centers of the universe. Implicit in that is that there is no real CENTER, no cohesion, only fragmentation.
And so, if I am the center of the universe, or my universe, than others exist to help me in my pursuit of joy and vice versa. Yet, if other people and creatures exist simply to help us to become happy, then God, well, seriously, who needs Him, especially if He won’t make me happy while alive?
While not a few non-believers do accomplish good civic works, such as building museums, schools, and hospitals or giving land to charities, their works always suffer from the taint of their non-belief. Their primary motivation may well have been prideful such as getting ones name up in lights to move up the social ladder and help grow ones business contacts. Such prideful motivations color any outward seemingly good action, along the lines of painting a beautiful new grammar school black or putting a tattoo parlor inside a hospital.
Until recently it was relatively common to see anonymous church inscriptions over doorways or on plaques which simply said: “ad majorem gloriam Dei” (to the greater glory of God). This sort of human anonymity and humility in good works is pleasing to God, and should be pleasing to his disciples who know that it is from God that all of our Blessings flow. To Christians, “doing our own thing”, means doing works to please our loving heavenly Poppa, just as we might do something thinking, “Oh, my spouse is really going to love this!”
So, in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, probably his best known and certainly his longest, we have a Divine allegory. We see how generous, loving, and readily forgiving God is. We see how we are the complete opposite, represented in the case of the angry elder brother. We see how grave the cost can be of thinking we know better than God on how to be fulfilled and happy, such as when we view ourselves as autonomous beings and masters of our own destiny. This is portrayed by the younger brother, the pordigal. And, lastly, we should see or “get the hint” that by allowing the Holy Spirit to operate to bring us to “come to ourselves”, we can start moving ever closer to living in a state of happiness and contentment again with our Lord. Our path back to the Lord was made possible by His son and our return trip is shepherded by the Holy Spirit guiding and energizing our travel. Amen.

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