Without a doubt, the story of the Prodigal Son is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, in part because it provides a well from which I can always drink.
In the last post, we considered the many ways we try to bargain with God. I believe our sin provides one of the clearest examples of this. We try and dicker with the Almighty: “Well, I may have fudged on my taxes, but look at how often I’ve gone to church.” Or, “I may have driven my car when I was drunk, but no one got hurt, and that’s not something you really care about, is it God?” Part of the problem here is that we’ve begun to see sin as doing something naughty, or as a minor punch list item that we need to tend to before we can consider our lives complete. That vision of sin overlooks its fundamental nature: sin separates us from God. We need to re-think the nature of sin, regarding it as something that moves us further away from the source of our lives, making it harder and harder to return home.
The story of the prodigal son teaches exactly that lesson. The son wrongfully asks his father for inheritance while the father is still living. (In the culture of that day, such a request would amount to telling your father, “I wish you were dead.”) The son then goes to “a distant country.” I don’t think that’s a coincidence, nor do I think Jesus is just using a narrative device. I think Jesus is teaching us something fundamental about the nature of sin. Our sin always drives us away from our heavenly Father. And one of the truly horrific things about sin lies in how easy it is, once we’ve taken that first step, to keep moving further and further away. We find ourselves in places where it seems truly impossible to ever get back home.
But Jesus teaches us about the way home in the story of the Prodigal Son. It starts with his recognition, while still in that distant country, that he nothing about his life works anymore, and that he has become a stranger even to himself. He tells himself to get up and return to his father and tell him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” The recognition of his own betrayal of his father leads the prodigal to a humility and a recognition of broken bonds. He makes no excuses for himself; he offers no defenses for what he has done.
The parable teaches us that the path back home begins with the recognition that our sins aren’t minor flaws that require a few slight adjustments. Rather, as Newman observed, through the sins which separate us from God, we have become rebels and must “lay down [our] arms.” As Newman also noted, “The most noble repentance (if a fallen being can be noble in his fall), the most decorous conduct in a conscious sinner, is an unconditional surrender of himself to God—not a bargaining about terms, not a scheming (so to call it) to be received back again, but an instant surrender of himself in the first instance.” J.H. Newman, Parochial & Plain Sermons (vol. 3, Sermon 7).
There’s nothing easy about this. None of us wants to give up on the notion of defending ourselves, of building a case for what we did and why. We want to convince God that it wasn’t so bad or that we had good reasons for what we’ve done: that we really are good people. That’s part of the reason why the Church has stressed the virtue of humility for centuries. It’s the only way we’ll learn to trust God, and trust that He will always take us back. The Psalmist noted that we can’t bargain or dicker with God; we can’t earn our way back into our home with our sacrifices. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. ” Ps. 51.
My prayer for you and for me is that we learn to trust God and lay down our arms. What would the world look like if we did that? I suspect it would look a lot more like the Kingdom.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis