By George Patronos
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is the Gospel reading for today, is, as is well-known, one of the most beautiful texts of world literature.
It also recalls for us the classical narrative, from Greek mythology, of the adventure of Odysseus who left Ithaca in order to become a man and wiser than before. This is to do with the eternal quest which people undertake, within time and history, leaving everything- certainty and security- to seek the unobtainable, the dream, and, in the end, made wiser by this experience of life, to return to their home and roots, where they eventually find rest.
This eternal myth was expressed so clearly and realistically by the two great traditions of the Mediterranean; by the poetic inspiration of Greek wisdom and the revelatory style of Jewish reflection. I think it’s worth paying particular attention to the iconographic tradition of the prodigal son, to see how this productive adventure unfolds before us: in the beginning it seems negative, but in the end it appears to be inevitable and necessary, so that people, in their existential restlessness shouldn’t be lost, but achieve, in the end, their desired spiritual coming-of-age and maturation.
It appears at the beginning that the Parable of the Prodigal Son focuses attention on the negative results of the revolt and flight of the younger son from his father’s guardianship. The younger son of the family feels suffocated on the land of his fathers, seems to be bothered by the presence of his father and elder brother and to want to be set free from everything that binds him to his father’s house and makes him feel that he’s the youngest and that he’s forever being told to do as he’s bidden.
It’s indicative here that there’s no mention of a mother or a sister. In Jewish tradition, women are almost always absent or silent. Women never stand up for themselves. They never leave. The woman is the root, the tradition, the earth which is fertilized and nourishes life. No son ever revolts against his mother and cuts himself off from his native soil. He always returns. It nourishes him. The same is true of Odysseus in Greek mythology. Ithaca remains the dream for him, the vision of his life; he will return there, be saved and come into his rest, now a mature man.
The younger son of the parable took with him his share of his inheritance in order to get to know other peoples and new worlds. His original aim was quite proper. Escape often has a positive perspective. But then, “in a far country, he wasted his substance on riotous living”. That’s the surprise and yet also what you’d expect. At the start, the young man sees everything positively. The negative catches him off guard and there are times when it gets him down. This is precisely where his life is at risk: it depends on his will and strength to react positively, to come to himself and take the right decisions.
Through this process and chain of events, of departure, adventure, knowledge of life, weaning and maturation, people reach the end, so long as the end is the family home in their own particular Ithaca. In any case, the spiritual life is nothing more than a continuing spiritual adventure.
Young people always leave. Adventure is in their blood. They want to depart from what they already know and understand in search of new worlds and fresh experiences. It’s inconceivable and unnatural for them not to try to doubt the past, to distance themselves from the tradition of earlier generations unquestioningly, not to seek to build their own world. Of course, this effort necessarily entails spending their parents’ wealth. That’s the norm. There’s never a case when young people aren’t called rebellious, when they don’t surprise us with their decisions, don’t pain us with their farewells and departures. History’s always been made in this way, with positive and negative judgments, with the submission and discipline of the elder son and the rebellion and “prodigality” of the younger. Just so long as Ithaca stays on the horizon.
2. The Problematic Attitude of the Elder Son
On the other hand, we have the behavior of the elder son. In the parable, he’s presented as a self-contained person who vaunts his superiority over his younger brother, overstates his loyalty and his conscientiousness in his family duties. His aim is to belittle the attitude and position of his younger brother and claim a generous legacy, as a reward for his actions and virtues. This image is almost always the same and repeated in every detail.
It’s always the eldest who are best and they’re the ones who’re always right. Here, the elder son represents the person who is assiduously religious, disciplined and righteous, who feels that his or her own life is justified by the behavior of people like the prodigal in the parable. It almost seems as if the elder son is actually hoping for the perdition of the younger. For him, virtue acquires value because of the existence of evil. And this is why the attitude that such people have is often the very reason why younger ones feel driven to take to the road and to adventures of prodigality.
This is the reason behind his displeasure at the return of the prodigal. He’s not glad that his lost brother has come back, he doesn’t acclaim his repentance, because he never expected it and never hoped for it. And now that the younger one is back, he conspicuously plays no part in the joy and expressions of the family reunion. Now, at this most crucial time, he is the one who’s absent and the prodigal is present.
This attitude reminds us of the negative stance of the Pharisee in last week’s Gospel reading, the pious, “perfect” man who attempted to demean the sinful Publican with all the social and religious means at his disposal. But just as the Publican was, in the end, justified by God, so too the prodigal son is justified by his father.
It appears that the elder son, with his attitude and behavior, with his strange, demanding role, actually more or less forced the younger one to leave their home, with the aim of making their father’s enormous wealth his own, exclusive inheritance. Evil always has a cause. Nobody is born prodigal. They become prodigal through what life brings them.
3. The Tragic Experience of Life “in a far Country”
In spite and independently of the reasons for departure, life in a country far from one’s home has its tragic aspect, too. It’s a bitter experience, often with dreadful consequences. It’s not so much the utter waste of the parental “substance” but the experience of youthful prodigality that can ruin someone’s life.
Wrong choices, personal mistakes, all these are experiences, which deepens our lives and makes us wiser, provided that it leads to repentance and return. But if we insist on living “in a far country”, then the negative consequences can be swift and catastrophic. The depiction of the younger son in the land of prodigality is terrible. “He wasted his substance on riotous living” and, as a result, endangered his life during the “powerful famine” which befell the country. Exile in a foreign land didn’t mean enrichment, it meant “starvation” in its rawest, literal sense. He lived an unproductive life. He lost the status and name he had once enjoyed. He was deprived of everything and reduced to becoming a swine-herder. From having been the heir to a rich father, all he wanted now was to be the least of his father’s hired hands. Naked, ill, shattered and despised, “in a far country” he bemoaned his failure and his prodigality. There was no other solution: he could either return or face certain death.
The parable ends with his return. The word of God is never negative. Always, in existential and historical impasses, there’s a ray of paternal love. This is the constant which is also present in the parable. This is where the way out begins. It pierces the harsh experience of prodigality and points to the need to return, as a challenge and invitation. We could never imagine an Odysseus remaining stuck pathologically in his historical wanderings. The Odyssey is validated through his return to Ithaca, now able to fight off the suitors of his wife and pretenders to his kingdom. The prodigal is in danger of his life if he remains in a foreign land and country, if he doesn’t return to his father’s house, his father’s embrace.
The parable, in the end, justifies the prodigal son. The elder is not praised for his attitude, but the younger one is for his choices. And that is, truly, a religious stumbling-block. The reward is certainly not for his rebellion or his riotous living, but for his repentance and his return. The elder is subject to criticism, certainly not for his conscientious attention to his duties or his fidelity to the family values, but for his hardness of heart and lack of understanding towards his brother.
This is why the parable is read in church at this time, in view of Great Lent and the events of Easter, as an invitation to repentance and return, after the model of the Prodigal Son. In the end, we are all more or less prodigals, we’ve all had our rebellions and our exits, all of us have the experience of our personal spiritual adventure. That’s a given. The desideratum is for us to return to our own Ithaca and our own homeland.
What we need to pay particular attention to in this parable of the Lord’s, because it’s not swept aside but reinforced as a harsh and unwelcome reality, is that a prodigal son isn’t always a child from a broken family or from a family of a low social and economic class. Prodigals aren’t always kids from the margins of society or wasters from the wrong side of town. They may be scions of the aristocracy or the offspring of religiously-minded and virtuous parents, as was the case with the prodigal in the parable. It would be hypocrisy for us to believe otherwise. Our society is crying out over similar cases. Riotous living today is a phenomenon more within the upper echelons of society than among the lower strata, where kids have to work hard just to survive.
Another important lesson we can take from this parable is that, in the end, the interest isn’t centered on either the apostasy or the repentance of the prodigal. The important message lies in the fact of paternal love and the opportunity to return, since the family house is always open. Any return from the land of prodigality, from the country of Egypt and Pharaonic enslavement would be pointless unless there were the chance of a welcome by the father in the promised land. Just as Israel once emerged from Egypt, made its way through adventures and temptations in the desert, but reached the promised land, so, now, the prodigal son finds the door to the family home open to him. And that must always be understood as being the case.
And there’s another harsh reality. Returns aren’t always, or even often, welcome. The family home and embrace are hermetically sealed off and prodigality is met with dismissal and rejection. Often enough societies, especially virtuous ones, are closed. But the father’s embrace in the parable is open. He continues to love, to hope, to wait. That’s the essence and the wonderful thing in this parable. The father’s love and understanding are a lasting invitation to return. The love and mercy of God are the great undisputed facts of life. What is needed now is our own repentance and return.
(George Patronos, Professor Emeritus of Theology Faculty of University of Athens, "Preaching and Theology", vol. II, ed. Apostoliki Diakonia).