Sunday, March 14, 2010

Grace and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

This is today's Gospel (roughly) from the New International Version.

Our preacher today did a really good job - Fr. Yves M-something or other. He is a Companion of the Cross. My commentary here should in no way be considered a supplement for what was lacking. As the Gospel was being read I thought that I'd really like to offer a few comments on it in today's post in light of the theology of grace. Fr. Yves homily was so good that I knew it'd make my task that much more difficult.

11 Jesus continued: There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
13 Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!
18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.'
20 So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
22"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate.
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
25 Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.
27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
28 The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
31 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'


The essential difficulty with commenting on a parable lies in distinguishing what should be considered a mere literary appendage - and thus not an integral part of the message intended to be related - and what parts are integral. For instance, we are told that the son longed to eat of the pods that the pigs were fed. The overall meaning would likely not be altered at all if we were to switch it to carrots the donkeys were fed. Of course, allegorists, would likely not accede to this, and I don't want to argue about it too much. My point is that there are literary trappings in a parable that are not integral to the message. Thus, in giving an account of the theology of grace in this parable, we can ignore certain elements while focusing on others.

'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

In the life of grace what is the commodity here in question? Grace is not money, so we have to think of its analogue. It is clearly something other than the grace that the father bestows on his son at the end of the parable, symbolized by the raiment and the ring, etc. I would say that it is just this - to expropriate the things of creation as if they were not benefices. I am preparing a lecture to be given to the faculty in a few week’s time on Augustine’s view of children and learning. I came across this beautiful passage, from Book One of Confessions:
“You restrained me from craving more than You provided, and inspired in those who nurtured me the will to give me what You were giving them, for their love for me was patterned on your law, and so they wanted to pass on to me the overflowing gift they received from you.”
It is interesting how Augustine speaks of the breast milk as, on the one hand, not outstripped by the craving for it, and then in the next breath as an overflowing gift: it is not too little, it is actually more than enough. I am amazed how God is credited with taking care of baby Augustine through the generosity of those around him, charged to care for him.
So the commodity in question in the parable – the inheritance – is every created thing put at the feet of the ungrateful son. They are real blessings, which God gives in abundance. Augustine can – and will – make bad use of them, as does the prodigal son. Augustine spends a great deal of time crediting God for the wonderful blessing he has received, but made poor use of; the prodigal son simply takes his inheritance and:

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.

There is no better way to account for ingratitude than in those few words. I am not only thinking of the great blasphemies of weak believers and atheists, but the radical theistic revolt of a Nietzsche: God is to him not only not a doer of good for man, but a doer of disservice by eviscerating or emasculating him. But, alas, a Nietzsche hardly bothers me so much as the greedy and selfish. Nietzsche is not a-moral, as much as he would have us believe. He cares and cannot but suffer for it. Woe to those who do not feel any loss at all. The prodigal son felt no loss – at first.

He squandered his wealth... he... spent everything.

Sooner or later the good of nature runs out. A relationship based on sexual desire will eventually turn sour. Contraception is a great facilitator of pleasure, for a time. But its evil grip is soon felt: a relationship built on acquisition from, not benefaction to will always decay into emptiness. A priestly vocation constructed on a love of ease soon enough shall become a prison harder than anything that it initially protected one against. Every escape from spending quality time with one’s children shall in time produce a child who escapes from time with his parents. A nation that does not honour God will be nothing other than a corporation of employees, loyal only to their private interests, not the true civil society which is at root altruistic. A young woman who prospers by her good looks will appear a hollowness in time. If the prodigal son is every one of us, then it is possible for all of us to squander the wealth we have been given. As a student (and even still more or less!) I depended upon the charity of others. If I fail to do to others as was done for me, I shall then be squandering my spiritual wealth trying to protect my material wealth. It is certain that the prodigal son tried to separate his natural blessings from the responsibility they implied. Grace that is not returned with gratitude dissipates. All virtues will in time disappear if not animated with charity.

there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

People cannot give what they do not have. Even if I am in a state of grace, I cannot force grace on you. There are many blessings to be found in the communion of the saints, and even in the communion of more ordinary folk, but these cannot be a means of sanctification for me, but perhaps at best a distraction for me from my real situation. No natural grace may fill in for the loss of supernatural grace. Evil people may have contributed to my turning away from grace, but good people cannot undo this.

He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

Perhaps at first I sought to quiet my depression through alcohol, sex, other amusements – no one gave me anything, because they could only give me alcohol and sex, not that for which I actually longed.

When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!

He came to his sense by realizing that he is starving to death, and that his father has some means to ameliorate this. Not every sinner knows what he expects from God. In fact, the prodigal son expected very little. I have in mind the throng of the penitent in the early Church, who were quite prepared to live a life of penance in reparation for their great sins. The Prodigal Son thought at best he could be like his father’s hired help – not a true son. This is the essence of conversion, a sense of unworthiness, a sense humiliation, finally a loss of a sense of entitlement. I don’t expect, I hope. I don’t expect the most, I hope for a little bit. By myself I am starving. Someone else has something. If he shares it, perhaps it will be enough for me– but I don’t deserve it. I can hardly even ask for it.

Now we are in to truth. No one deserves grace. Everyone is given sufficient grace, the grace sufficient for salvation. But no one even deserves this. A father brings up his child and when he reaches manhood, he has been sufficiently equipped for life. That does not mean that life will be easy. No one is given the grace of an easy life – unbeknownst to the Prodigal Son, unbeknownst to so many of us. I believe that every human life deserves something. Traditionally this has thought to have been compromised by Original Sin. And yet, God gives more than original grace; He gives a second chance called sufficient grace. He gives sufficient grace, which – again – no one deserves but we have started to expect. Things are so out of whack now that we even expect the grace of perseverance, always thought to be the exclusive preserve of the saints elected by God. I don’t believe there can be saints who expect anything from God, neither for themselves nor for others. The saint counts on one thing: that God is good, and he knows it full well. For him it is about God, not about us. The best a man can do is to realize that he is hungry. It is a grace to in any way will the good. Is it a grace to hate evil, simply hate evil, not yet love the good? I think to love the good and to hate evil are almost the exact same thing, but one can hate evil without loving the good per se. I think the damned in hell hate evil, but I don’t think that means that they love the good. This is a controversial point, my friends. Even if the Prodigal Son only hates his hunger by grace, that is okay for we would by no means want to dissent from the truth that it is by grace alone is man saved.

I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

Is there a hint of manipulation here – planning ahead what he will say, planning ahead a good case to make so as to diminish his putative sin? I don’t think so. It is, rather, the persistence of spiritual immaturity. One cannot ascend the ladder of divine union without stepping on each rung. He knows that he hates sin. He knows that God has something he needs. He does not know anything about how God gives it, since that would imply a greater knowledge of God than is possible to him who is undergoing the first stages of conversion.
Again, he knows his sin: he brought about a disorder between nature and supernature, signified by his words ‘against you and against heaven.’ My sin did not only effect me. It was against all men, since all men depend upon me – to be a good father, husband, teacher, citizen, and intercessor with heaven, doing penance for the conversion of sinners. “I will say what needs to be said. I believe God wants to hear it.”

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

The error about faith can easily slip in here. It was an error Augustine originally made – that this faith that contrasted with works contrasted only in terms of the quality of the work, but it was still a work. That is an error. Faith contrasts with works in that it is not a work, it is a grace. So instead of an act of faith, Augustine came to prefer to speak of the gift of faith or the grace of faith. It is not something I do, it is something I receive. I can be faithful only because I was given faith. I can dissent from faith, but that is to refuse the gift once given. It sounds like the Prodigal Son first decided to trust in his father’s goodness and then the father acted. That’s where the analogy falls short. The father of the story can never mimic God perfectly. For the son to begin is to have received his beginning from God. God’s grace is not just a crown upon our good works, a reward for a job well done. It is the job begun and finished.

this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found

The son is alive because God has said he is alive.

Let’s celebrate.

This is the joy that is man fully alive. Sin is not only about salvation jeopardized, otherwise we can sin now and make up for it later; it is also about life killed now. Thus, the reintegration that is sanctifying grace (the grace that makes one pleasing to God, i.e. meriting heaven) is joy now. It is not only the removal of the pains that sin brought me, but the presence of pleasing goodness.

'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours...’

The last part of this story is just as significant as the first. This elder son was in as bad a position as the younger son, he just did not know it. He exemplifies works not animated by charity. His soul is just as dead as the younger son’s when he first left home. His works were idols he set up for himself. These are the sins characteristic of the elder sibling, just as the prodigal son’s self-pity is characteristic of a younger sibling. The younger son sinned by loving himself more than his father. The elder son sinned by loving himself more than his father too: he preferred to be seen as deserving, he served his father so as to store up a claim on him, he served to have a greater claim on this wealth than anyone else. He served to be preferred. He served out of love for himself, not out of love for anyone else. It might seem to some, or even many, that the sins of the elder brother were lighter than those of the elder, but that was not the point of the story at all: it is far deadlier to appear good when one actually is not. No one thought the younger son was good, and that was his greatest – nay, his only – asset.

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