The Gift is not Like the Trespass
A Reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son
This greatest of all parables is a response to a complaint: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Lk 15:1-2). Jesus justifies the coming of “undesirables” to Him as a kind of long-overdue homecoming. Drawing on images of a strayed sheep and a mislaid coin, the Lord sets the stage for the story of a lost man who returns home, a dead man who comes back to life. If the retrieval of livestock and money calls for rejoicing, then this man’s restoration to his family is not only worth celebrating with feasting on earth, but also occasions an incomparable joy in heaven.
“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). To know that God values our conversion that dearly makes every detail of the parable of the Prodigal Son resonate, as though it were our life story. “Human life is in some way a constant returning to our Father’s house,” St Josemaria agrees. Indeed, “the story of the prodigal son repeats itself in our lives,” as often as “every day, and even repeatedly during the twenty-four hours of the same day” (cf. Christ is Passing By, nos. 64, 91; Friends of God, no. 214).
Having shown His critics how anxious they would be for lost possessions, Jesus sets before them an irresponsible young man—the younger of two sons, someone easily written off as a ne'er-do-well. He was restless at home. But in a faraway place, with different people, he thought he could be an anonymous rogue—with money to burn, no consequences or responsibilities, and no one looking over his shoulder. He went out looking for paradise, and when he arrived, he thought he had found it, and gave no thought to the future.
Whenever people are discontent with what they have at home—with the place itself or those with whom they live—they often imagine running away. The world looks like such an inviting place—full of excitement and pleasures that never grow old. But as the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold observed in his famous poem Dover Beach, the world cannot give what matters most: “…the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” The prodigal son thought that he had all of those things in his hands for a while.
Then reality struck. All of a sudden he had no money, no food, no friends. Because God is our merciful Father, He allows the vault of our heaven to collapse. He allows the blue skies of our paradise to turn black. And He makes us feel a hunger that no food can satiate. In a moment of stark disillusionment, the prodigal’s restless heart was convicted of its vanity.
What he never expected to find standing hungry and lonely over a pig sty was given to him, unasked for, unlooked for: the Grace of repentance. With the stench, the flies, the mess of a muddy pig pen before him, the runaway remembered his father. At the moment when he found himself prepared to eat garbage, nostalgia for his father’s house seized him.
Unlike the former mirage of a distant dreamland, the journey home would overwhelm all his expectations, landing him in his father’s arms, because “the free gift is not like the trespass” (cf. Rm 5:15). The son who had squandered everything will receive back more than he had lost: “the free gift following many trespasses brings justification” (Rm 5:16). And he, and we, are left to “wonder at and rejoice in the gift which God makes us of being able to call ourselves his children” (Christ is Passing By, no. 64).
But the story doesn’t end there, and we need it not to end there.
Families not infrequently have a child who never seems to do anything right, and another who seems to do nothing wrong. One sibling can’t handle money, relationships, or hold down a job, the other does everything on schedule with money in the bank. As much as we can relate to a straying son, we might also see ourselves in the resentment of the elder brother. Our Lord uses him to bring out the greatness of the father, the poverty of the prodigal son, and a wrong attitude that might be within all of us.
The older son refuses to take part in the festivities occasioned by his brother’s return. But he knows that his father will come out to try to reason with him. The same father who went out to meet the prodigal son won’t fail to go out to meet the troubled older brother. He knows his father is good. But he cannot imitate his father by advancing beyond mere goodness to mercy, to a love which pours itself out without thinking about what might be coming back as a return on the investment. How hard it is for us to love that freely, to love “blindfolded” and hands tied behind the back, as it were, so that we can’t receive a reward!
Then the older brother opens his mouth, and what might it sound like? He has heard the news and he says, There is no way I’m going to go in there to celebrate. What do you want from me? Am I supposed to go in, get a plate of food, enjoy the music, sit down and ask my brother where he’s been for the last six months? To be honest, I was kind of hoping he would never come back. Do you want me to go in and pretend to be happy, to be interested in the stories he has to tell?
The father, for his part, leaves the decision in his older son’s hands. He is a great father! He raises his boys to be free men. He let the younger son go his way; he lets the older son choose his own path. He says: I’m not going to force you to come in; I’m not going to force you to rejoice; I’m not going to force you to forgive. You are always at my side. Everything I have is yours. But your brother had everything, lost everything, and now he’s recovered everything. He knows what he has now because—get this—it has been given back to him without his having earned it. Everything has been given back to him without cost.
The older brother cannot yet understand that kind of transaction. He is a hard and consistent worker. But he’s also keeping track. He punches his time card and knows what’s coming to him. He wants to earn so that he won’t have to rely on the goodness of another. He wants to take ownership of all the wrong things.
So is the message of the parable of the Prodigal Son this: No matter how irresponsible you are, no matter what you’ve done, God will take you back. God will say: Everything is okay now. We’ll pretend it never happened? Yes and no. Yes, God will always take back with open arms anyone who returns to Him with even a little humility and contrition: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not reject” (Ps 51:17).
But everything is not instantly okay. Once we have come back, we must learn to be content by the father’s side. This is now the “project” of the prodigal son: to grow in his relationship with the father. We must learn to be still and to know our God. We must learn to be sober. We take ownership of our sins, not blaming anyone else, but saying, I was the one who abandoned my Father. And He brought me back. Or: I was the one who worked for years in my Father’s house, but for myself. And now I have learned to share my Father’s goodness.
The younger son has a long road ahead of him. It is the road of recovery. It is a road all of us have been on and are on. The older son also has a road to recovery, and it is also our path. The two brothers are on the same road together, each learning in his own way to be content by the Father’s side, each learning to receive a gift that goes far beyond their ability to repay.