The Prodigal Son Story

As a child, I was raised Christian, and like most mostly-law-abiding Christian kids, I resented never quite understood the story of the Prodigal Son.

Today, it still seems to me that this story is the real test of Christianity – and you can tell because people want to tamper with the story; they want to (for example) ascribe sin to the older (good) brother; they say he’s jealous, he’s proud, he’s this or that.

But the good son isn’t guilty of anything (at least, not except for the same fallen state that is the human condition). This is essential to the point of the story: the good son doesn’t get what’s going on, but he’s not the guilty one here. The demands of justice really are being violated in this situation, and yet we’re being told to believe that this is a good thing.

Once you’ve seen how this can make sense, the next step is to try to explain it to those who don’t. This is when I always start appreciating the wisdom of scriptural language – you try to explain a thing, and the explanation leads away from the point itself; you end up fumbling for an example – perhaps a parent with one drug-addicted child, who would gladly inflict a comparatively minor injustice on the three healthy, good children, if it would bring that one unhealthy child back to good health. But this doesn’t quite work, because our ideas about health make us excuse the drug-addicted child; the original prodigal son had no excuse. Our beliefs about concupiscence have changed to where we have to divide “sin” into categories – the explainable kind and the unforgivable kind. And we have to understand that the prodigal has no excuse. He was just plain wrong – and yet we can’t compare him to our image of the contemporary spoiled brat; we mustn’t reduce the story to mere bribery, either.

When things are violated, and order is broken, our world is rent and disfigured – then the cure, the restoration, is cause for celebration. It is a moment when the logic of justice is less important than the need to heal; the return to health – of the prodigal, of the father, of the relationships and the larger family – but here I start to try to make it rational, and in doing so, I reduce it.

This is, to me, the essence of faith: the recognition that there is something inexplicable and transcendent, something that can’t be explained by logic – but that we not only can but must believe in, because it is the thing that gives life meaning, and keeps us from the dangers of despair (which can and will kill us otherwise). One must believe in it because it is there, it is real, and it has the power to save us from something equally real and yet equally inexplicable. However literally one takes the Bible, it is one of the founding pillars of modern morality, and it does have wisdom in it. A higher truth which does have the power to guide – and I think the rejection of that is what I see as problematic today; the belief that because the prodigal son’s brother has a valid claim, he therefore ought to pursue it. Following such advice, one might gain a few dollars while losing something much, much greater.