Georgios Patronos, Emeritus Professor of Theology, University of Athens
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 experience, 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’d once enjoyed. He was deprived of everything and reduced to becoming a swine-herd. 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’re 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 centred 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.