The Three Deaths in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

The parable [of the prodigal son] is an absolute festival of death, and the first death occurs right at the beginning of the story: the father, in effect, commits suicide. It took me years to notice this fact, but once you see it, it’s as plain as the nose on an elephant. The younger son comes to his father and says, “Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me” (I quote from the KJV for heightened contrast). In other words, he tells his father to put his will into effect, to drop legally dead right on the spot. Obligingly enough, the father does just that: he gives the younger son his portion in cash, and to the elder brother, presumably, he gives the farm. Thus, just two sentences into the parable, Jesus has set up the following dynamics: he has given the first son a fat living; he has made the brother, for all the purposes of the parable yet to come, the head of the household; and he has put the real paterfamilias out of business altogether.

Next, of course, Jesus tells us that the younger son went to a far country where his rich boy’s life turned rapidly into a lost cause — where he “wasted his substance with riotous living.” We are free, naturally, to supply any specific forms of riotousness that appeal to us: boys or booze, girls or drugs, or gambling casinos at $10,000 a night. But whatever the details, the denouement of this part of the story is that the prodigal finally wakes up dead. Reduced to the indignity of slopping hogs for a local farmer, he comes to himself one dismal morning and realizes that whatever life he had is over. (One note about the words for “life” in this parable. The “living” the father divided was ton bion, one of the Greek words for “life.” The “goods” that the son requested, and that he wasted intemperately, were ten ousian, which is the Greek for “substance” or “being.” In any case, what the father gave away and what the son wasted was not just some stuff that belonged to them; it was their whole existence, their very being, their lives.)

Having thus introduced death into the parable a second time, Jesus proceeds to have the prodigal come face to face with it. He sits him down next to the hog trough and has him look at his life and find … nothing. “How many hired servants of my father’s,” he says, “have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger.” And so, in desperation over his own inarguable death — over the end of everything that could possibly be called a life — he formulates the first version of his confession: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.”

I have italicized the words at the end of this confession because they show that while the boy may have come face to face with death, he is still far from being able to admit he is in fact already dead. He may understand that he has died as a son — that he has, by his prodigality, lost all claim to his former status as his father’s loyal child. But what he does not yet see is that, as far as his relationship with his father is concerned, his lost sonship is the only life he had: there is no way now for him to be anything but a dead son. And because he does not grasp that fact, he formulates a bright new plan of his own for faking out a quasi-life for himself, a life as a hired hand. In short, precisely because he cannot admit he is utterly out of business, he puts himself back in the one business that never ceases to amuse and console the lifeless, namely, the bookkeeping business. He strikes a trial balance, using figures he just fudged in, and prepares himself a trumped-up spread­sheet: sonship he may not be able to claim, but hired-handship … ah, there’s a possibility. Maybe the old man will be senile enough to make a deal. So in one sense, the second death in the parable — the death of the prodigal — occurs in the far country. But in the most important sense, in the sense in which he admits it to himself, it does not occur until he comes home. Watch closely, therefore, the details that Jesus now unfolds. “And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”

Time for a major pause. All the fearsome histrionics Balanchine assigns the father notwithstanding, this is the moment of grace. But to give Balanchine a little credit, it is, like all the moments of a grace that works by raising the dead, a moment of judgment as well — an uttering of the irrevocable sentence of death before resurrection. From the father’s point of view, of course, Balanchine is just plain wrong. The father simply sees this corpse of a son coming down the road and, be cause raising dead sons to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite way of spending an afternoon, he proceeds straight to hugs, kisses, and resurrection. But from the son’s point of view, Balanchine is onto something. In the clarity of his resurrection, the boy suddenly sees that he is a dead son, that he will always be a dead son, and that he cannot, by any efforts of his own or even by any gift of his father’s, become a live anything else. And he understands too that if now, in this embrace, he is a dead son who is alive again, it is all because his father was himself willing to be dead in order to raise him up.

And so he makes his confession for the second time: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” Period. Full stop. No hired-hand nonsense at all. End of the subject insofar as the subject lies in his hands.

Time for a pause within the pause. What this parable is saying first of all is that, as far as Jesus is concerned, repentance involves not the admission of guilt or the acknowledge­ment of fault but the confession of death. Let me quote from myself in Between Noon and Three:

Confession is not a medicine leading to recovery. If we could recover — if we could say that beginning tomorrow or the week after next we would be well again — why then, all we would need to do would be apologize, not confess. We could simply say that we were sorry about the recent unpleas­antness, but that, thank God and the resilience of our better instincts, it is all over now. And we could confidently expect that no one but a real nasty would say us nay.

But we never recover. We die. And if we live again, it is not because the old parts of our life are jiggled back into line, but because, without waiting for realignment, some wholly other life takes up residence in our death. Grace does not do things tit-for-tat; it acts finally and fully from the start.

And that brings us to the second thing this parable is saying: as far as Jesus is concerned, all real confession — all confession that is not just a fudging of our tattered books but a plain admission that our books are not worth even a damn — is subsequent to forgiveness. Only when, like the prodigal, we are finally confronted with the unqualified gift of some­one who died, in advance, to forgive us no matter what, can we see that confession has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness; it is the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.

Every confession a Christian makes bears witness to this, because every confession, public or private, and every absolution, specific or general, is made and given subsequent to the one baptism we receive for the forgiveness of sins. We are forgiven in baptism not only for the sins committed before baptism but for a whole lifetime of sins yet to come. We are forgiven before, during, and after our sins. We are forgiven before, during, and after our confession of them. And we are forgiven for one reason only: because Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification. The sheer brilliance of the retention of infant baptism by a large portion of the church catholic is manifest most of all in the fact that babies can do absolutely nothing to earn, accept, or believe in forgiveness; the church, in baptizing them, simply declares that they have it. We are not forgiven, therefore, because we made our­selves forgivable or even because we had faith; we are forgiven solely because there is a Forgiver. And our one baptism for the forgiveness of sins remains the lifelong sacrament, the premier sign of that fact. No subsequent forgiveness — no eucharist, no confession — is ever anything more than an additional sign of what baptism sacramentalizes. Nothing new is ever done, either by us or by God, to achieve anything. It was all done, once and for all, by the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world — by the one God in the Person of the Word incarnate in Jesus. We may be unable, as the prodigal was, to believe it until we finally see it; but the God who does it, like the father who forgave the prodigal, never once had anything else in mind.

All of which takes us straight out of the pause mode and into the party. The father puts no intermediate steps between forgiveness and celebration. There is none of that, “Well, Arthur, you’re forgiven; but let’s have some good behavior now to make the deal stick” — none of that ungracious talk by which we make the house of forgiveness into a peniten­tiary. Instead, he turns to his servants and, bent on nothing but the party that life in his house was always meant to be, he commands the festivities to begin: “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

And there is the third and, if you will, the crucial death in the story: the killing of the fatted calf. Indeed, as far as I am concerned, the fatted calf is actually the Christ-figure in this parable. Consider. What does a fatted calf do? It stands around in its stall with one pur­pose in life: to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. If that doesn’t sound like the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world — who dies in Jesus and in all our deaths and who comes finally to the Supper of the Lamb as the pièce de résistance of his own wedding party — I don’t know what does. The fatted calf proclaims that the party is what the father’s house is all about, just as Jesus the dead and risen Bridegroom proclaims that an eternal bash is what the universe is all about.

Creation is not ultimately about religion, or spirituality, or morality, or reconciliation, or any other solemn subject; it’s about God having a good time and just itching to share it. The solemn subjects — all the weird little bells, whistles, and exploding snappers we pay so much attention to — are there only because we are a bunch of dummies who have to be startled into having a good time. If ever once we woke up to the fact that God finally cares only about the party, then the solemn subjects would creep away like pussycats (“Thank God! I thought they’d never leave!”) and the truly serious subjects would be brought on: robes, rings, shoes, wines, gold, crystal, and precious stones (“Finally! A little class in the act!”).

So now, if we were to sum up the parable thus far, it would be nothing but hilariously good news: the father, the prodigal, and the fatted calf are all dead; they are all three risen (the calf, admittedly, as a veal roast — but then, you can’t have everything); and everybody is having a ball. As Jesus put it succinctly: “They began to be merry.”

Robert Farrar Capon

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3 Responses to The Three Deaths in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

  1. Pais says:

    Fr. Aidan – I would love to hear your thoughts on a theological interpretation of the prodigal son’s relationship with his father. Barth attempts a Christological interpretation. What do those who hold to the monarchy of the Father say? Of course I am most interested in vv. 15:12 and its use of ousia.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Pais, thanks for your question. I’m afraid I do not have any special insights. I preached on the parable numerous times during my parochial ministry. While I cannot, of course, remember all my sermons, I suspected that in them I always highlighted the prodigality of the love of the father as emblematic of the absolute unconditional love of God. At times I would have focused on the repentance of the younger son; at other times the resentment of the elder son.

    I cannot recall if I ever preached a trinitarian sermon, identifying the father with the Father and the younger son with the incarnate Son. If I did, I would have articulated (or at least attempted to articulate) the vicarious repentance of Jesus and his identification with sinners. But that interpretation of the parable just doesn’t seem convincing, so I suspect I never took that line. For one thing it leaves out the elder son.

    What do you think?

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    • Pais says:

      Thanks for your reply Fr. Aidan.

      I think “ousia” only shows up once in the scriptures and deserves greater attention. Many will say that the prodigal son is an anti-hero that cannot be taken as a figure of Christ and thus certainly shouldn’t inform dogmatics, so be it. But it is terribly fascinating that the the sole use of ousia in the scriptures involves a son asking a father for it. Zizioulas is helpful here – the father never imparts his ousia to the son. But then, what is happening? I myself do not know.

      All the more interesting is that we are all told to ask “Our Father…to give us this day our epi-ousia.” It makes me wonder how the two relate.

      At a minimum, I can’t help but wonder if ousia, or epi-ousia, are to be seen as technical terms to pray for oneness amidst the great divide. I suppose I’m saying… our schism over the filioque which a-historically relates to the monarchy of the Father and an understanding of ousia perhaps can only be rectified by concerted prayer for… ousia. That is of course a pragmatic solution as we wait for a theological understanding.

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