The Prodigal Son and His Festival of Death

I daresay that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the best-known of our Lord’s parables. And it may also be one of the most misunderstood—at least so thinks Robert Farrar Capon.

A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to the father, “Father, give me the share of the property falling to me.” And he divided his living between them. And not many days later, the younger son, having collected everything, departed for a far country, and dissipated his property by living prodigally. When he had spent everything a severe famine spread throughout that country, and he began to be in need. And he went and attached himself to one of that country’s citizens, and he sent him into his fields to feed the pigs; And he longed to fill his stomach with the carob pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. And coming to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired men are overflowing with bread, but I am here perishing from famine. I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired ser­vants.'” And he rose and went to his own father. And while he was yet far away his father saw him and was inwardly moved with pity, and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him fervently. And his son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and place a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us sit and have good cheer, Because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again, was lost and has been found.” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24)

“The parable is an absolute festival of death . . . ,” Capon declares. Have you ever thought about it in this way? Though I always preached the story as driven by the father’s passion­ate desire for the return of his beloved son, and though I always described the son as having descended into a state of abject lostness, I did not see the pervasive presence of death until I read Capon. He continues: “. . . 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” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 294).

Suicide, how so?

Think of it like this. The son comes to his father and asks for his share of the estate ahead of time, or as Capon puts it, “he tells his father to put his will into effect, to drop legally dead right on the spot” (p. 294). The father surprisingly obliges. He gives his younger son a pallet of cash and effectively makes the elder son the owner of the farm; in other words, he puts himself out of the paterfamilias business.

The second death of the parable occurs when the younger son has squandered his inheri­tance and ends up living with the swine. Capon suggests we think of his death as occurring in two stages. The initial stage occurs in the far country, when “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” (p. 294). He cannot con­ceive of recon­ciliation with his father (“I am no longer worthy to be called your son”), and so he concocts a new plan for his future (“Treat me as one of your hired servants”). He will become a paid worker on his father’s estate. So he begins the journey home, intend­ing to abase himself and enter into a contractual relationship with the man who raised him as son and heir. “But what he does not yet see,” comments Capon, “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” (p. 295).1

The death of the prodigal is finalized when he arrives home. Though Jesus does not tell us what he was thinking when he saw his Father come rushing toward him in love and joy, we do see the result: the son deletes from his scripted confession his plea for employment. His father’s munificent welcome has made the request impossible:

The father simply sees this corpse of a son coming down the road and, because 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. . . . 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 his 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. (pp. 295-296)

Salvation is not a teaching moment. It’s not a new opportunity to get things right before likely damnation. It is the embrace of death for resurrection:

Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to improve the improvable, not to perfect the perfectible, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead. He never met a corpse that didn’t sit right up then and there. And he never meets us with­out bringing us out of nothing into the joy of his resurrection.2

What then is repentance–confession? Capon’s take is unique and provocative: it is recognition that we are corpses in need of new life, not a transactional event but a waiting upon our Easter:

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. (p. 297)3

This is what Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit do: they raise the dead! “This son of mine was dead and has come to life again, was lost and has been found.” Slaughter the fatted calf and begin the feasting!

Here is the third and crucial death of the parable—the killing of the fatted calf! It is the most important death of the story, Capon tells us, because Jesus himself is the meat and drink of the banquet:

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. . . .

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.” (pp. 298-299)

I know that readers will find Capon’s formulation of repentance–absolution eccen­tric, so I’d like to note the profound agreement between him and the Roman Catholic theologian Her­bert McCabe, with whom he shares an identical understanding of the divine love. If God loves us unconditionally, then we must rethink the relationship between repentance and forgiveness. It cannot be the case that our peni­tence wins clemency by way of fulfilling a contractual prerequisite, for the Father forever meets us in the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He loves the wicked—scandalously, prodigally, astonishingly. That he does so is our salvation:

[God’s] love for us doesn’t depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no differ­ence to him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love. Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan. Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn’t matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn’t give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damns.4

If God does not give a damn about our sins, if our transgressions do not diminish his love for us, what then does his forgiveness mean? Clearly it does not mean what it means in social intercourse. When we forgive someone in ordinary life, it’s because they have injured us; but in the transcendent plenitude of his impassible and immuta­ble Being, the Creator can­not be wounded, damaged, or offended by our sins. Hence when we describe him as forgiving us, we are speaking figuratively. McCabe explains:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word ‘forgiving’ in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the recreative and redemptive side of forgiveness. All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.5

McCabe invites us to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the light of sin’s corruption of our vision of God:

The younger son in the story has escaped hell because he has seen his sin for what it is. He has recognized what it does to his vision of God: ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired ser­vants’ (Lk. 15.21). And, of course, as soon as he really accepts that he is a sinner, he ceases to be one; knowing that you have sinned is contrition or forgiveness, or whatever you like to call it. The rest of the story is not about the father forgiving his son, it is about the father celebrating, welcoming his son with joy and feasting. This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is uncon­di­tionally in love with us.6

Capon and McCabe do differ, though, in their respective conceptions of sacramental con­fession. Whereas Capon understands confession–absolution as the sacramentalization of that which is eternally true in the life of the Trinity, McCabe underscores contrition as the gratuitous actualization of God’s salvation:

The initiative is always literally with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of sin is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is a trauma of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgive­ness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are a gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom again.7

Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you—that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what your forgiveness is. You are not forgiven because you confess your sin. You confess your sin, recognize yourself for what you are, because you are forgiven. When you come to confession, to make a ritual proclama­tion of your sin, to symbolize that you know what you are, you are not coming in order to have your sins forgiven. You don’t come to confession in order to have your sins forgiven. You come to celebrate that your sins are forgiven. You come to put on the best robe and the ring on your finger and the sandals on your feet, and to get drunk out of your mind, because your blindfold and your blindness have gone, and you can see the love God has for you.8

It’s not clear to me if we have a real disagreement here or just a difference of emphasis. As we have seen, Capon agrees with McCabe that we do not go to confession to persuade or compel God to forgive. The sacrament is not a transaction in that sense.9 So forget every­thing you might have learned in catechism classes about perfect and imperfect contri­tion and the conditions for efficacious priestly absolution, Capon would tell us.10 McCabe probably wouldn’t go that far, but he doesn’t need to, given that he believes that contrition—the recognition of the penitent that he or she is a sinner—is God’s forgiveness in action.11 But it seems to me that McCabe’s position remains vulnerable to the question “How do I know I’m truly contrite?” That question simply does not arise within the Caponian vision, for the Father has gathered all humanity into the eternal reconciliation accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of his incarnate Son. So believe, rejoice, and get on with loving Jesus and your neighbors. My assessment: Capon’s construal enables genuine evangelical preach­ing and makes better sense of the Western formula of absolution (“I absolve you . . .”); McCabe’s construal clarifies the relationship between the repentance of the penitent and priestly absolution—it’s all grace!

To be forgiven is nothing less than baptism into the Trinitarian life of God, ever-repeated. McCabe and Capon have purged from traditional soteriology all hints of juridi­cism and retribution. There is no dark side in God, no antinomy between the God of love and the God of wrath, no Deus absconditus behind the back of Jesus. There is only the astonish­ing, stupefying Love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But this is not the end of the story. What of the elder son?


[1] Listen to Capon: “The Father Who Lost Two Sons.”

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three, p. 129.

[3] For a chapter-length discussion on the non-transactional nature of the Sacrament of Penance, see Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox (1974), pp. 145-152. Succintly: “Once you get rid of the transactional emphasis, Penance takes on a new meaning. It’s not a special piece of business by which your purchase something you couldn’t get elsewhere, but a special kind of party at which you celebrate what you have always had, but were lately, perhaps, guilty of neglecting. There are the two of you in the funny little box—priest and penitent, a couple of perpetually forgiven sinners—telling each other, from different points of view, incredible old stories about what a friend we have in Jesus” (p. 151). This out-of-print title is now included in The Romance of the Word (1996).

[4] Herbert McCabe, “Forgiveness,” Faith Within Reason (2007), p. 157.

[5] Herbert McCabe, “The Forgiveness of God,” God, Christ and Us (2005), p. 122. The Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke puts these words in the mouth of Jesus when we, like the prodigal son, return to the Lord: “You are right,” he says, “you are lost, if you look only to yourselves. Who is there who has not lied, murdered, committed adultery? Who does not have this possibility lurking in his heart? You are right when you give yourself up as lost. But look, now something has happened that has nothing to do with your attitudes at all, something that is simply given to you. Now the kingdom of God is among you, now the father’s house is wide open. And I—I am the door, I am the way, I am the life, I am the hand of the Father. He who sees me sees the Father. And what do you see when you see me? You see one who came to you down in the depths where you could never rise to the heights. You see that God ‘so’ loved the world that he delivered me, his Son, to these depths, that it cost him something to help you, that it cost the very agony of God, that God had to do something contrary to his own being to deal with your sin, to recognize the chasm between you and himself and yet bridge it over. All this you see when you look at me!” The Waiting Father (1959), p. 28.

[6] McCabe, Faith Within Reason, p. 156.

[7] Herbert McCabe, “Hope,” God, Christ and Us, p. 16.

[8] McCabe, Faith Within Reason, pp. 158-159.

[9] See “The Mystery of the Non-transactional God.”

[10] “Take sacramental confession to a priest, for example. On its surface, it looks for all the world like a transaction. A sinner, foundering in her sins, comes to the confessional box. The priest hears her sad tale of guilt and shame and then, with the magic zap of absolution, sends her home pure as the driven snow. But that won’t wash. Every Sunday, in the Nicene Creed, she proclaims her acknowledgment of ‘one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.’ In her baptism, she was clothed with an irremovble suit of forgiveness. All the sins she ever committed were committed inside that suit: she was forgiven before, during, and after every last one of them. She does not ‘get’ forgiveness from the priest; rather, the priest pronounces over her—really, authoritatively, sacramentally—the one forgiveness she always has. So it is indeed an absolution she receives; but it is not a new absolution, or a retreading of an absolution that wore off—or God forbid, a handeling, a bargaining with God for an absolution she has to earn by proper contrition. It’s the same old free gift she never lost, but that she has finally, by renewed faith, woken up to yet again. The priest’s words do indeed ‘convey’ it to her faith in that dark box; but she in no substantive way acquires it.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Romance of the Word, p. 23.

[11] I find McCabe’s understanding of contrition ambiguous. In his above-cited article “Forgiveness,” he seems to equate contrition with divinely-given insight and self-knowledge: “I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” What is missing here is the determination or resolve not to sin again, which is always included in Catholic catechetical definitions of contrition (including McCabe’s own The Teaching of the Catholic Church, 117). Perhaps he believes that this resolution to change one’s behavior is implicit in the knowledge that one is a “sinner.” To be honest, I’m not sure how often the contrition I have brought to the Sacrament of Penance has included a firm and genuine commitment not to sin again. Another description of contrition, quoted above: “Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.” I like this explanation very much, but again I note the absence of intent. I’m sure that the formal prayer of contrition should include a vow to avoid sin (or try to avoid sin, or to try to try to avoid sin, or to want to try to try to avoid sin); but I’ve come to believe that the promise is more an eschatolog­ical hope than genuine commitment. Above all we need to be honest, both with ourselves and with God. McCabe elaborates on the perfect/imperfect contrition distinction in his early book The New Creation (1964), chap. 5. He writes: “From these premisses it would follow both that an act of perfect contrition is sufficient for the forgiveness of sin even without the sacrament of penance itself, and that attrition is sufficient for the forgiveness of sins provided that we actually receive the sacrament. On the view that I am suggesting it is quite obvious why this should be so: perfect contrition just is the forgiveness of sins; it is the grace of this sacrament, and the effect of this sacrament is precisely to make attrition into perfect contrition” (p. 80). Perhaps this would be McCabe’s answer to my concern: priestly absolution tranforms the defective dispositions of the penitent into true and perfect contrition. I suspect Capon would dismiss this as unnecessary (and potentially injurious) gobbledygook.

(Go to “The Elder Son”)

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7 Responses to The Prodigal Son and His Festival of Death

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    “But it seems to me that McCabe’s position remains vulnerable to the question “How do I know I’m truly contrite?””
    I am not sure it does – we are contrite to the extent we are contrite. If contrition is a good given to us by God in his (prior) forgiveness, rather than a hurdle we must cross in order to receive a (separate) good of forgiveness from God, then even the smallest amount of contrition is a sign that God has forgiven us and enabled such contrition as we are capable of, and there will be only true, complete and total contrition when we are finally perfectly united with God.
    I think it’s fair to say that, while undoubtedly in part contrite, the prodigal son is still not fully contrite even when he resolves to go home and ask to be a hired hand, since he is still, as he started, refusing to be his father’s son: it’s only when his father rushes out to forgive and embrace him that he is truly contrite and abandons his rejection of his father.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have added a new McCabe quotation in fn.10. I think you might like it, Iain.


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        As a Protestant I am afraid find the Orthodox / Catholic ideas around the sacrament of confession confusing, at least in my imperfect understanding of it, since it seems like the church insisting that there is a formal ritual requirement gatekeeping God’s forgiveness, which doesn’t seem right to me. If I understand McCabe’s take rightly, however, and it may be viewed rather as a sacrament through which God bestows contrition – or more perfect contrition – on the sinner then it becomes something I can start to get my head around. It’s not something, though, that within my own tradition I have had direct experience of (although the Anglican church still, in theory, offers it).


  2. Logan(mercifullayman) says:

    I think a question of interest is somewhat different in a teleological sense. In the son’s “returning” he isn’t ever looking back and in fact his gaze is fixed far before any sense of contrition is manifested. So is it “metanoia” that occurs with the turn that is the act itself? Is the awareness simply of “wrong” and the move to turn a driving of the story? Repentance doesn’t seem to take more than merely the acceptance of state and then a step towards what we know returns us to proper action. Any other feelings that arise would then be secondary to the “turn” and procession out of the subjective infatuation with oneself. Or to put it another way, the realization that the individual will cannot be full until it rests in the Absolute will…the Other who also sustains it and gives it the Identity it truly needs to be Itself. Even that awareness…is it enough?

    And also, is this story one that works in reverse, where the meaning of the son’s actions have already given credence to the actions of the Father in retroaction. Is contrition built into the fabric of the act precisely because in a sense, the father is already contrite in the first act? In doing this, he already knows the result by which his son will suffer and yet return, so the father’s act of extreme joy isn’t so much of return but also the act that, in a sense, releases the father from his own guilt of giving the son exactly what he asked for in spite of what would occur?


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      At the start of the story the son hates the father and no longer wishes to be his son – this is the point of the son taking his inheritance early and effectively disowning his own father. At the end of the story the son is reconciled to the father and restored to the family. If we assume that the father knows what is going to happen he has agreed the request and accepted the financial loss, humiliation and public scandal in order to restore the son’s broken relationship with himself. The father will be grieved at what the son is going to do to himself to stubbornly spite his father, but I don’t think guilt comes into it (especially if the father is supposed to represent God).


      • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

        I guess I would say the notion he “hates” his father is an interjection and assumption (which is allowable but not necessary) most people make. To me, it isn’t so much about hate as much as choosing self over the other. So, in a sense, yes, the father very much has to enter into the very arena of loss, heartache, etc to be able to allow the son the space to return to where he truly belongs in the first place. In a sense, it’s just a retelling of the fall. It’s the same conundrum that Adam encounters albeit a different path, and so the fall is in a “sense” an “inevitability” that must happen in order for all to be made well. It isn’t so much guilt that drags one down but rather the acceptance of an inevitability that not only restores his relationship with the son’s own identity but that his own identity is rooted in his “son-ness”. It is both universal and particular at that point.


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