God: The Prodigal Father (Lk. 15:11-32)

Feast of St Hilarion the New

rembrandt_prodigal_son_Square.jpgGOD IS dead, and we have killed him,” cried the Madman in Neitzche’s The Gay Science. The Darwinian century (the 19th) offered a way out from under the nagging worry that there just might be a God, and perhaps, contrary to the devil’s promise to Adam, men might not really be gods after all, technology notwithstanding. Darwin painted a picture of an utterly mechanistic process of evolution, in which the struggle for survival ensured that only the fittest would survive. No creator. No Law. No ultimate meaning and purpose. Men free to do as they please. How liberating!

Humanity engaged in a “creative destruction” which used eugenics, sterilization and euthanasia as a means of helping evolution along. Social Darwinism justified the utterly inhuman treatment of the working classes in the industrial revolution. War was applauded as a way to weed out the weaker nations. But what began as a joyful, “creative destruction” ended about a century later with the devastation of two world wars that left Europe and much of Asia in a rubble. A “creative destruction” that nearly wiped out the entire Jewish race. Very creative indeed, depending on your perspective.

Understandably, by mid-twentieth century, the tune is more somber. There is a sense that there is no exit from man’s inhumanity to man. Jean Paul Sartre, in his play No Exit, gives poignant expression to that pessimism, a characterization he would have denied, seeing himself as defiant rather than poignant. But his sense that we make our own hell, that it involves other people, and that there is no hope of forgiveness or reconciliation is echoed by many other twentieth century writers as well. Without God, there simply is no hope for mankind.

Were the 19th and 20th centuries an anomaly? No. There is nothing new under the sun. Genesis shares the story of Adam and Eve, who also sought to be like gods, and as a result were exiled from Paradise. Jesus, too, understands well our propensity to prefer exile to obedience.

But His response is not what we expect. Take this younger son, for instance. Not only is he so vile as to tell his father he wishes he were dead (the real meaning of asking for his inheritance immediately, while his father is still alive), but he ends up completely defiled. He has collapsed from the heights of plenty to find himself struggling to find a scrap of food. He has not only fallen to tending animals, but to the depths of tending pigs owned by gentile unbelievers. Still, he is starving to death. No one – none of those he once regaled with his parties and high living – even thinks to share a crumb with him. Completely alone, forgotten, and without hope, this young man surely has created his own hell. Is there no exit for him?

Does he deserve one?  The thought comes to him: “Maybe I can get my father to feed me.” It is purely a survival strategy – not true repentance – that turns his legs toward home. Is the effort futile? Or will he just come back around to the hell he has created for himself?

The Scribes and Pharisees, to whom Jesus is speaking, expect the young man to be turned away in accordance with the customs of their culture. The wronged father should be sitting on his throne inside the house, awaiting the prostrations of the errant son. Perhaps he might permit him to earn his way back into favor. Or he might have him beaten in punishment. 

But Jesus overturns their expectations. Instead of rejecting the fallen child, the Father reaches through the closed circle of despair to rescue him. The unmerited grace that rushes out to meet the boy, to embrace him, to restore to sonship a broken humanity overturns the hopeless misery of a world closed in on its own unsavory devices. It is good news indeed to hear that there is a God, that this world did not create itself, that it has meaning and purpose, that it is heading for life beyond our expectations, and that the Lord of this universe awaits our return with open arms.

Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas where she has been Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department, founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University and Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita. She has also served on Eighth Day Institute’s Board of Directors.


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