Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Meditation on the Prodigal Son

“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.”

St. Luke 15:13-16
The Prodigal Son has taken his share of the inheritance from his Father, and is now journeying away from his Father’s House into the “far country.” First it would be noted that upon leaving the Father’s House the inheritance, glorious as it must be, is of no good use to the son once he has departed. Taken from the presence of the Father the inheritance cannot really help him. So it is with us: we may have many gifts and graces bestowed on us by God, whether they be ‘natural’ graces of intellect or ability, or even those gifts of grace that God bestows upon His children as especial and unique favours. But remove them from their end and goal in God, take them out of His House, His divine community, and they cease to be of any real use. So it is with anything one possesses in this world. And so we see the young man taking what he has into the far country.

The far country: it is a place alien to the Father’s House, by its very designation. It is in fact foreign to the young man himself; he does not belong there. Yet he finds that with his possessions, which he now uses for himself, he can support himself for a time. He is “reckless” in his living, it says, for in carrying his inheritance to the far country he ceases to use it within reason. Sin is the corruption of a good; it is a determinedly irrational action, for it violates the order that God has made the universe in. It contradicts God Himself, Who is the very Logos, the Maker of the universe. Thus the young man squanders his property for he turns it to the wrong uses. He tries to make himself a citizen of this city, and fulfill himself in it. But he cannot.

Instead, he “spends everything.” All his resources are wasted; and since he is away from Home, he cannot replenish them. They cease because he has left his Father. Now he finds himself “in need.” He experiences an existential crisis, so to speak, which only increases until he reaches his great epiphany; for he is caught in a “severe famine.” This famine is the ultimate emptiness of that “far country,” alienated from God, alienated from the good, alienated from any sense of true fulfillment. It is a hungry land, for it has rejected God. Why is the famine said to suddenly strike? Was it not always there? It was, in a sense, but the young man and his companions were able to stave it off through their limited resources. Man entertains himself and distracts himself, desperately (though he hardly knows or acknowledges it) seeking to escape the famine. He ignores it through means of money, sex, power, food, drink, entertainment, whatever can fill his mind. He surrounds himself with pleasures and noises, not so much because he truly enjoys them, but because without them he would succumb immediately to the famine.

So the young man is caught in the midst of the famine. He has expended all that he took from his Father’s House; he must place himself at the mercy of the citizens of the far country. However, he finds in them none of the love and abundance of his Father’s House. Instead, he is sent to feed pigs. He remains hungry, for the people of that place “gave him nothing.” Why? For two reasons: first, they truly have nothing to give. They also are empty people, even if they possess the goods of the world. Second, it is not in their manner to give: the young man’s money has disappeared, and so has his importance and worth in the world. For the system of the far country sees humans in terms of “use” and varying degrees of importance. It is a system which allows for the murder of the unborn, for the ignoring of the elderly, for apathy towards the oppressed. It is concerned only with self. The young man is now at the low point of his existential despair, down in the bottom of the pig-pen, but the citizens of the world will not, cannot offer him anything.

But it is at this point, where he is gripped by the depths of the famine’s hunger, that he is finally able to “come to himself.” There are no more distractions; the only noise he can hear is the slopping of pigs, and it is through this undignified silence that he finally hears the voice of reason beating in himself. He cannot escape the despair of his situation; the nagging dissatisfaction he had always had could not be sated with wine, women, or song: the whole artifice he had bought into, wasted his Father’s property in, is now exposed in its emptiness. He is hungry, and there is nothing else to fill him.

“But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, 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 arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the 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 servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate.”

St. Luke 15:17-24
We all know the conclusion of the young man’s story. The young man does at last come to his sense; he rises up from the pig-sty and journeys back to his Father. The emptiness of the world into which he wandered, seeking fulfillment, has at last been laid fully bare before him. He realizes his great need and finally gives in to it. He returns to God, and is met with open arms. Where the citizens of the world had met him with further emptiness the Father meets him with all his riches and honor; where the citizens of the world had drawn away from him when the famine came, the Father welcomes him with the fullness of love. The citizens of the far country are distant, offering nothing; the Father feels compassion and kisses his son, immediately removing the alienation and separation. The story does not end at the existential dead-end; it unfolds instead into a “eucatastrophe” in which the young man does not remain in the deadness, the emptiness of the far country, but is brought back to life- he was “dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” There is a happy reversal- he is resurrected from the death of sin into the life of the Father’s House. The love and fullness of God triumphs.


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