The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells us practically everything we need to know about our relationship to God, if we attend to its details.
“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’” To live properly in God is to live in an attitude of receptivity and generosity, receiving a gift from God and being always ready to give it away. God respects our freedom and so “the father divided up the property.” But this is a tragic moment. What is meant to be a flow of grace becomes divided, separated, riven into yours and mine.
Where does the son then go? He wanders with his fortune into the “far country.” In Greek this is the chora makra, the great wide-open emptiness. There he quickly squanders his inheritance, and so it always goes. When we cling to the divine life as our own, we lose it. He was forced to hire himself out so as to become a feeder of pigs. In the chora makra, there are only relationships of economic calculation, each one striving to hang on to what is his. “No one made a move to give him anything,” and so it goes in the far country. It is the place of no giving.
Coming to his senses at last, he decides to break away and return to his father, saying, “Treat me like one of your hired hands.” He knows that even the slaves are in a life-giving relationship.
The father sees him from a long way off (he had obviously been looking for him) and then, throwing caution and respectability to the winds, he comes running out to meet him. The Bible is not the story of our quest for God, but of God’s passionate, relentless quest for us. The father exclaims, “Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.” Some Church Fathers saw this as the ring of marriage, symbolizing the re-establishment of right relation between us and God.
The parable then turns to the older son. Though superficially different from his brother, they are actually in the same spiritual space for he too sees himself in an economic relationship to his father. Like most upright, religiously respectable people, he is put off by this celebration for someone who most assuredly does not deserve it. Listen to his language: “For years I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed any of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends.” He is a slave, and one who carefully obeys – not one who has caught the spirit of his father. He feels that he has to earn or deserve his father’s love. He hates his brother and is resentful of his father’s generosity. “Then when this son of yours returns after having gone through your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him.” When we fall out of love with God, we fall into hatred of one another.
The father patiently explains: “My son, you are with me always, and everything I have is yours.”
In the end, this is the key to the entire parable and is true for both sons, though they don’t realize it.
Everything that God has is given to us. His whole being is “for-giving.”