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The Prodigal Son (First part)

Albrecht Dürer – The Prodigal Son

And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. 

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him,

  1. Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
  2. And am no more worthy to be called thy son:
  3. make me as one of thy hired servants.

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. And the son said unto him,

  1. Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight,
  2. and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

But the father said to his servants, 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 they began to be merry.

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

The father loves his two sons in two different ways. He loves the younger welcoming him and rejoicing. He loves the greater inviting him to reconcile with his brother and to join the party. The reason for the celebration is the joy for what was lost. The joy is a leit motive that recurs throughout the chapter 15 (cf. vv. 6.9.23-24.27). The joy also appears as a divine necessity (cf. vv. 7-10).

This divine necessity is expressed by the greek verb dei. To understand this verb, you must see how Luke uses it in the gospel. For example, Jesus reminds that you must not only  pay tithing (cfr. Lk 11:42-44), but also to do justice and to love God. However the Pharisees distance themselves from those people that need to experience justice, because of their social status.

When Jesus says that we should make merry, and be glad (v. 32), he says that in reference to the Scribes and Pharisees that murmured because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them (Lk 15:1-2). In short, Jesus loves to celebrate when someone who was lost is found (cfr. Lk 15:6.9). This human attitudine represents the fulfillment of the God’s plan. Now let’s discover the two faces of the love of God – of his project – in respect of the two sons.

When the younger son asks his portion of goods, the father raised no objections, as if the request represents an inalienable right of the child. This right is the autonomy from the Father. However this autonomy involves a departure from the house of the Father. In the original greek text, the father didn’t divide the property between the two sons, but the life itself (in greek bios).

The younger took his journey into a far country. In the Bible, the far country often indicates Babylon, the place where Jews lived as exiles for about forty years (Is 39:3; Jer 30:10; 46:27; 52:27). Therefore, it is a land of exile, alienation and bondage. It was an anonymous  land and it represents all the lands and places where the man is when he is away from his father’s house. This anonymity extends not only to the place where the younger son was, but also to the mysterious citizen of that country  (v.15) who sent the younger son into his fields to feed swine.

This anonymity is the face of all those situations where there isn’t the father. The anonymity also represents the persons we are forced to serve for two cents, when we have spent all. Above all the anonymity expresses the environment or the state of mind of the child who lives in exile, far from his father’s house: sadness, dullness, dryness. The claimed autonomy doesn’t lead us towards freedom, towards the promised land, but toward slavery, exile from ourselves and even shame (cf. Gn 3). All this is beautifully depicted by the great painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer (see picture above).

The engraving illustrates not only the characteristics of the far country, but also the way we perceive the reality around us when we are away from God, tasting the bitter fruits of our claimed and much-vaunted autonomy.

The images of desolation of the country are so effective because they are placed in comparison with other images well alive in the mind and in the heart of the young. These images were so stupid and senseless when the young decided to move away from the house of his father. Now those images cause instead great nostalgia. This is the first stage of the conversion. The young man came to himself (v.17), recontact the life from which it was separated but well present into him. This is not an abstract thing. Rather this is an imagine based on the memories of when he was in communion with God.

The object of the reflection of the younger son is the condition of the hired servants (v.17) who live better than him. First, indirectly, Luke describes how pleasant was to live in the father’s house and even the hired servants have bread enough. The young instead was perishing with hunger. In the greek text we have the verb apollumi to express the idea of being lost. Therefore, the condition of the younger son was not only hungry. He also is feeling lost, misplaced, offside, distant, estranged, in exile. This is the real hunger!

Therefore he had to return to be part of a family, of a group where there is no want of what it is really important. After the young man came home with the imagination, he decides to come back physically. Here is the actual procedure of conversion, i.e. a U-turn in the younger’s life.

While coming back to home the young was thinking what he had to say to his father:

  1. Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
  2. And am no more worthy to be called thy son:
  3. make me as one of thy hired servants.

Not far from home, his father sees him and runs to meet him, because he had compassion (in greek esplanchnisthe). Here is the reaction of the father in front of all the pain and concern that had given him his son. The greek verb splanghizomai can be translated to have compassion. We should also translate to be inwardly shocked. It was an emotional mix that made the father impatient, pushing him to run to meet his son, to hug him and kiss him. He doesn’t describe the reaction of the young, whether he returned or not the love of the father. The young has in mind the speech and perhaps he is anxious until he did. But he does not realize that the Father had already accepted him. Anyway the young wants make his speech:

  1. Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
  2. And am no more worthy to be called thy son

His father interrupted him, preventing him from making the third part of the speech: make me as one of thy hired servants. The father makes him say all he wants, but not how he should behave. The child remains son even away from his father’s home. It cannot be otherwise. In greek  hired servants is misthios i.e.  one who is paid to do something in favor of the landlord. Therefore the verb indicates a commercial relationship with the boss. Th verb doesn’t indicate a relationship between father and son and certainly not branch. (To be continued)

Simone Venturini


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