But when he came to himself

But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.’ ”

Luke 15:17–19

It is commonplace to say that parables, indeed the whole of scripture, can be read in multiple ways. All scripture is metaphor. All reading is interpretation and every interpretation is subject to discernment of the Spirit for this moment and for these Times.

This parable of the so-called ‘Prodigal Son’ is a core text for understanding the relationship between a human and God. One reading of the text suggests that we are given an inheritance, our life, and we squander it on “getting and spending”, on consumerism, on entertainment-ism, and many other kinds of seeking solidity. In other words, addiction. Or as Ignatius would say, “inordinate attachments”. We forget that we already have everything we need. Then, one day, if we are lucky, we come to our senses, to our right mind, to our selves – conversion – and we return ‘home’, whatever that is for us. There is nothing left. We feel guilty and ashamed. We know our need. We expect to be judged. We anticipate condemnation. We think we will be humiliated. And indeed, as the story offers, there is an ‘older brother’ in each of us who does just that. But there is also a ‘father’ who has been waiting for us, who will welcome us home, clothe and feed us, and give us a place.

By this reading, our society is an addict, fantastically ‘prodigal’, and far from ‘home’. As I heard Marilynne Robinson say on Start the Week yesterday, “I miss civilisation and I want it back.”


It came to me that this story can be read as instructions for prayer.

Our place is home, in the present, here and now, where God, the Father, abides, within us and in our midst. Our inheritance is our fundamental being, our presence, the gift of life and creatureliness, gifted and offered breath by breath.

To pray is to cradle our inheritance.

The experience of prayer, though, is that we take our inheritance and we squander it. The mind wanders. We start to think about the other places, other times. We want to sort out our life. We want to be a better person. We hanker after an imagined past. We hurry on to a receding future. We make plans and shopping lists. We fret, filled with worry, regret, and resentment.

Then we come to ourselves and realise that we have not been praying at all. We castigate ourselves. We are no good at praying. We cannot empty our minds. We cannot remember God for even one minute. We have wasted our time. We are contrite or despairing. I’m no good. Why even bother? The older brother makes his appearance on the scene.

We expect God to be disappointed. We expect a slap for lack of concentration – as if prayer were a piano lesson and God the teacher rapping our knuckles with a ruler for each mis-struck key.

Then, one day, we discover, to our astonishment, that God has been waiting while our mind has been on other matters and is simply delighted that we have returned ‘home’. God has not gone anywhere. God is not tapping her fingers in frustration. God is utterly present, constant. No contrition, explanation, or abasement is needed. All of that sort of thing is another way to waste time. God gathers us into her arms and kisses us.

And then we’re off, gone out to play. 

Do you want the truth? Look around you. Look at the world. Listen: it is the Father who is ‘prodigal’: extravagant, excessive, intemperate, irresponsible, and reckless in love.

Holy Island (photo by Julian Maddock)

6 thoughts on “But when he came to himself

  1. I can’t feel any enthusiasm for this article. It starts with a false premise (Scripture can be read in multiple ways) so it’s no surprise it wanders off down by-path meadow. It’s a lovely meadow, but the path through it doesn’t lead to the same destination.
    The prodigal son is not about prayer, even though both prayer and Scripture are about our relationship with God.
    Scripture is not about what we find in it. It can be made to say, “There is no God,” If we choose to be really selective, but we all know what rubbish that would be.
    Scripture is what God intends us to hear and to know. To find that out, we have to discover the original meaning of its human authors to its original headers/readers, and recognise that any meaning we think we find in the text is not going to conflict with that.
    It is a massive contraction of the text to read it as instruction on prayer. That simply brings its meaning inside the self and makes it all about ‘me’ and ‘my spirituality’.
    The prodigal son is about our rebellion against and rejection of our loving Creator-Father-God. Only when we realise the abject poverty of what we can achieve for ourselves in spiritual terms are we in a position to ‘come to [our] senses’ and return to the Father who is waiting for us to do so. He welcomes back the repentant sinner, and restores them to full relationship with him.
    The difficulty of focusing on prayer is real, but is not addressed by the parable. What is said about prayer in the article is largely true (but it is massive presumption to make a habit of referring to God as ‘she,’ when the whole of Scripture, whilst affirming that God is unlike us, nevertheless refers directly to God only by the masculine forms), but is more properly found in other places of Scripture.
    The problem with the article is that this sort of thing is taken by some well-meaning people as if it were a profound insight, and they pass it on to others, allowing its by-path to become a well-trodden way. The author would do better to read Scripture for its authors’ intention, and through that find its Author’s intention, and to apply that under the Spirit’s guidance to the practical realities of daily life as a Christian.

    1. Dear jemlef

      Thank you for taking the trouble to read and comment so fully and thoughtfully on my writing. It is good to have critiques and corrections.

      I understand that some of that I say contradicts what many Christians are taught. I anticipate some criticism for this. I also know that there is much I don’t know and I am grateful for your ideas.

      There is one thing I want to hold out for above all else, because it is my personal experience. God’s love for us is constant and always present. Our ‘rebellion’ or ‘rejection’ or ‘wandering off down a by-path’ hurts us and pains God, but does not change God’s love, and does not result in any rupture in our relationship with God on His/Her side. Consequently, I understand ‘restoration’ as being welcomed by God and shown that there has never been any rupture in God’s love and no price that has to be paid for reconciliation. Repentance is good for me but not a precondition of God’s love.

      My understanding is that there is a long tradition of reading scripture that goes way back before Jesus. It respects the original author’s intentions, and it respects what the Spirit may wish to reveal to me and us in our present time. Any reading of scripture that condemns people or lacks a full appreciation of God’s unflappable love needs another look.

      Blessings,
      Julian

  2. I am very struck by the evocative nature of your phrase ‘to pray is to cradle our inheritance’.
    To nurture the gift and the inner life I have already been given, and am constantly being gifted with.
    Thank you

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