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.