The Prodigal Son: A parable for our times

The Prodigal Son: A parable for our times

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most memorable and moving of all Our Lord Jesus Christ’s parables. Many who cannot name all Ten Commandments can nevertheless give a rough outline of the story. It has been widely represented in Christian art since the Middle Ages, and even today is often referenced in literature and film.

Its divine themes—grievous sin, terrible suffering, true repentance, and unconditional forgiveness—are like the finger of God touching the very heart of the human condition. No matter how often we see others follow the same path of perdition as the Prodigal Son, our pride fools us into thinking that our lives will end differently.

No matter how much we are warned, we fall into sin. No matter how much we sin, we repent only when we encounter suffering. And no matter how virtuous we think we are, we are all Prodigal Sons in need of forgiveness from an all-merciful Father. These themes touch Americans very deeply.

On the one hand, we are a nation that maintains a good and healthy regard for justice, especially towards unrepentant evildoers. We cheer the policeman who arrests the rogue criminal and find satisfaction in his just reward of a long jail sentence. We still support, by a large majority, the death penalty for our very worst criminals. We instinctively fight back against Islamic terrorism and—to the horror of liberals everywhere—cheer when unarmed American civilians beat unconscious would-be terrorists on a French train, or when an American Navy warship blows Somali pirates out of the water.

But something has changed in the American soul over the last few generations. Although we still have a love of justice, we increasingly refuse to take responsibility for our actions. We shirk our duties and obligations. We have the tendency to blame everyone and everything except ourselves for our faults and failings. And worst of all, we feel no shame for assigning blame and even cheer those who do so.

This mentality dominates in so many parts of our culture. Our legal system is overwhelmed with frivolous lawsuits from people who often take advantage of their own mistakes to extort money from others. Husbands and wives often blame each other for their marital disputes and prefer divorce to working through difficulties. Hollywood glamorizes characters that live for themselves and shirk responsibility, and even portray idealistic and self-sacrificing people as stupid or naïve.

We teach this mentality to our youth. When “helicopter parents” berate their children’s teachers for daring to give them a less-than-stellar grade, or when they confront a referee who made an unfavorable call in a sports game—regular occurrences today—those children learn that actions have no consequences. When able-bodied fathers sign up for food stamps rather than earn an honest living, or when career women abort their unborn children so they can continue to climb the corporate ladder, children learn that irresponsibility pays off.

A generation of Americans has grown up immersed in this ethic of irresponsibility. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out. Without a widespread conversion, a culture of irresponsibility naturally falls into a death spiral. Selfish, irresponsible people corrode their own culture, economy, and family structure, which leads to further selfishness, finger-pointing, and irresponsibility.

That brings us back to the Prodigal Son. In His infinite Wisdom, Our Lord Jesus Christ’s parables were given as supreme examples for all times and all peoples. Indeed, the parable of the Prodigal Son has many striking similarities with the specific situation in which America finds herself, and provides a clear path to repentance and conversion if we are willing to take it.

The Prodigal Son certainly didn’t leave his father’s house thinking he might end up herding swine. Although he walked away from immense wealth and happiness, he probably thought that he could enjoy the pleasures of the world while avoiding the pitfalls that befell other, less “enlightened” young men. His father, no doubt, warned him of the dangers of the world, but even he was unable to sway his son’s determination.

For a little while at least, he spent his father’s inheritance enjoying all the delights the world had to offer. Food, drink, and prostitutes were his new idols. Secure with his inheritance and new “friends,” he likely scoffed at his father’s paternal advice. When he talked about his father—if he did at all—he may have even mocked his former life at home.

In spite of all his father’s paternal advice and love, it was only through suffering that the Prodigal Son began to seriously consider the folly of his life. A great famine came upon the land, making life expensive. The Prodigal Son soon ran out of money and was reduced to herding swine. Worse than any physical suffering must have been his public humiliation. His new master may have known him before the famine struck, saw him frequent the local taverns, and stagger back drunk to his comfortable lodgings. If so, he probably didn’t let him forget it, as he went about his daily tasks taking care of his master’s pigs.

The Prodigal Son likely had many legitimate grievances against others for his predicament. The famine that exposed his bad decisions was not his fault. Our Lord did not give a cause, but it could very well have been a man-made disaster. Perhaps the “ruling class” of that country, like the Prodigal Son himself, made bad decisions, which destroyed the local economy. There might have been a war that exhausted the whole country and crippled agriculture. As a rich man in a foreign country, he was certainly a target for thieves and hucksters.

As he sat watching the swine devour the husks that he so ardently wished to eat, many ideas must have flashed through his mind. He may have been tempted to wallow in self-pity. He could have spent his days, telling anyone willing to listen, all the gory details of how “they” caused his misfortune.

This is the effeminate response to a crisis. Effeminate men are unable to do the two things that define manliness: take responsibility for their actions and to do one’s duty regardless of the difficulty. They blame others for their own faults, create intricate justifications for their irresponsibility, and above all criticize men who don’t make excuses (behind their backs, of course).

The Prodigal Son, on the contrary, reacted to his predicament with true manliness. It took courage to confront his failings directly, to say the words “I have sinned” and to ask for forgiveness. To be sure, there certainly were factors outside his control that contributed to his misfortunes, but he recognized that he alone bore ultimate responsibility. It took manly heroism to humiliate himself in front of his father, older brother and their whole household after he had so proudly defied them and suffered the consequences.

This timeless parable has many lessons for us Americans today. Our culture, economy, and society are in crisis. As John Horvat points out in his book, Return to Order, we are spending our inheritance like passengers on a great cruise ship without any consideration for tomorrow. While we are enjoying ourselves, our government is paralyzed, our economy is plunging full speed into bankruptcy, and the traditional family is disfigured almost beyond recognition. A modern-day famine in the form of an economic crash would plunge the whole world into chaos.

Like the Prodigal Son, we have a choice. We can listen to the many voices of irresponsibility coming from both the left and the right. They place the blame exclusively on others, be it “Wall Street”, the Chinese, or the “1%.” These outside forces, to be sure, have indeed played a role in undermining our economy. But to place the blame entirely on them is akin to a man who blames a casino for taking his money. The casino certainly was dishonest in its dealings with him, but no matter how one may spin it, the blame for his loss lies entirely in his disordered tendencies and vices.

We must reject this effeminate response and imitate the manly example of the Prodigal Son. Like him, we must look inward very deeply and ask ourselves if our vices, and not some faceless external enemy, are the root cause of our predicament. How much do I participate in the “frenetic intemperance” of our modern economy? Have I participated in the cruise ship mentality, spending as if there were no tomorrow? Do I grieve for our beloved nation, or do I shrug my shoulders at her destruction as if it were the bankruptcy of a Fortune 500 company (a pity to be sure, but no real loss)?

Do I live according to the Rule of Money, which elevates all that is vulgar, egalitarian, and materialistic, or the Rule of Honor, which admires the sublime, heroic, and noble? Do I embrace the restraining influence of Christian morality in economy, with its natural checks and balances rooted in the Ten Commandments, or do I participate in the modern mania for destruction of every barrier and restraint? If so, am I willing to turn away from this path and return to my Father’s house, or do I care only for myself and for today, with no regard for tomorrow?

Our society and economy will return to order only after we take responsibility for our actions and do our duty to God and country, no matter how difficult. The father of the Prodigal Son was willing and ready to receive him at any moment, but he was powerless to help his son until the day when he stopped blaming others, admitted his guilt, repented of his sins and returned to his father’s house. But no matter how sinful he had been, the father was willing to forgive and forget in an instant all the evil his son had done, and to even rejoice in his return.

Our nation is that Prodigal Son. May we respond to God’s grace and muster the courage necessary to imitate his manliness and return to the house of our most loving Eternal Father.