Monday, March 15, 2010

The prodigal son

I was yesterday struck by a dimension of the parable of the prodigal son that I hadn't noticed before: prayer. The younger son asks for two outrageous things—his inheritance ahead of time and being received back—and in both cases his requests are granted (in the latter case, he gets more than he asked for, since he is not asking for his sonship). The older son complains that he never got a young goat to eat with his friends. But it is clear that he never bothered to ask for one. After all, the father says: "all that is mine is yours." (The younger son reminds me a little of Mrs. Fidget in C. S. Lewis's Four Loves, who quietly works her fingers to the bone, suffering for others in ways that they don't want her to. Mrs. Fidget, too, would not bother asking you to come back by a certain time—she would just stay up and wait.)

Maybe the older son could try to complain: "But didn't you know that I wanted a goat?" However, a request is not just the expression of a desire: a request has normative effects that a mere desire does not.


Skeptical said...

That is a very useful reflection, thanks. That story yields more and more of its riches to me as I get older.

Not only does the request have normative effects that a mere desire does not, but making a request requires one to acknowledge one's dependence in certain ways. This is why children often refuse to ask their parents for things that they want and that parents would be willing, even happy, to give them; it is a desire not to acknowledge dependence. The original sin, so to speak, long preceding Adam and Eve's.

Tim Lacy said...

One of the things that struck me about that gospel reading was the fact we do not often consider the story from the angle of the older brother. Indeed, I wonder if homilies on this reading would gain some freshness by retitling it the "the prodigal brother." This is not to undercut the father-son forgiveness message, but rather to add something about how brothers who have remained in Christ ought to take more charitable views of how a younger brother might stray. And this says nothing about how wrong the older brother was to sinfully regret (apparently) his lost opportunity at debauchery. Nor about how the father sort of charitably and democratically views both persons---his sons, no matter their life histories. Anyway, rethinking this gospel from the viewpoint of the brother might allow the priest to reflect on painful divisions within The Church and Christianity in general. - TL