The Layered Meaning of the Prodigal Son

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In 1861, John William Burgon, the (Anglican) dean of Chichester cathedral, preached a sermon in Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, that included the following statement:

THE BIBLE is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it,—every Chapter of it,—every Verse of it,—every word of it,—every syllable of it,— (where are we to stop?),—-every letter of it—is the direct utterance of the Most High! . . .  The Bible is none other than the Word of God: not some part of it, more, some part of it, less; but all alike, the utterance of Him who sitteth upon the Throne,—absolute,—faultless,—unerring,—supreme![1]

What are we as Catholics to make of this typically Protestant statement? I, for one, find it extravagant, even naïve, but it is nevertheless essentially defensible as long as we recognize that Scripture has two authors: the human author who produced this or that book of the Bible and God who inspired and guided his writing. The traditional way of describing this theological fact is to say that Scripture has two senses, one which we call “the literal sense” and the other, “the spiritual sense.” The first of these, the literal, is concerned with historical fact, with the time and place of the author, with the ancient languages of the text, and so on. For instance, when David speaks of Jerusalem, he is referring to the actual city, as it was during his time, which was some 900 years before Christ. Biblical scholars are helpful here in investigating the cultural and religious settings of the reign of King David. But the spiritual, i.e., the fuller sense allows us to go more deeply into the text, in various and different ways. For “Jerusalem” can mean more than the historical city; it can also refer to the Church as the place where God meets his people. To push the point, this very building is a sort of Jerusalem where the sacrifice of the new law is offered at Mass, as the fulfilment of the animal sacrifices of the old law that were offered in the temple. But Jerusalem can also refer to the individual Christian as the dwelling place of God: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?”[2] Again, in the Apocalypse Jerusalem stand for heaven: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”[3]

Fathers of the Church, such as Saint Augustine, used this approach to the Bible freely. Suppose we were to imitate them this morning and apply their methods to the parable of the prodigal son, today’s Gospel.[4] First, what is its literal sense? That’s easy: the story is about forgiveness for the repentant sinner, the younger son. This message is exemplified by the father in the story and re-enforced by the passage with the older son. But now the fun begins, as we investigate the parable with the fuller sense, according to which, as we have seen with “Jerusalem,” the parable can be read in several ways. For we can interpret it with regard to Christ and his Church; but we can also apply it to the individual Christian, to each one of us; or, again, we can treat it as symbolic of the end of time. What happens when we read it, for instance, as symbolic of the Church? Let’s see. The parable opens with the words, “A man had two sons.” The man would be God, and the older son would represent the Jewish people who were “the first to hear the word of God.”[5] The younger son, therefore, must stand for non-Jews, i.e., the gentiles. He receives, we are told, a share of his father’s fortune. In our interpretation, that would correspond to a twofold boon that God has bestowed even on pagans: first a moral instinct, which they identified as conscience, and secondly intelligence, by which they recognized that the world had been created by God. The younger son dissipated this noble inheritance; that would indicate the decline in antiquity of religion into superstition, idolatry and sensuality. The famine in the land suggests a sterility of thought that became more and more incapable of directing and encouraging man to practise virtue. The parable states that the young man would have gladly eaten with the pigs, for the fact is that without God the rational human descends to the level of the irrational beast. His coming to his senses is the gradual recognition that something has gone horribly wrong with the human condition and that the remedy for it is to be found in his father’s house. As the younger son limps towards home, the father sees him from afar, indicative of the decision of the early Church to reach out to the gentiles by offering them access to the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. How appropriate, then, is the son’s speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” These words express a fact that all Christians accept, whether they are Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic, namely, that the grace of conversion is a gift that comes freely from God and which we could do nothing to deserve.

I hope your recollection of the parable is allowing you to follow this admittedly complicated interpretation of it, for every detail and be applied to some aspect of the Church. The fine robe brought out for the son, for instance, is a symbol of the beauty of the Church, “without spot or wrinkle,” as Saint Paul says,[6] and the ring placed on his finger is a sign of authority. The fatted calf slaughtered for the feast points to the riches of the Church’s tradition, now made available to the new convert, and the feast itself surely is a reference to the Eucharist, the Mass that we are celebrating here and now. Then there’s that mean older son—for whom, I suspect we all have a certain sympathy. His refusal to join in the festivities reminds us that many Jews refused the proclamation of the good news that Jesus has died and risen for us. The father’s gentle rebuke and invitation highlight a common these from the Old Testament, namely, that when the Messiah has come all the nations of the world will be invited to worship the one true God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that . . . all the nations shall flow to [the house of the Lord] . . . and say: “Come, let us go up . . .  to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his way. . . .”[7]

This parable stops at this point, although we would all like to know something about their subsequent history. What would these sons have been like twenty or thirty years later? Well, the story is open-ended because we must complete it in our lives by thinking about it and by acting upon its message.As I mentioned earlier, this symbolic reading of this parable, like the city of Jerusalem, could be applied to the individual Christian and also final state of things, when Christ will have come again. I, however, have spoken long enough for this morning. Perhaps in three years, when this reading recurs, I shall be back in the pulpit to explore with you one of other interpretations of the prodigal son.


[1] J.W. Burgon, Inspiration and Interpretation (Oxford, 1861), p. 9.

[2] 1 Cor 6.19.

[3] Rev 21.2.

[4] Augustine’s interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son can be found in his treatise Quæstionum evangeliorum libri duo, II.33 (PL XXXV, 1344-48).

[5] Intercessions for Good Friday.

[6] Eph 5.27.

[7] Is 2.2-3.