The Parable of the Prodigal Son: The Animal Self, the Diabolical Self, and the Good and Merciful Father

AMU President Jim Towey posted his first blog of the spring 2016 semester on January 19th, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son: The Animal Self, the Diabolical Self, and the Good and Merciful Father.” Visit President Towey’s Blog for more!

Last night dozens of students kicked off the new semester and the Church’s “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” by joining me for a study of the powerful parable Jesus told of the Prodigal Son.

As familiar as this tale is, students at Catholic colleges and universities should examine it closely.  The story of young adults taking their parents’ money and going off to a “distant land” to binge drink, party hard and engage in casual sex is all too common on American campuses.  Some institutions seem indifferent to, or even willing to facilitate, this so-called rite of passage.  Unenforced dorm visitation rules, co-ed dorms, readily available birth control, and well-established party cultures communicate very clearly that when it comes to student moral behavior, almost anything goes.

As Jesus’ parable recounts, such lives bring consequences that take their toll on a soul.  The prodigal son’s rite of passage led him to rebel against his father and renounce his son ship.  He squandered his father’s money “on dissolute living” and ultimately found himself in the company of pigs, starving for the restoration of his human dignity.  (Spoiler alert)  Fortunately, he came to his senses and returned home to the warm embrace of his loving father, who rejoiced that his son who was dead had come back to life.

It is fair to ask why the father gave his son all that money knowing that he would go on a sin-binge.  The answer is simple:  God endows us with freedom, and true virtue can be grown only through the proper exercise of it.  It can’t be imposed.  Virtuous conduct has to be freely chosen or else it is simply an appearance of virtue.  God loves us enough to give us our freedom.

The prodigal chose sin.  Blaise Pascal once described sin as “licking the earth,” and the young man abused his freedom and chose base pleasures.  He had licked the earth.  As was the case with Saint Augustine, whose own journey was hauntingly similar, he sought fulfillment through pursuits that failed to satisfy his innermost longings.  The hook-up, binge-drinking culture failed him miserably, as it unfailingly does.

A great 20th century Christian apologist and author, C.S. Lewis, is special to Ave Maria University because one of his important works, Mere Christianity, was the instrument the Lord used to inspire our founder, Tom Monaghan, to devote his wealth to our campus.  Mere Christianity is worth reading, and includes this passage:

Though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here.  If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting: the pleasure of power, of hatred.  For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become.  They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self.  The Diabolical self is the worse of the two.  That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.  But, of course, it is better to be neither.

These insights of Lewis bring me to the elder son in the parable.  He had lived in the father’s house but was just as lost as his little brother.  His form of rebellion was simply different.  He was a slave to sin in a different way – he indulged in the pleasure of “putting other people in the wrong.”  He saw his time in the father’s house as captivity, and his obedience, involuntary.  He was no more like his father than his younger brother.   In short, the elder son was the “self-righteous prig” that Lewis described.  When his kid brother came back humbled by his moral failures and longing for repentance, the elder son was not moved with compassion and joy like his father, but instead was angry, resentful, and bitter.  He was like those Jesus unflatteringly described later in Luke’s Gospel “who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt.”

Luke’s parable makes clear that the father’s arms were wide open for both of his sons.  Indeed, he “ran out to meet” the prodigal son and “went out and began to plead” with the elder.  He, like the poet Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” went in search of both of his lost sons.  His message to each was the same:  Everything I have is yours.  Come back home.

I asked the students at the end of our Bible study to describe the father.  They responded with these adjectives:  loving, forgiving, merciful, patient, wise, compassionate, and accepting.

They came to understand that the parable was as much a story about the heart of the father as it was the plight of the sons.  They discovered anew that their God was not some distant deity but a living, seeking, merciful Father who invites them to rejoice because everything He has is theirs.

God wants us to have the fullness of life appropriate to our splendid human dignity.  The Jubilee Year waits for us.  Pope Francis invites us to recognize our need to seek Divine Mercy, and to ask the Mother of Mercy to help us each day find our way to the glorious confines of the Father’s house.  On the first day of the New Year, the Holy Father invoked our University’s patroness with these words we can take to heart:

“Mary is an icon of how the Church must offer forgiveness to those who seek it.  The Mother of forgiveness teaches the Church that the forgiveness granted on Golgotha knows no limits.  Neither the law with its quibbles, nor the wisdom of this world with its distinctions, can hold it back.  The Church’s forgiveness must be every bit as broad as that offered by Jesus on the Cross and by Mary at his feet.”

I firmly believe that Ave Maria University will thrive and prosper to the extent we grow together in humility and mercy.   As this New Year begins, may we renew our commitment to the University’s Catholic identity and become “joyful, intentional followers of Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament, scholarship and service.”

Have a great semester!

Jim Towey