Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) is among the most beloved of the New Testament. It is a promise of God's eternal love and forgiveness. In it there is no mention of hell or punishment. Instead it a story of atonement, forgiveness and redemption. This is the archetypal drama of human life. It is this that lifts this story above so many others.
But let's review the basics of the story:
A father has two sons. His younger son requests early receipt of his inheritance. He takes it and leaves his father's home, traveling to "foreign" lands. There he squanders his inheritance in "riotous" living.
When the land where he now dwells is hit with famine and he is impoverished, the younger son takes a job on a farm feeding husks to swine.
One day it dawns on him that even his father's servants are better fed and treated than he. "Why not go back to my father and beg forgiveness. I will ask to be but a hired hand." Brightened, then, with hope and calmly confident, he sets out on his journey home.
The father sees his younger son coming up the road from along a long way off and, rejoicing, runs out to meet and welcome him. The father orders that a feast and celebration be held: for his once lost son has been found.
Later during the feast, the elder son (who remained home all this time) approaches the father to ask why, he, the loyal, elder son, has never been so honored. The father doesn't "skip a beat." He simply explains to his elder son the joy he feels at the return of the prodigal, younger son.
Commentary: The context for this beautiful story takes place when Jesus incurs the criticism of religious elders who disdainfully note that Jesus is spending time in the company of lower caste sinners.
In response to their critique, Jesus tells this prodigal son story, plus two other similar stories. Jesus explains to his audience (and therefore to his critics) that his work (ministry) is to bring home the "lost sheep." So, what does this story mean to us, metaphorically:
The father symbolizes God the Father. His sons are, of course, ourselves: God's children! As per the story, then, we begin our existence and our life in our father's home. God's home isn't merely the beautiful astral heaven we hear about, but the true heaven of God-consciousness: bliss eternal.
This beginning echoes the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. They, too, began existence in a state of perfect harmony with God. This true home isn't a paradisaical place on earth (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers!) but the the paradise of purity and inner peace. According to the story, then, either our first existence or our present life began in the company (consciousness) of God.
Since most of us dimly know that our present lives did not begin in God's bliss, we must conclude that in its echo of Genesis, the correct interpretation would be that this story refers to our first appearance on the stage of existence. Like Adam and Eve, the story implies that we, too, must have made the obvious poorer choice long ago. Present, and likely intervening incarnations, must therefore reflect the consequences of that (and many other) choice(s).
Inasmuch as our story is a metaphor, we would interpret the "wealth" demanded by the younger son as a symbol for the legacy of God's bliss and wisdom that is or was ours as a child of God.
Similarly, then, the "foreign" land is that state of consciousness that chooses the lures of matter over the bliss of our home in God. That it is "foreign" to us affirms our true nature as a child of God.
We dissipate the wealth of divine bliss by investing our life energy and creativity in material and sensory experiences and possessions. Only belatedly do we discover that inert things and fleeting sensory impulses can never return to us even a fraction of what we give to them (by way of expectations and our commitment of energy). In short, our poor choice of investment, like gambling, ultimately depletes our treasury of life vitality and joy. Like Yudisthira in the Mahabharata, we gamble the kingdom of soul bliss on a course of "dead reckoning" that leads into the rocks of disillusionment and suffering.
The famine experienced by the younger son comes after he has exhausted his wealth. Deprived even of the pitiful pleasures of material existence, he begins to feel the deeper hunger that occurs when our divine vitality is exhausted, for it can only be replenished by virtue and God-contact.
Having to feed swine (swine, in Biblical and Jewish terms, being unclean) represents the disgust and disillusionment that accompanies addictive sense habits even when they no longer bring us any satisfaction. This gives rise to despair for the fact that we have lost all sense of self-respect, groveling in the mud of delusion with soul-numbing repetition.
Sometimes we have to hit bottom before God's grace reaches out to us in a flash of soul-memory (smriti). Then we suddenly recollect (intuitively) our former life in our Father's home. There we were perfectly happy in the peace and joy of the soul, basking in the light of the Father's presence. It is then that we cognize the truth of the errors we have made. It is then that we seek atonement for the "light of truth has dawned."
That flash memory silently whispers to us that, "Yes, but I CAN return." The sudden flood of light brings energy and hope to our heart. Fired up by this intuitive expectation of redemption, we begin taking our first steps back to our home in God. We can only return by taking steps in the right direction of virtue, cleanliness, and commitment to righteousness.
But in fact and in truth, we don't have to wait until we hit "bottom." Alternatively, we each have our own version of what constitutes "bottom." Either way, the choice of return always remains ours. We can, at any time, make that choice and begin that journey.
In this beautiful story, Jesus assures us that God will welcome us as his very own, his beloved son, like Jesus himself.
The elder son who complains of the welcome received by his younger brother represents those people who only conform to the outer rules of religion but who lack the love and acceptance of God and inwardly judge others. I suspect this part of the story was a poke at Jesus' critics.
In this story there is no mention of eternal damnation. But the teaching of God's eternal love, forever ours is clear.
How many people in their hearts carry the regrets and guilt of past error? How many people have lost a child, a parent, a friend, or partner and suffer the emptiness of grief and loss? How many adopted children wonder and yearn for the love of the unknown parent?
Whatever our loss or guilt, we yearn for completion; for redemption; to be made whole, or clean, once again. Whatever our loss there remains deep within us not just the mere hope but the conviction that we can be, must be, made whole.
The greatest story ever told is of the redemption of the soul in the embrace of God's love. No other only human redemption can suffice. Mostly such wholeness is impossible in merely human terms. For who can bring a loved one back to life, erase suffering that has been inflicted, or resurrect health which has been destroyed?
Even when life provides a "happy ending," it is, ultimately, all too brief, and all too often, even, an illusion all together.
In God alone can we find true love, forgiveness, acceptance, and the rejoicing of true joy.
The prodigal son is the greatest story ever told because it is the story of each and every one of us. Let us learn its lesson sooner rather than later.
Joy to you,