The Parable of the Prodigal Son Is Not an Ad for Liberal Give-Away Schemes

By John Zmirak Published on March 8, 2016

This past Sunday, the pastor read us Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. It is one of the most arresting, uplifting, and hopeful passages of the New Testament — when you understand it correctly. But like pretty much everything else our Lord said, it can also be gravely misinterpreted. The wrong reading of scripture takes the finest wine and turns it straight back into bathwater, or sometimes to deadly wormwood.

Remember wormwood? It’s the stuff that St. John’s Apocalypse warns will fall from the sky in the end times and poison all the seas. It’s also the name of an herb that’s the key ingredient in the liqueur called Absinthe. I commemorate that biblical coincidence in my book The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song with a recipe for tipsy frozen Absinthe treats called “Apocalypicles.” But perhaps I digress. …

Read properly, the parable of the Prodigal Son can yield any number of fruitful meanings. Here are a few valid interpretations — valid because they conform with the rest of the Gospel, as the historical church collected and read it over the centuries, around the world:

1. That God’s mercy is infinite, provided we seek it, and that He gladly welcomes the penitent sinner.

2. That we must not envy our fellow sinners the mercy that they have received, because it will not come at our expense.

3. That Jesus’ Jewish followers should not begrudge the Messiah’s mission to the Gentiles, who had never kept the law or obeyed the Commandments.

4. That our reckless, fallen will often refuses to turn back to God until it has exhausted every other choice and “hit bottom” (to use the phrase favored by Alcoholics Anonymous).

Doubtless, there are many other legitimate applications of this parable, which isn’t surprising since its author is the Creator of the universe! But I think you’ll agree that there are also bad interpretations and false applications, which could lead us further from God instead of closer, or teach us behavior that isn’t what Christ wants from us. Some of these bad lip readings of what Our Lord was saying are even dangerous.

I have heard this parable used by addled or ill-intentioned people — I don’t read souls so I can’t say which — to undermine core Christian teachings, encourage reckless behavior, and promote utopian politics that miraculously transform the Christian message into a slush pile of tepid wishful thinking. In my own experience, this parable has been used

  • to assert that everyone goes to heaven;
  • to reprimand victims of sex abuse for demanding that those who abused them go to prison;
  • by Catholic bishops to explain why they re-assigned pedophiles to work at boys’ schools; and
  • to demand that Europe admit millions of Muslim immigrants.

In the wrong hands, this parable is an all-purpose liberal nonsense generator [warning: strong language]. There is one crucial mistake that leads to virtually every toxic misreading of this parable.

Identifying Not With the Prodigal Son But With His Father

You and I each have something in common with both of the sons in this story. Each of us has sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. And each of us has kept some parts of that law which other people have broken. You know the character with whom we have very little in common? Almighty God, as represented by the father. Neither you nor I are infinite, eternal, changeless, all-powerful, all-righteous or all-knowing. We do not have limitless resources, nor do we always satisfy justice then go beyond it into mercy. Too often we are merciless or even unjust.

Sometimes (and here’s the kicker) when we tell ourselves we’re being merciful, in fact we are flouting justice. That’s what the father in the story would have done if he turned to his elder son and informed him that the estate — part of which had been squandered by the prodigal son — would now be divided again. That would have rewarded the prodigal for his wastefulness, and cheated the faithful son. But that isn’t what the father said. In what I’ve always regarded as the most important verse in this parable, the father tells his loyal son, “Everything I have is yours.” (Luke 15:31)

Our Lord didn’t include that line by accident. It is there to remind us that God’s mercy does not destroy His justice. Those who have been faithful to God will be duly rewarded for it, and God’s kindness to grievous sinners does not come at their expense. In the secular realm, this verse reminds us that the mercy we offer evildoers — convicted criminals, for instance — must not injure the innocent. Otherwise it isn’t mercy, but simple injustice. And God doesn’t smile on that.

That’s a key principle worth remembering when we plunge into politics. Every time we congratulate ourselves for being “generous” and “merciful,” we first need to ask ourselves: “At whose expense?” The victim might not be obvious, he might be unseen, but it’s our duty to seek him out. If a policy that sounds fabulous in the abstract — such as free government health care, or hospitality for Syrian Muslim refugees, or free college for everyone — does injury to innocent third parties, we don’t have the right to offer it. And that’s why liberals such as Bernie Sanders are not like the father of the Prodigal Son, but much more like King Lear, a dotty old man who is ready to give away the store and ride his country to ruin.

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