I’ve been listening to some historic lectures by one of my theological heroes, the Dutch theologian and apologist Cornelius Van Til. In one lecture, he has a wonderful explanation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). And I found his words particularly relevant for our broader secular culture, ever striving after self. The Parable, in one sense, shows what happens when people rebel against a loving heavenly Father in pursuit of their own interests. They don’t just have a rough time or lose hope or become existentialists. They turn into swine. They go from family members to farm animals. And the only path home is marked by a relationship.
The Prodigal Leaves
Not everyone knows the story of the Prodigal Son, so let me recap it briefly. A father has two sons who live with him and work on his estate. The younger decides that his life is so dissatisfying, so unfulfilling, so dull, that he wished his father were dead so that he could just get his inheritance and leave. Rather than actually murder his father, he does the next best thing: he stabs him in the heart (metaphorically, of course). He asks for his share of the inheritance now, effectively saying his father is as good as dead to him.
Now, rather than putting his son in line and disinheriting him, the father grants his request. He gives him his share. These are funds the younger son not only didn’t earn (he was born into the gift of his father’s wealth), but also didn’t deserve. In fact, he deserved the opposite. His father could have easily sent him away, given everything to the elder brother, and told the youngster to get lost. Isn’t that how you might treat someone who tells you straight up that he wishes you were dead, that you’re only good for your money, that what you can give is better than who you are?
But no. The younger son takes his inheritance and leaves, bent on spending “his” money his way. And the father lets him. There is no compulsion. The son has free will.
The Prodigal Borrows
This son goes off and does exactly what we’d imagine a naive, immature, undisciplined teenager would do: he blows all his money on hedonistic pleasures. Extravagant food. Excessive drink. And God only knows what else. In his paraphrasing of the story, Van Til even says that the prodigal son likely hid the source of his wealth.
“Hey, can I buy you a drink?” he may have said to a passer by. “It’s on me; I insist!”
“Hey, need a place to stay tonight? You can lodge at the inn with me . . . my treat! Really, I insist. It’s on me!”
Except it isn’t, is it? It’s on his father. Every time the prodigal son makes a purchase, it’s on his father’s dime. The prodigal is living on what we might call borrowed capital. He doesn’t see it that way, of course. He thinks the money is his. And in a sense, he’s right. He’s been given free rein to spend it. But in another sense, he’s wrong. The money was always intended to be something the son would acquire after serving his father faithfully for many years. He took the payout early. But, culturally and morally speaking, he still owes his dad.
So, the prodigal is out in the world acting like he’s a confident, independent, self-directed high-roller. In reality, he’s a debtor, bound to become a thief if he never returns to his family. The prodigal borrows but never really plans to give back. He’s a taker, not a giver.
From Son to Swine
And then things take a turn for the worse. The cash dries up. No funds mean no fun. The wild man needs work. And he needs it bad. He realizes, in other words, how painfully wrong he was. He wasn’t independent. He wasn’t self-sustaining. He wasn’t the lord of his life. And then comes the part that has a special meaning for our broader culture.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
The prodigal is so poor he looks with envy not at the social elites or the sellers in the market, but at the swine. He used to long for a kingly table; now he pines after a pig trough. He used to be a son waiting for an inheritance. Now he’s as good as a pig waiting for slop. And he doesn’t even get that.
What’s fascinating here is that the more the son thinks of himself, the closer he gets to the swine; the higher he feels, the lower he goes. In fact, the whole parable could be read as the younger son’s journey from son to swine. And that’s happening because he’s spending all he has on himself. He’s elevated his own desires and experiences and feelings above everything else, especially above his father and family. In other words, he’s made himself a god.
Self-proclaimed gods, however, meet disastrous ends. The prodigal walks through the world commanding everyone else to join in the project of satisfying his wants. And they’re happy to do it, as long as he pays them. But the funds are finite. And that’s a perfect parallel to our humanity. We might act as gods, running around trying to bend the world to our will, but we’re finite. We fall short. We run out of confidence, energy, power. Try to be lord of your own life long enough, and you’re bound to find your nose on the edge of a swine trough, longing for something you used to scoff at: small bits of grace, the residue of a relationship you never paid attention to . . . where you are fully known and fully loved.
From Swine to Son
Before trying to steal from the pigs in the same way he stole from his father, the Prodigal comes to his senses and decides to do the only thing that has a chance of making things right: return and ask for forgiveness. His hope lies in a relationship. He can only pray that his father will forgive him, that his brother won’t give him the cold shoulder for the next decade.
But to his surprise (not to mention that of his envious elder brother, who is a different type of prodigal), his father welcomes him home. He even celebrates him. The prodigal finds far more than forgiveness; he finds love. He finds joy. He finds a restored relationship worth celebrating.
If the path that led the son to the swine was a focus on self, the path that leads from the swine back home is a prioritized relationship. The son must realize, in other words, that life is not merely about him.
Oneness with God
This beautiful focus on the “home of relationship” ties in nicely with Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer in John 17. What does Jesus ask for in his final days on planet earth? What does he want for his followers? Luxury? Peace? Safety? No. He wants relationship, the most intimate kind: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Oneness with God. Divine relationship. That’s what Jesus asks for.
We all have a prodigal inside us, an embarrassing drive to satisfy ourselves, even at the expense of those who love us most. And so we leave others behind. We leave God behind. And we put ourselves first. That path leads to the trough, the lowest of lows, where we beg for what others consider garbage.
Lasting joy and love, fulfilled longing, fruitful passion . . . these things lie only in relationship. In fact, they lie in the God who is a relationship unto himself: Father, Son, and Spirit.
It’s that God who calls prodigal swine to be prodigal sons and daughters, generous givers after the giving heart of God. God celebrates our being with him and our living through him, not our being independently established. He knows what’s in that direction. And he wouldn’t have his children eating from a trough when they have an invite to the table.