Prodigal Son, Again

10 March 2013, Lent

If you watched the recent TV series “Wonders of Life” by Brian Cox you would have seen the close ups of the moment when the water-bound larva turns into a dragonfly. It is similar to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. The transformation is quite incredible.  It is hard to believe that the crawling larval form of the dragonfly or butterfly metamorphoses into the beautiful adult airborne creatures with bright wings.

The larval and airborne forms of the butterfly vary so widely that some scientists today are considering the possibility that they are actually two distinct organisms, not merely stages in a lifecycle. They suggest that the butterfly is born out of the dead caterpillar and that there are two different sets of genetic instructions at work in the caterpillar and the butterfly. Turning the caterpillar off turns the butterfly on, and most of the caterpillar body dies and a new life is resurrected in a new body.

I have no idea how scientifically valid these theories are. But, it is a wonderful image of what happens when we are “in Christ” as 2 Corinthians describes it. The butterfly and dragonfly are literally new creations. You could describe them in the words from 2 Corinthians: “there is a new creation, everything old has passed away, see everything has become new”. The transformation in Christ is so incredible that we are, literally, new creations. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

Like the butterfly with its newly activated DNA, those who are new creations in Christ leave behind the old DNA that venerates the world. While the new spiritual DNA activated inside of us shapes our new life and puts God at the centre, the old DNA venerates self above God.

Henri Nouwen’s book of meditations on Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal describes our human condition that too often venerates self gratification, the path chosen by the prodigal son. Let me quote what he says:

 “Addiction” might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates society. Our addiction makes us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink. …In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in “a distant country.” It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.” 

In a recent article, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes about something similar: the logical outcome of a mindset that venerates economics and self above all else. Something perhaps, the young prodigal son did when he asked for his inheritance and chose a self centred life. The Archbishop’s article was about Michael Sandel’s book What money can’t buy, which points out that our society and culture wrongly values things in purely economic terms. Almost anything can be bought or sold, and the price alone defines its value. One of the more shocking examples in the book was investors insuring the lives of terminally ill people, HIV/AIDS patients, and those expected to die before long. The investors would receive a large tax-free payout when the person eventually dies. The financial interest in another’s death is profoundly evil. But this, Rowan Williams’ says, is the logical conclusion of a certain set of beliefs. He says.

“If—to take the most extreme example—my bodily life is a thing that I own, like a car or a computer, what exactly is there that makes it unacceptable for me to offer it on the market, or for someone else to offer me a measurable profit in return for it?

In the article, the Archbishop refers to a verse from the Book of Revelation, one that has a startling description that reflects our own culture and society. The verse refers to a mighty empire, whose city was immersed in trade and commerce. At the height of their activity, and among its extensive transactions of varied goods, the city also traded in “the souls of men.” The Archbishop connects this obsessive trading, even trading of humans’ souls, to Jesus’ question in Matthew’s Gospel: “what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?”

To me, this verse describes the prodigal son. He cashed in his birthright and inheritance in a futile attempt to “gain the world”. It was a self centred act: it was his life, his inheritance, his choice. He traded his soul for a dissolute life in a far country. He ended up starving and debased as a pig keeper in the employment of someone who was possibly a Gentile. The depths to which the young man sank would have sent a shudder through the Jewish audience listening. His listeners, especially the Pharisees, would probably have wondered if there could be any hope for such a person.


But the story of the prodigal son is the story of a transformation in the life of the young son. He comes to his senses and returns home to his father and to the chance of a fresh start. As his father tells the slaves in the story, “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found”. The father repeats the declaration to the elder brother who is bitter and angry at the celebrations. “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”.

When the young man had left with his inheritance, he had disappeared in a way that people don’t disappear today when they leave home. This is the age of smart phones, high speed internet, internet cafes, cheap international calls and texts, Facebook, and Twitter. Detailed updates on everything happening is the norm. When a friend’s daughter took off to Africa for a year we had details such as “having a beer by the beach right now”! In Jesus’ day it was very different. Letters were rare and difficult to send. If a child left – they literally disappeared. For all you knew they could be dead! You knew nothing till they came back. If they came back.

So the return of the son is almost literally a “coming to life”. But there is a deeper meaning in the father’s description of the young man being dead and returning to life. The story is also a metaphor for our relationship with God. Returning to God – is a turning from death to life. As 2 Corinthians describes it, it is being a new creation. From being a self gratifying, self centred young man, seeking to live his life his way, the prodigal son returns changed, humbled and contrite, to ask forgiveness from his father, and to live as his father’s son once more.

But what does the phrase “there is a new Creation” mean? Old things have passed away, we are told, and all things are new. In the NT church this transformation was visible…the new creation was electrifying. People flocked to become “followers of the Way”. They wanted to be in Christ – even though for many of them it meant brutal torture and execution for following Christ instead of Ceasar. Being in Christ changed their loyalties and their perspective on who they served. Andrew Marr in his documentary – The History of the World – talks of Perpetua, a young Christian woman of the early church, who, like many others of her time, was killed for her faith. He describes how she had handed her baby over to her family – who begged her to recant and save her life. But she faced execution with a courage and hope that amazed those watching. Deaths like hers lead many of those watching to become Christians too.

Perhaps they understood that these martyrs had been transformed. Butterflies. Not caterpillars. People recognised Christians in NT times: they were turning their world upside down. They were new Creations.

During this season of Lent, we can allow God to lead us to new life in Christ. To become new Creations in Him. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God waits for us to return to him. Like the Prodigal Son we can return to God, and choose to let the old things pass away, and allow all things to become new.