The Prodigal Family: one possible way of understanding Christian division

Posted on February 12, 2012


The Prodigal Return: Your Pasy May Be Sustained but Your Future's Untouched by Steve Prince, 2004
A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the slop that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began make merry.

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.


In the next three essays, I will suggest that a possible way to understand the Christian division is by thinking of the three main “traditions” of Christianity as the three actors in the parable of the Prodigal son.

The Pope is the Father, though theologically he’s like a surrogate father, since our Lord appointed St. Peter as Shepherd, but he is also equal to the other apostles. Theologically speaking, our Lord is the only one who can fully claim that role. Nevertheless, he acts as a father to the Church (participating in the authority of Christ, just as any bishop does to his diocese, or, in a different way, every Christian). But because our Lord took St. Peter alone to reinstate him (Jn. 21:15-19), St. Peter then had to assume responsibility, “tending the lambs,” essentially informing them—through his leadership and love—that he was to be the chief shepherd. It is as if our Lord, as the real father, left St. Peter as His authority over the rest. In the same way it seems, the Pope seems to have always taken seriously a personal responsibility—directly from Christ—to shepherd the whole Christian flock. Thus he has asserted his self-conscious authority over his brothers—sometimes to their relief, other times to their indignation, and many times provoking them to anger. This is the prodigal nature of his fatherhood—it is the struggle to maintain the Apostolic responsibility in a way which does not alienate those under the charge. Nevertheless, because he still possesses the universal authority, the principle of unity—the universal primacy and the ecumenical council—remain with him. Since his ministry and his person has been the cause of division, his ministry and his person must be the cause of unity.

The first one in the family who was alienated was the “elder brother” of the Parable. This is the Orthodox Church, principally Chalcedonian.[1] This communion never altered the Apostolic faith, but continued in the same faith until today. But the Eastern Christians were wounded by their surrogate father because he opposed their nationalism, and his actions were often too severe for them. Slowly, their relationship was estranged, until they were as two members in a family, working the same field—the Apostolic faith—but not truly one. Papa seems to have rarely been sensitive enough to see this, and so his actions of authority have seemed to only further alienate the eldest brother. The Orthodox Church, for their part, simply grew in bitterness to him and became convinced in themselves that I have never transgressed at any time thy commandment, i.e. I have never forsaken the Apostolic faith. But this Apostolic faith—unknowingly it seems—has been wedded too closely to nationalism, and thus has not allowed the principle of unity—the ecumenical council and the universal primacy—to be realized. This is the prodigal nature of his brotherhood—it is the struggle to maintain the Apostolic responsibility without a extra-political point of reference, battling nationalism and bitterness.

The Protestors represent the younger brother.[2] By the strong attempts of the surrogate father to fulfill his authoritative responsibilities, the younger brother became embittered against him. He takes his inheritance—the Bible—from the Church and begins inventing all sorts of novel ways to express Christian unity. He takes the inheritance of the Bible and interprets in whatever way he chooses: picking and choosing which parts of the Apostolic faith he will be retain—Sacraments? Bishops? Liturgy? Saints? This abuse of the Bible turns into the most base and horrific splintering of the Body of Christ in the whole history of the Church—literally hundreds from the beginning, and in our days there are over forty thousand different pieces.[3]

Because of the lack of any systematic unity, the Protesting pieces sought that unity in their separate nations, which lead to an upsurge in nationalism. This nationalism, however, since it was not wedded the Apostolic faith as the Orthodox were, lead these Protestors to organize their nations along secular lines, exalting the power of one man over God (absolutist monarchy), or else that of people over God (Democracy), maintaining that there was some virtue of greed (Capitalism), and unknowingly offering more and more worship to a transient, petty kingdom. As this secular nationalism was increasing, the elder brother at first praised this nationalism and blamed the problems on the Pope, while the younger brother encouraged everyone to disobey Papa’s constant warning that using his inheritance like that would only end in ruin. It wasn’t until he found himself sent into the fields to feed swine—that is, confronted by the horror of the World Wars—that the fantasy of secular nationalism was shattered in the minds of the Protestors. That was when he came to himself and realized with horror the great mess he was in (and that he had caused). This is the prodigal nature of their sonship—it is the struggle to maintain a personal relationship with Christ apart from a responsibility to one’s brother or one’s heritage.

But the rise of secular nationalism—though the youngest brother’s actions can be seen as chiefly responsible—should also be laid at the charge of the eldest brother, for his bitterness, and most especially on the surrogate father, since it was his responsibility, and his severity can be shown to be the first cause of everyone’s rancor. Each member is prodigal, because each member has sinned and contributed in his own way to the division we now face. Is it any wonder, then, that the Second Vatican council said that repentance is the “soul of ecumenism?”[4] Therefore, the prodigal father must humble himself and ask forgiveness, the elder brother must forgive, ask forgiveness, and forsake his self-righteousness and nationalism, and the younger brother must admit that he was wrong to leave. It seems to me that this is the movement of the Ecumenical movement today. When this happens, Papa may call an ecumenical council in order to reconcile the whole family—then we may make merry.

What follows are drafts of this concept, in no way systematic or in fact entirely clear. I would like to explore this concept more in the future, so I am posting these drafts for your comment and criticism. Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

Part One: the younger son
Part Two: the father
Part Three: the elder son

yours for the sake of peace and reconciliation,


[1] I will not hear deal with the so-called “Assyrian” Church or the non-Chalcedonians as I have not much studied them. However, I do know that to a large degree the Chalcedonian Orthodox would consider these churches far more orthodox than Roman Catholicism.

[2] I say “Protestor” rather than Protestant to bring out the ecclesiastical nature of this Christianity. The latter word comes with too many assumptions.

[3] I use the word “pieces” as a more neutral word because, depending on each piece’s theology, the other pieces would be regarded as “churches,” “denominations,” “factions,” or “sects.”

[4] Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, 6