On Modesty, Chapter VIII.—Of the Prodigal Son.
But, however, the majority of interpreters of the parables are deceived by the self-same result.... For they set down, as represented in the two sons, two peoples—the elder the Jewish, the younger the Christian: for they cannot in the sequel arrange for the Christian sinner, in the person of the younger son, to obtain pardon, unless in the person of the elder they first portray the Jewish. Now, if I shall succeed in showing that the Jewish fails to suit the comparison of the elder son, the consequence of course will be, that the Christian will not be admissible (as represented) by the joint figure of the younger son. For although the Jew withal be called “a son,” and an “elder one,” inasmuch as he had priority in adoption; although, too, he envy the Christian the reconciliation of God the Father,—a point which the opposite side most eagerly catches at,—still it will be no speech of a Jew to the Father: “Behold, in how many years do I serve Thee, and Thy precept have I never transgressed.” For when has the Jew not been a transgressor of the law; hearing with the ear, and not hearing; holding in hatred him who reproveth in the gates, and in scorn holy speech? So, too, it will be no speech of the Father to the Jew: “Thou art always with Me, and all Mine are thine.” For the Jews are pronounced “apostate sons, begotten indeed and raised on high, but who have not understood the Lord, and who have quite forsaken the Lord, and have provoked unto anger the Holy One of Israel.”
That all things, plainly, were conceded to the Jew, we shall admit; but he has likewise had every more savoury morsel torn from his throat, not to say the very land of paternal promise. And accordingly the Jew at the present day, no less than the younger son, having squandered God’s substance, is a beggar in alien territory, serving even until now its princes, that is, the princes of this world. Seek, therefore, the Christians some other as their brother; for the Jew the parable does not admit. Much more aptly would they have matched the Christian with the elder, and the Jew with the younger son, “according to the analogy of faith,” if the order of each people as intimated from Rebecca’s womb permitted the inversion: only that (in that case) the concluding paragraph would oppose them; for it will be fitting for the Christian to rejoice, and not to grieve, at the restoration of Israel, if it be true, (as it is), that the whole of our hope is intimately united with the remaining expectation of Israel.
Now we must proceed, in the case of the prodigal son, to consider first that which is more useful; for no adjustment of examples, albeit in the most nicely-poised balance, shall be admitted if it shall prove to be most hurtful to salvation. But the whole system of salvation, as it is comprised in the maintenance of discipline, we see is being subverted by that interpretation which is affected by the opposite side. For if it is a Christian who, after wandering far from his Father, squanders, by living heathenishly, the “substance” received from God his Father,—(the substance), of course, of baptism—(the substance), of course, of the Holy Spirit, and (in consequence) of eternal hope; if, stripped of his mental “goods,” he has even handed his service over to the prince of the world—who else but the devil?—and by him being appointed over the business of “feeding swine”—of tending unclean spirits, to wit—has recovered his senses so as to return to his Father,—the result will be, that, not adulterers and fornicators, but idolaters, and blasphemers, and renegades, and every class of apostates, will by this parable make satisfaction to the Father; and in this way (it may) rather (be said that) the whole “substance” of the sacrament is most truly wasted away. For who will fear to squander what he has the power of afterwards recovering? Who will be careful to preserve to perpetuity what he will be able to lose not to perpetuity? Security in sin is likewise an appetite for it. Therefore the apostate withal will recover his former “garment,” the robe of the Holy Spirit; and a renewal of the “ring,” the sign and seal of baptism; and Christ will again be “slaughtered;” and he will recline on that couch from which such as are unworthily clad are wont to be lifted by the torturers, and cast away into darkness,—much more such as have been stripped. It is therefore a further step if it is not expedient, (any more than reasonable), that the story of the prodigal son should apply to a Christian. Wherefore, if the image of a “son” is not entirely suitable to a Jew either, our interpretation shall be simply governed with an eye to the object the Lord had in view. The Lord had come, of course, to save that which “had perished;” “a Physician” necessary to “the sick” “more than to the whole.” This fact He was in the habit both of typifying in parables and preaching in direct statements. Who among men “perishes,” who falls from health, but he who knows not the Lord? Who is “safe and sound,” but he who knows the Lord? These two classes—“brothers” by birth—this parable also will signify. See whether the heathen have in God the Father the “substance” of origin, and wisdom, and natural power of Godward recognition; by means of which power the apostle withal notes that “in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom knew not God,”—(wisdom) which, of course, it had received originally from God. This (“substance”), accordingly, he “squandered;” having been cast by his moral habits far from the Lord, amid the errors and allurements and appetites of the world, where, compelled by hunger after truth, he handed himself over to the prince of this age. He set him over “swine,” to feed that flock familiar to demons, where he would not be master of a supply of vital food, and at the same time would see others (engaged) in a divine work, having abundance of heavenly bread. He remembers his Father, God; he returns to Him when he has been satisfied; he receives again the pristine “garment,”—the condition, to wit, which Adam by transgression had lost. The “ring” also he is then wont to receive for the first time, wherewith, after being interrogated, he publicly seals the agreement of faith, and thus thenceforward feeds upon the “fatness” of the Lord’s body,—the Eucharist, to wit. This will be the prodigal son, who never in days bygone was thrifty; who was from the first prodigal, because not from the first a Christian. Him withal, returning from the world to the Father’s embraces, the Pharisees mourned over, in the persons of the “publicans and sinners.” And accordingly to this point alone the elder brother’s envy is adapted: not because the Jews were innocent, and obedient to God, but because they envied the nation salvation; being plainly they who ought to have been “ever with” the Father. And of course it is immediately over the first calling of the Christian that the Jew groans, not over his second restoration: for the former reflects its rays even upon the heathen; but the latter, which takes place in the churches, is not known even to the Jews.