Peter Rollins book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, has been supplemented with seven new parables for Lent. In Pete’s own words, this collection of original parables, “represents my own attempt to explore and testify to the impossible Event housed in faith. In that sense they are deeply personal and relative to my own life.” With permission, I share one of the parables.

The Prodigal Father

There was once a rich and kindly father who lived with his two sons in a lavish mansion. But late one evening, in the very dead of night, the father packed a few small items and left quietly.

The first son awoke the next day and, upon discovering his father’s disappearance, continued with his chores religiously. Days passed into months, and these months gradually dissolved
into years. Through toil and rationalization, this son successfully repressed the haunting fact that
the father had abandoned them. Instead of facing the pain, he allowed the reality of the situation to fester silently in the depth of his being.

The other son also refused to face up to the pain of his father’s midnight exodus. In confusion
and fear he withdrew his share of the father’s inheritance and ran away, losing himself in worldly distractions of all kinds. But he found that no matter where he traveled, he could not escape the sorrow in his heart, and no matter what activity he engaged in, the amnesia it offered was not enough to cloud the memory of his father’s disappearance. In addition to this, he soon found himself utterly destitute and poor. After only a few years he found himself without money or
friends, working on a pig farm, where he would have to share the scraps that he fed to the animals in order to supplement his diet.

After many months of this pitiful existence, he decided to face up to his father’s disappearance
and return home.

When he finally reached the great mansion, he found his brother still caring for the property,
still toiling on the land, and still suppressing the memory of their father’s exodus. The brother who had never left held resentment in his heart against the one who had squandered his inheritance only to return empty-handed. However, the other brother paid no heed to this animosity, for his gaze was set upon a deeper concern. Each day he would carefully ready a calf for slaughter and lay out his father’s favorite cloak in preparation for a great feast of celebration. Once he had done this he would then sit by the entrance of the mansion and passionately await the father’s return.

He waits there still, to this very day, yearning for the homecoming of the prodigal father with
longing and forgiveness in his heart.

Commentary by Peter Rollins

This story was originally written on a scrap of paper while I was attending a Quaker meeting. As I sat in silence that Sunday morning, it felt as if I were in the presence of people who were faithfully waiting for God to show up. Indeed, on that dark and cold Sunday morning it seemed as if those gathered were prepared to wait their entire lives for God if that was what it would take. As I thought about this, my mind wandered to the prodigal son story, in which God is portrayed as waiting for the return of His wayward offspring.

But being among this small band of believers, I began to wonder what form the story would
take if written from a human perspective, from the perspective of those who remain faithful to
God yet who feel that God is distant. The story thus became a personal reflection on the theme of
divine withdrawal.

Reflections on the idea of God’s withdrawal span the Christian tradition and have been
baptized with many names, such as the “dark night of the soul” or the “cloud of unknowing.”
That tradition was poignantly mined in much of the theology that emanated from those who
experienced the horror of the death camps during the Second World War.

Many theologians have pointed out that God, by God’s very nature, always transcends our grasp
and so will always be experienced as withdrawn from our understanding and experience. This view seeks to respect the wonder and majesty of the divine, and draw out how God’s presence is never full presence, not simply because of our limits, but because of God’s uncontainable nature.

Yet, there is another sense in which believers have reflected on the theme of God’s withdrawal,
one that has nothing to do with the nature of God as transcendent but rather with the sense that God has abandoned us. We see this theme poignantly expressed by Christ on the cross when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The absence of God as testified to in this prayer is not the result of God’s being perceived as transcendent, but rather derives from the sense of God’s withdrawing from us in our hour of need.

It was this latter experience I had in mind as I wrote the above story. For I was intrigued by how remaining faithful to God in the midst of God’s seeming infidelity to us is actually a deep and unique aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition, one that spans the entire biblical text, from Genesis to Revelation.

From the angry accusations of the psalmist to Christ’s anguished cry from the cross, such prayers are not condemned by the text but celebrated. In these broken prayers we find a singular depth of commitment, intimacy, and struggle. For these accusations of abandonment address God directly and thus affirm a resolute longing for God in the very expression of their loneliness.


The seven extra parables are available from now through Easter as a free download to anyone that purchases The Orthodox Heretic online at www.paracletepress.com.