A Lenten Meditation – Peter Rollins’ The Prodigal Father

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.

A Lenten Meditation – Peter Rollins’ Finding Faith

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.

Finding Faith

There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift. He found that, from an early age, when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions. They would invariably lose all of their beliefs about the prophets, the sacred Scriptures, and even God. So he learned not to pray for people but instead limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works.

However, one day while traveling across the country, the preacher found himself in conversation
with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction. This businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, one who was honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries. Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk. As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.

“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions. But I try, as much as possible, to remain true to my faith. Indeed, I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work, and contribute to a weekly Bible study. These activities help to remind me of who I really am.”

After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of
his unseemly gift. So he turned to the businessman and said, “Would you allow me to pray a blessing into your life?”

The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen. Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment.
“What a fool I have been for all these years!” he proclaimed. “It is clear to me now that there
is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and
there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.”

As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned
home. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly
difficult to continue in his line of work. Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed
businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise
his activity. Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward gave up his line of work
completely. Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give to the poor all the riches he had
accumulated and began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by it.

One day, many years later, he happened upon the preacher again while walking through town.
He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy. Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, “Thank you, my dear friend, for helping me discover my faith.”

Commentary by Peter Rollins

In this story we begin to gain an insight into how religious belief can itself be a barrier to living the life of faith. It is all too easy for us to think that our religious beliefs express the deep truth of our inner life while what we do on a daily basis in work is only a mask, a necessary evil that must be endured in order to get by in today’s frenetic, consumerist world.

In this way we think that it is our commitment to prayer groups, church meetings, and Bible
studies that reflects the essence of our inner lives. Our religious groups on the weekends and in
the evenings are thought to be sites of resistance that provide us with the strength to question our world and avoid getting fully caught up in it. However, could it be that these activities are in
fact the very things that allow us to fully engage with the world? What if we need our prayer
groups and Bible studies because they act as a type of safety valve that actually allows us to
release the tensions and stresses of our work so that, the next day, we can return again? If this is
so, then the activities that we think critique the unjust world are really the very activities that
this world requires in order to run smoothly. Our church activities are then nothing more than a
type of air vent in the machine.

This logic is beautifully expressed in The Matrix Trilogy, directed by the Cohen Brothers. In the
first film we learn that there is a city where people are free from the AI prison where the majority of humans are held and that Neo (Keanu Reeves) is the hero who can bring freedom. However, in the later films we learn that there have been many cities before Zion (the free city) and that Neo is just the latest in a long line of messiah-like individuals who have risen up to challenge the machines.

Furthermore, we learn that the machines are actually behind what initially seems to be the
very force that would threaten them: they are behind the development of Zion and they provide
the necessary conditions for Neo (and the other freedom fighters) to arise. Why? Because they
Beyond belief understand that, for the oppressive system they have constructed to work, the Matrix needs to include a site of resistance.

In daily life there are reams of activities that are publicly disavowed by the government and society at large, yet are privately permitted. Among these are turning a blind eye to prostitution in certain areas, and the fact that we can all go ten miles per hour over the speed limit without too much fear of getting fined. These acts allow people to disobey the law in ways that are actually unofficially sanctioned by the law. We who engage in such state-sanctioned transgressions are otherwise good law-abiding citizens. Indeed, our ability to break the law in small ways is part of what keeps us law-abiding the rest of the time. If we were not able to engage in small acts of transgression, if the law were absolutely unbending, then we would begin to rebel against it in a fundamental way. By creating leniency within the law, the law is not experienced as oppressive and is thus more likely to be accepted with all its flaws.

In the above story I attempt to explore and critique this problem by putting into fictional form the insights of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison. Here Bonhoeffer rejected religion because he felt that it places God on the outer edges of life as the answer to our current ignorance (for example, as the name we give to the one who created the world) or as the one we turn to in the private sphere (such as at church and in the home).

Bonhoeffer rejected this and refused to give God a place in the world, because when God is given
a place, God is confined to a specific location (and that location is usually on the edges of life).
Instead he advocated an existence fully immersed in the world, utterly taken up by the concerns of the world, one that pours itself out in the joys and sufferings of the world.
Such a move could of course be misunderstood as a way of actively denying God. It could be
described as a humanism in which people are encouraged to take responsibility for their own lives rather than looking for some divine answer. Yet for Bonhoeffer this was not the end of the story. If religion gives God a place, and humanism denies that place, then he claimed that Christianity fully embraces this humanism, not as a way of denying God, but as the way of fully Beyond belief affirming God—denying God a place so that God is affirmed in every place. Here one fully lives in the world as a way of fully living before God.

Hence he wrote, “Before God and with God we live without God.” The result of such thinking is the affirmation of a faith that permeates all our actions rather than being exhibited only when faced with something we cannot understand, or at some prayer meeting, or in some weekly service to the poor. Such an expression thus strikes against the very roots of inauthentic resistance and demands a truly radical reconfiguring of our social existence.

To put this in religious language, the above story asks if perhaps the devil, far from hating our multitude of church activities, positively loves them, for it is in these very activities that we are able to become such productive agents in carrying out his insidious desires—making changes in the world that fundamentally ensure everything in the world remains the same.

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.