Fragment on the Prodigal Son
WRITTEN BY CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA
Translated by the Revd W. Wilson; with additional editing as part of the Monachos.net Library Project
Introductory note: This fragment of a longer work by Clement has survived because it is quoted in an oration on Luke 15 by Macarius Chrysocephalus. The second part, however, starting at section 4, is in a different style and refers directly to the Novatian schism which took place after Clement’s repose. The second unknown author is, however, very close to Clement in his general approach to exegesis.
1. What choral dance and high festival is held in heaven, if there is one that has become an exile and a fugitive from the life led under the Father, knowing not that those who put themselves far from Him shall perish; if he has squandered the gift, and substance, and inheritance of the Father; if there is one whose faith has failed, and whose hope is spent, by rushing along with the Gentiles into the same profligacy of debauchery; and then, famished and destitute, and not even filled with what the swine eat, has arisen and come to his Father!
But the kind Father waits not till the son comes to Him. For perchance he would never be able or venture to approach, did he not find Him gracious. Wherefore, when he merely wishing, when he straight away made a beginning, when he took the first step, while he was yet a great way off, He [the Father] was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell upon his neck and kissed him. And then the son, taking courage, confessed what he had done.
Wherefore the Father bestows on him the glory and honour that was due and meet, putting on him the best robe, the robe of immortality; and a ring, a royal signet and divine seal — impress of consecration, signature of glory, pledge of testimony (for it is said, ‘He hath set to his seal that God is true’ [John 3.33]) and shoes, not those perishable ones which he hath set his foot on holy ground is bidden take off (Ex. 3.5), nor such as he who is sent to preach the kingdom of heaven is forbidden to put on (Mt. 10.10), but such as wear not, and are suited for the journey to heaven, becoming and adorning the heavenly path, such as unwashed feet never put on, but those which are washed by our Teacher and Lord (John 13.8).
Many, truly, are the shoes of the sinful soul, by which it is bound and cramped. For each man is cramped by the cords of his own sins. Accordingly, Abraham swears to the king of Sodom, ‘I will not take of all that is thine, from a thread to a shoe-latchet’ (Gen. 14.23). On account of these being defiled and polluted on the earth, every kind of wrong and selfishness engrosses life. As the Lord reproves Israel by Amos, saying, ‘For three iniquities of Israel, yea, for four, I will not turn him back; because they have given away the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, which tread upon the dust of the ground’ (Amos 2.6).
2. Now the shoes which the Father bids the servant give to the repentant son who has betaken himself to Him, do not impede or drag to the earth (for the earthly tabernacle weighs down the anxious mind); but they are buoyant, and ascending, and waft to heaven, and serve as such a ladder and chariot as he requires who has turned his mind towards the Father. For, beautiful after being first beautifully adorned with all these things without, he enters into the gladness within. For ‘Bring out’ was said by Him who had first said, ‘While he was yet a great way off, he ran and fell upon his neck’. For it is here1 that all the preparation for entrance to the marriage to which we are invited must be accomplished. He, then, who has been made ready to enter will say, ‘This my joy is fulfilled’ (John 3.29). But the unlovely and unsightly man will hear, ‘Friend, how camest thou in here, without having a wedding garment?’ (Mt. 22.12). And the fat and unctuous food, — the delicacies abundant and sufficing of the blessed — the fatted calf is killed; which is also again spoken of as a lamb (not literally); that no one may suppose it small; but it is the great and greatest. For not small is ‘the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29), who ‘was led as a sheep to the slaughter’, the sacrifice full of marrow, all whose fat, according to the sacred law, was the Lord’s. For He was wholly devoted and consecrated to the Lord; so well grown, and to such excessive size, as to reach and extend over all, and to fill those who eat Him and feed upon Him. For He is both flesh and bread, and has given Himself as both to us to be eaten.
To the sons, then, who come to Him, the Father gives the calf, and it is slain and eaten. But those who do not come to Him He pursues and disinherits, and is found to be a most powerful bull. Here, by reason of His size and prowess, it is said of Him, ‘His glory is as that of an unicorn’ (Numbers 23.22). And the prophet Habakkuk sees Him bearing horns, and celebrates His defensive attitude — ‘horns in His hands’ (Habakkuk 3.4). Wherefore the sign shows His power and authority, — horns that pierce on both sides, or rather, on all sides, and through everything. And those who eat are so strengthened, and retain such strength from the life-giving food in them, that they themselves are stronger than their enemies, and are all but armed with the horns of a bull; as it is said, ‘In thee shall we butt our enemies’ (Ps. 43.5).
3. Gladness there is, and music, and dances; although the elder son, who had ever been with and ever obedient to the Father, takes it ill, when he who never had himself been dissipated or profligate sees the guilty one made happy.
Accordingly the Father calls him, saying, ‘Son, thou art ever with me’. And what greater joy and feast and festivity can be than being continually with God, standing by His side and serving Him? ‘And all that is mine is thine’. And blessed is the heir of God, for whom the Father holds possession — the faithful, to whom the whole world of possessions belongs.
‘It was meet that we should be glad, and rejoice; for thy brother was dead, and is alive again.’ Kind Father, who givest all things life, and raisest the dead. ‘And was lost, and is found.’ And ‘blessed is the man whom Thou hast chosen and accepted’ (Ps. 64.5), and whom having sought, Thou dost find. ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, whose sins are covered’ (Ps. 31.1). It is for man to repent of sins; but let this be accompanied with a change that will not be checked. For he who does not act so shall be put to shame, because he has acted not with his whole heart, but in haste.
And it is ours to flee to God. And let us endeavour after this ceaselessly and energetically. For He says, ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Mt. 11.28). And prayer and confession with humility are voluntary acts. Wherefore it is enjoined, ‘First tell thy sins, that thou mayest be justified’ (Is. 43.26). What afterwards we shall obtain, and what we shall be, it is not for us to judge.
[Here the second writer begins.]
4. Such is the strict meaning of the parable. The repentant son came to the pitying Father, never hoping for these things — the best robe, and the ring, and the shoes — or to taste the fatted calf, or to share in gladness, or enjoy music and dances; but he would have been contented with obtaining what in his own estimation he deemed himself worth. ‘Make me’, he had made up his mind to say, ‘as one of thy hired servants’. But when he saw the Father’s welcome meeting him, he did not say this, but said what he had in his mind to say first, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before thee.’ And so both his humility and his accusation became the cause of justification and glory. For the righteous man condemns himself in his first words. So also the publican departed justified rather than the Pharisee (cf. Lk. 18.14). The son, then, knew not either what he was to obtain, or how to take or use or put on himself the things given him; since he did not take the robe himself, and put it on. But it is said, ‘Put it on him’. He did not himself put the ring on his finger, but those who were bidden ‘put a ring on his hand’. Nor did he put the shoes on himself, but it was they who heard, ‘and shoes on his feet’. And these things were perhaps incredible to him and to others, and unexpected before they took place; but gladly received and praised were the gifts with which he was presented.
5. The parable exhibits this thought, that the exercise of the faculty of reason has been accorded to each man. Wherefore the prodigal is introduced, demanding from his father his portion, that is, of the state of mind, endowed by reason. For the possession of reason is granted to all, in order to the pursuit of what is good, and the avoidance of what is bad. But many who are furnished by God with this make a bad use of the knowledge that has been given them, and land in the profligacy of evil practices, and wickedly waste the substance of reason — the eye on disgraceful sights, the tongue on blasphemous words, the smell on foetid licentious excesses of pleasures, the mouth on swinish gluttony, the hands on thefts, the feet on running into plots, the thoughts on impious counsels, the inclinations on indulgence on the love of ease, the mind on brutish pastime. They preserve nothing of the substance of reason unsquandered. Such an one, therefore, Christ represents in the parable — as a rational creature, with his reason darkened, and asking from the divine being what is suitable to reason; then as obtaining from God, and making a wicked use of what had been given, and especially of the benefits of baptism, which had been vouchsafed to him; whence also He calls him a prodigal; and then, after the dissipation of what had been given him, and again his restoration by repentance, [He represents] the love of God shown to him.
6. For He says, ‘Bring hither the fatted calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son’ — a name of nearest relationship, and significative of what is given to the faithful — ‘was dead and lost’ — an expression of extremest alienation; for what is more alien to the living than the lost and dead? For neither can be possessed any more. But having from the nearest relationship fallen to extremest alienation, again by repentance he returned to near relationship. For it is said, ‘Put on him the best robe’, which was his the moment he obtained baptism. I mean the glory of baptism, the remission of sins, and the communication of the other blessings, which he obtained immediately he had touched the font.
‘And put a ring on his hand.’ Here is the mystery of the Trinity; which is the seal impressed on those who believe. ‘And put shoes on his feet’, for ‘the preparation of the Gospel of peace’ (Eph. 6.15), and the whole course that leads to good actions.
7. But whom Christ finds lost, after sin committed since baptism, those Novatus, enemy of God, resigns to destruction. Do not let us then reckon any fault if we repent; guarding against falling, let us, if we have fallen, retrace our steps. And while dreading to offend, let us, after offending, avoid despair, and be eager to be confirmed; and on sinking, let us haste to rise up again. Let us obey the Lord, who calls to us, ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labour, and I will give you rest’ (Mt. 11.28). Let us employ the gift of reason for actions of prudence. Let us learn now abstinence from what is wicked, that we may not be forced to learn in the future. Let us employ life as a training school for what is good; and let us be roused to the hatred of sin. Let us bear about a deep love for the Creator; let us cleave to Him with our whole heart; let us not wickedly waste the substance of reason, like the prodigal. Let us obtain the joy laid up, in which Paul exulting, exclaimed, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Rom. 8.35). To Him belongs glory and honour, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.