The Prodigal God: A Parable for Today

A long time ago, there was peace between God and humanity. They were happy together. In fact, you could hardly distinguish one from the other, for God walked among her people as one of them. She loved them as though they were her own children which, in a way, they were. God took care of the people to the best of her abilities and the people worshiped and thanked her for all she did to the measure of their blessedness and gratitude. The latter never quite measured up to the former, of course, but God was ok with that. After all, it is human to fall short of expectations.

God and humanity had a strong relationship because God was the deliverer who had helped them in their time of need. And though the people were rather forgetful about their sojourns and hardship and the way God had delivered them, they loved God nonetheless and called on God for their daily provisions. There was peace in the land and hope for tomorrow.

God’s Departure

But one day God said something that startled everybody.

“I want to leave,” God said. “I know I have eternity to do all the stuff I want, but you people don’t. And since there’s more of you where you came from, I want to explore humanity before you all go extinct. I want to experience the world before it is no longer.” It was clear God meant it because she had her coat in her hand, a backpack on her shoulders, and she was wearing a hat against the sun.

“But haven’t you given us eternal life,” the people retorted, not knowing what was more baffling, God’s desire to leave or God’s talk about humanity’s extinction.

“Well, I’ve saved you in your time of need, but ‘eternal’ is a big word, don’t you think?” God answered.

“Aren’t you supposed to take care of us and stuff?” the people managed in utter confusion.

“Eternal life, I gave you, alright,” God said, “but it’s kinda tiring to keep up the eternal part given your proclivity for ecological self-destruction. So, please give me my dues and I’ll be off. It’s time to have some fun.”

Angrily and confused the people gathered the things they owed God, which all of a sudden wasn’t so much anymore. God didn’t seem to care. There’s only so many things you can fit in a backpack.

And so God left, leaving the people behind in initial bewilderment. From one moment to the next, they had lost every sense of meaning to their lives. They had to make the best of it now without divine providence, spiritual guidance, and future hope. And that is a lot to take. As long as everything fits together you don’t quite realize how important meaning and hope are. The people didn’t seem too bothered, though. They went on with their daily business and generally coped well with the new situation.

God strode onward and upward to a future where he pursued every aspiration, even the ones that would have been unthinkable under the terms of the relationship with the people he had left behind.

In the Far Country

And sure, the wonders of the world proved to be intoxicating. God aligned himself with the powerful and that proved a very potent combination. God, being God, was able to bestow favors on the emperors, kings, and prelates. They wielded power in the Name of the most High and in turn were blessed with power, wealth, harems, slaves, grand palaces, and conquest. Lot’s of conquest, actually. Nobody realized that God also bestowed the same favors on the kings and moguls on the other side of the battlefield.

As a side-business God started getting involved in philosophy. This was not just for the fun of it. In order to maintain the power bestowed on the powerful, there was more needed than military might, economic exploitation, and political intrigue. People’s imagination needed to be filled with a grand vision of a divine cosmic Lord who stood behind and backed the claims to power of the powerful. Only then, would people bow down in reverence for their queens and kings. The best king is one descended from the gods.

Other than that it was also plain fun to go along with human thinking about divine beings. Moving from polytheism to monotheism was an interesting experiment, but it worked. God felt really proud of the accomplishment. Better even was the integration of the supernatural and the natural, or grace and nature, revelation and world (whatever dualism needs solving, right?). Not only did this help people to see their queens and kings as part of an unalterable divine order, but it also gave them the idea that somehow they had a grip on reality. God chuckled. In a way, he was still doing the people a favor.

But too much order was rather monotonous and so God always maintained some chaos, armed conflicts, and bacchanals on the side to keep things interesting. However, after seeing all the vices of humanity on display and fully enjoying every one of them to the satisfaction of every lustful desire and debased imagination, God became bored. There’s only so many times you can get drunk, get laid, torture, execute, or enslave someone. God may be infinite, but even infinity cannot handle all the philosophy books written by humanity. God’s patience with humanity had run out before humanity had run its own course.

Divine Beggar

It may have been a very long time in human terms, but God finally had become tired of power games, entertainment, philosophy, and wealth. He became a bit of a slacker. He had spent all his resources and energy on his beneficiaries and felt empty. What is worse, the queens, kings, prelates, and philosophers who were dependent on God for their power and theories started seeing through the nonsense that God had come up with all this time. Bestowing power on those in power became increasingly hard. This turned out to have severe consequences for God.

There came a point where those in power came to the realization that power was more easy to maintain when there was no faith in God. Perhaps a token lip service could be allowed, but genuine faith commitment. It was much easier to give people the illusion that they were free to pursue the very things that were previously only beholden to the powerful. In their pursuit of consumerist freedom, people were willing to ignore injustice, power games and even sell their souls to the devil.

The philosophers had led the way in making this possible. They were the first to doubt all the claims that God had come up with to aid the queens and kings in their lust for power and money. Initially a threat to the powerful, the philosophers quickly became their allies once they realized that God was their common enemy.

So they took from God the robe they had given him to wear, dragged God off the golden throne he was sitting on, gave him a good flogging, paraded him through the streets as a criminal and were about to kick him out of the city.

“Away with you,” they said, “Thou art a mere figment of our imagination, the specter of our worst nightmares. You will no longer stop us from becoming lords of the universe ourselves.”

“How dare you,” God stammered, “I’ve given everything I have to you. I have made you immortal kings who reign with me in heaven. I’ve given you everything you desire. In my Name, you have ruled and now you tell me to leave?”

“You can have your heaven! Go there and, please, never return,” they exclaimed and in an attempt to underscore God’s newly gained powerlessness, they taunted him: “Kill us then! Annihilate us with your so-called eternal damnation.”

“He ain’t got it in him,” others mocked.

It was true. God knew it. All this talk about omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence… it was all philosophical bullshit. Most people didn’t even know what the terms meant anymore. And so there was nothing left for God but to leave, but he still tried: “But is there nothing that I can do?” God whimpered, “I need to eat too, you know.”

“Well, sure, you can live in the few churches that are not abandoned yet and feed yourself with the leftover host and wine from communion, if there is any. Ha ha ha!”

God’s Return

As God was sitting in a shaded corner of an old grand cathedral, he watched as only a handful of people filled the sanctuary. “There’s not going to be much bread to eat tonight,” God mused quietly. Suddenly he felt very sad as the full force of his lowly state hit home.

And that’s where it happened. God said to himself: “What if I returned to my people? Will they receive me? Over here I’m starving. I’ll just tell them I’m not worthy to be their God and that I’ll just be a servant working the field.”

After gathering courage, God got up and started on his way back to the people he had abandoned earlier. God was wearing rags and truly looked like a beggar. “Will they even recognize me?” God thought, but such negative prospects couldn’t stop him anymore.

After a long and arduous journey, God arrived at where his people lived. As was to be expected, there was no one on the lookout. It still hurt though. A few children looked up from their games and moved to the other side of the street and continued to play.

A few streets down God noticed a church building where a meeting was about to start. God stepped inside the building and realized that it was a commemoration service on behalf of God. Happily surprised God stammered with an awkward smile: “Hi, I’m back … I’m … God.” God recognized several of the members from earlier days but the recognition was not mutual.

“Please, dude, we have no need for wannabes,” one said. “We’re sad God is gone but would like to think of the good times we had. You can join or shut up.” “Bye bye Jesus,” another member joked. “Or Krishna, Mohammed, or Gautama,” grinned the first one again.

Dizzy in his head, God staggered outside. This was not what he had expected, though he knew things would be tough. God went to the house of one of the leaders in the community, with whom he always had a good relationship. Sure enough, she opened the door, but not with a smile.

“Hi, Sandra,” God said shyly.

“Please go away,” Sandra said, “and never show up at my house again.”

“I’m sorry I left,” God muttered, “but I’m back for good. If you’ll have me.”

Tears filled Sandra’s eyes. “It was actually good you left because it forced me to take a hard look at my relationship with you and my fellow believers. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that as a woman I was always lesser than men. Faith in you subjugated me under the power of men who were bent on preserving the leadership for themselves. I’m done with this toxic god-thing. It’s time to feel like a woman! To be honest, your departure was my liberation. I’m sorry, but I cannot and will not have you back in my life.”

God didn’t know how to respond and hurried down the driveway toward the street. Just a few hundred yards from the market square God bumped into a bunch of theologians. “Sure, they will welcome me,” God thought, “After all they need me and faith in me to make an income.”

The theologians, however, laughed at God, because they already knew that God was dead. In fact, their theories were based on God’s death so not only did the introduction of God strike them as nonsensical but they were not exactly waiting for someone to challenge their ideas.

“Come join us,” they said, “Let’s celebrate the true freedom that God brought in God’s death. The ultimate sublation of divine love into creation.” One gave God an irreverent but friendly pat on the left cheek: “You look pretty pale for a Divine Other.” They all laughed as they hurried on to their beer church event and left God standing in the cold.

The Peasant

God ran away, to the outskirts of town, in search of a shelter for the night. There, in the margin of society, God met the weak,  the poor, the powerless, the oppressed, and the hungry. “Hey, I’m one of you,” God whispered by way of introduction with an expression of belonging on his face. “I’ve come here to be on your side. But for a brief lapse in judgment you’ve always been my preferential option.”

But the poor did not welcome God either. They did not mistake him for somebody else or deny his existence. Instead, they had a few simple questions. “Lord, when we were hungry, did you feed us? When we were thirsty, did you give us something to drink? When we were strangers, did you invite us in or give us clothes to wear? When we were in prison, did you visit us?”

“Well, when were you hungry, or thirsty, or naked?” God asked.

“You’re kidding, right? How about now, God?” They said with a sad face. “Truly, whatever you did not do for one of the least of us, you did not do for all of us.”

With great sadness, God left the city and was never heard of again. Rumor has it that he went about from town to town as a wandering peasant teaching the masses always in search of a home.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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