Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Clement of Alexandria (part 5: Prodigal Son, Wedding Feast’s Garment, and the power to "butt our enemies")
A final post about Clement that includes some items that most likely will not be discussed in the book, primarily because the parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the four parables most prevalent in various types of interpretations. I have so many other Prodigal Son examples to include that I think are more valuable and interesting.
Clement’s oration on the Passover places the parable of the Prodigal Son in the context of those who have become exiles and fugitives from God. Such exiles, who have squandered their inheritance from God in a “profligacy of debauchery,” can arise and return to God. In response, God is moved with compassion, takes the first step while the son is still far away, runs toward the prodigal, and bestows upon him glory and honor. The actions of the father in the parable are symbolic: The best robe denotes the robe of immortality; the ring is a royal signet ring and divine seal of “consecration, signature of glory, pledge of testimony” (citing John 3:33); the shoes are “not those perishable ones”—and not “the shoes of the sinful soul, by which it is bound and cramped”—but are instead shoes that do not wear out and “are suited for the journey to heaven,” such as the ones put on by those whose feet have been washed by “our Teacher and Lord” (an apparent allusion to John 13:13). The shoes given to the repentant son thus “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.”
Clement then takes a brief detour to connect the parable of the Wedding Feast’s garment and the delicacies of that dinner (Matt. 22:1-14) to the feast celebrating the return of the prodigal. The fatted calf killed for the celebration of the son’s return may be “spoken of as a lamb (not literally)” because it is not small but “the great and greatest.” Christ, then, is the fatted calf (lamb), because he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:19) and who “was led as a sheep to the slaughter” (Acts 8:32; cf. Is. 53:7). The sacrifice of the lamb symbolized in the killing of the fatted calf is also symbolic of the Eucharist, because Christ “is both flesh and bread and has given himself as both to us to be eaten.” To the “sons” who return to God as father, God gives them the calf, “and it is slain and eaten.” But those who do not return to God, God “pursues and disinherits, and is found to be a most powerful bull,” whose “glory is as that of an unicorn” (Numbers 23:22) and who gives this strength to those who partake in the Eucharist and are given the power to “butt our enemies” (Psalm 44:5).
The elder son reacts negatively to the party the father gives for the younger son, but Clement asks, “what greater joy and feast and festivity can be than being continually with God, standing by his side and serving him?” The text then, after giving this “strict meaning of the parable,” includes an interpretation that some scholars believe is written by a later hand, a hand that explicitly moralizes the parable: God gives human beings the power to reason, to discern between good and evil, and the responsibility to pursue what is good and avoid what is evil. Many, however, act like the prodigal and choose evil (e.g., “swinish gluttony”), even after being baptized, because their “reason is darkened.” When they repent, though, God restores them. The prodigal thus represents the love that God shows to those who return and repent, putting on the best robe is baptism and forgiveness, and the giving of the ring symbolizes the mystery of the Trinity.
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