The Prodigal LLAMA: How to Interpret Scripture the Ancient Way
Sorry, but inspite of the picture above, ‘The Prodigal Llama’ is not a fun story about a wayward and hopelessly foolish Llama getting into trouble somewhere in the Andes. Although that might make a good story, the purpose of the llama is to help us recall the LLAMA acronym.
LLAMA stands for: Listening for the Literal. Allegorical, Moral and Anagogical sense of Scripture. In this case we will use the Parable of the Prodigal Son to see how it works. Hence the title of this article, The Prodigal Llama.
Why should we interpret scripture in this llama way? Because it is the way of the Church Fathers and the Apostolic Tradition and Catholics are big on both of those. In fact in the Catechism, CCC 115-118, there’s a description of this interpretive key:
According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church. The Literal speaks of deeds, Allegory to faith, the Moral how to act, Anagogy our eternal destiny.
Literal: The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.
Allegorical: the allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.
Moral: the moral sense. the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. St. Paul says they were written "for our instruction".
Anagogical: the anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.
So now let's do a LLAMA on the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32...
The literal sense (paraphrasing) of the parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32 begins with a terrible demand. A son asks his father for his share of his inheritance so that he can be free and spend it on the lifestyle that he chooses. The father agrees and the son goes away with spending money. The son ends up squandering the money on sinful activities and he ends up broke. He has to hire himself out to a pig farmer. Upon seeing the pig slop and desiring to eat it because he is so hungry he has a realization. He realizes that he should go back home and apologize to his father by confessing his sins and offering to be a hired worker. The Father, who was waiting for his son, embraces him and orders that a celebration and feast be prepared.The brother of the prodigal son becomes angry and jealous because he was always faithful yet he was never celebrated with a feast. As the father gives the prodigal son a ring, sandals and clothing, he explains to the brother why he is celebrating. It is because he was thought of as lost and dead and has returned home.
There’s a lot to say about the allegorical sense (the symbolic meaning). One way to break it down is to see the parable as a whole as an allegory for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They both have the same basic pattern. The father represents the role of God and the prodigal son represents the sinner who repents and makes a confession. So what was the sin?
The sin is found in verse 13, “And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living”. It rises to the level of a mortal sin because the allusion to being dead and lost implies a break in the relationship between the sinner and God. In verses16 and 32, “...for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found”.
There’s an examination of conscience in verses 17-18, “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!”. For the prodigal son, like the sinner who has persisted a long time in mortal sin, it takes reaching a rock bottom moment to trigger his conscience.
Then there's the verbal confession itself in verse 21, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”.
Reconciliation is initiated by the son but the father also comes out to embrace his son. In verse 20, “So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” This act of forgiveness happens before the son confesses but while he has repentance and sorrow in his heart.
The absolution of the sin and the restoration of sonship or divine life happens after confession just like in the sacrament. In verses 22-23, “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate”. With the robe he is clothed in abundant grace, with the signet ring his family status is regained and the sandals bring him out of the state of being a barefooted slave. His slavery to sin is replaced with a spiritual freedom, unburdened of his guilt.
There is also the act of penance. A desire to make up for his sins expressed by the son in verse 19, “treat me as you would one of your hired workers”.
What is the moral meaning of the story? The parables of Jesus primarily had a moral sense to convey. In this story we learn that no matter how bad we mess up, so long as we make an effort to return to God, especially going to confession, we can be not only forgiven but totally restored and blessed beyond what we deserve with grace. We learn that the father is not vindictive or quick to punish his sons and daughters. Rather, he is eager to see us return and ready to reconcile. He doesn’t force us into confession because it must be freely chosen, based on true sorrow. We must avoid comparing ourselves to others and rejoice when someone else is given a blessing which they don’t deserve. We must remember that none of us deserve the grace of God’s unconditional love and mercy.
The anagogical meaning (what it says about eternal life) centers around the feast. It wasn’t just any feast, it was the fattened calf that was slaughtered so it was special. Being in a state of grace is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The Bible calls heaven the wedding feast of the Lamb. It also says, “nothing unclean can enter”. The robes of the wedding guests must be washed in the blood of the Lamb. The sacrament of Reconciliation is the process by which we, like the prodigal son, are able to return to the father to be welcomed with an embrace and a celebration. This is the same hope we have for when we too return home to the Father at the moment of our death.