A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them…(Luke 15:11 and following)
Did you know that there is also a Buddhist parable of the Prodigal Son?
Let’s compare the parable of Buddha with our beloved parable of Christ.
In the Buddhist parable, there is only one son. The son departs from the father’s house, but he does not take any money with him when he goes.
In the Lord Jesus’ parable, the wealthy father gives his younger son his inheritance, even though the son has no right to it until the father’s demise.
In the parable from the gospel, the son is away long enough to waste all his money and grow desperate—so desperate that he is willing to herd unclean animals, the most demeaning work imaginable for a Jew.
Nonetheless, we do not get the sense that a long time necessarily passes in the gospel parable. It could be a long time; it could be a short time. How much time passes does not really affect the meaning.
In the Buddhist parable from the Lotus Sutra, the son wanders the earth for many years. He lives a life of miserable poverty, but there is nothing mentioned about loose living.
After the son leaves, the father in the Buddhist parable does not stay at home. Instead, he moves. He grows very wealthy, and becomes the king of a small country in a different part of Asia.
The wandering son eventually stumbles by chance into his long-lost father’s kingdom. When the father sees the son, he recognizes him. But the son does not recognize the father. On the contrary, the son is terrified of the wealthy king, and runs away.
The father in Buddha’s parable has his attendants chase the son. As we heard from the gospel, the prodigal son in Christ’s parable intends to work as a hired hand for his father, but the father will not hear of it. In Buddha’s parable, the father does exactly what the father in the Gospel will not do: the Buddha’s father hires his son as a dung shoveler.
The father disguises himself as an old laborer and works alongside the son. He gradually instructs his son in how to receive the large inheritance of wealth that he has amassed.
After many years, the father becomes ill and finally reveals to the son who he is. Then he tells the son that he will inherit all the wealth of the kingdom.
As we can see, there are striking similarities between the parables; both involve wealthy fathers and wayward sons. Both involve the restoration of an inheritance. For all these similarities, however, there are deep differences.
One difference is the motivation of the father. In the Buddhist parable, the father is motivated by his own interest: he does not want to die without an heir. He fears that all his work will be in vain and his wealth wasted if he has no one to whom he may leave his inheritance.
In our Lord’s parable, on the other hand, the father is no way preoccupied with his own interests. The father’s wealth is a given, stable—never in question. The father seems to consider his material goods as only the means to an end. The father in Christ’s parable is fundamentally motivated by one thing: tender love. He loves his sons. He respects their independence. But he wants them with him in his house, happy and at home with their father.
Another difference, between the parables is the length of time that elapses. It takes decades for the Buddhist parable to run its course. The Buddha’s parable is about long suffering, training, and gradual enlightenment.
The dramatic moments of the Buddha’s parable come only after periods of dreariness. This makes sense, since the goal of the Buddhist is to rise above all earthly things and eventually disappear. In Buddhism, as I understand it, either you learn to disappear, or you come back in the next life as a cow or chicken.
The action of the gospel parable, on the other hand, unfolds quickly. The sinner wanders away, grows miserable, repents, and comes home.
When the prodigal son returns, everything happens instantly. The son does not have to serve out a long servitude. The father does not disguise himself to train the son. The father has no scheme to make his son ‘worthy’ of his wealth.
Instead, in the gospel, the father simply showers his woebegone, tatterdemalion son with an outpouring of joyful love. The son is not worthy of wearing the ring, the sandals, or the robe which the father puts on him, but the father doesn’t care. It’s not about his son being worthy of anything. It’s about: I am overjoyed that my son has come home to me.
The crucial event of the Buddhist parable is the handing on of wealth from the father to the son. In the Lotus Sutra, the father does not represent God. Instead, he represents the bodhisattva, that is, the one who can train others to attain nirvana. The parable is about training–training to attain the state of nothingness.
In the gospel parable, the crucial event is the father’s embrace of the son. The father is God, the God of love revealed by Christ. Receiving the Father’s mercy is not a matter of training. Divine mercy is a gift.
In the gospel parable, the father is the infinitely powerful God who can give everything and still have more. The son receives many good things from the father, but all of them pale in comparison to the central gift, namely the father’s sweet, tender love.
Lent is a time of training. We are striving to lift ourselves up, up to the goodness of God Himself. None of our honest efforts to purify ourselves will be wasted. The Father smiles on all our humble attempts to grow closer to Him.
Nonetheless, the parable of Christ reminds us of this crucial fact: we will never be worthy of Easter Sunday morning. Our heavenly Father wants to give it to us.