Ministering Like the Prodigal Trinity

Deep into the weeds of Catholic social media, we can easily fall into the mindset of categorizing people as sinners. Whether the issue is abortion, racism, LGBTQ, gender or another lightning rod topic, we are often inundated with views on challenging the sinner versus advocating for the other’s state of life.

However, our faith is predicated on a God who became human and specifically sought out sinners (cf. Lk 5:32).

A binary approach to the faith can lend itself to labeling people based on these aforementioned lighting rods. But a Trinitarian approach teaches us to respond to the other with boundless love and compassion.

When we contemplate God’s activity in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (cf. Lk 15:11–32), we become aware that God is prodigal with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. Additionally, when we read of the father’s household in the parable, we must recognize that the Household of God is Trinitarian — a Communion of Persons comprising the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Moreover, we are all invited into the Trinitarian Household, regardless of whether we are the younger son or the older son in the parable, to partake as a sharer in the Household.

By choosing to imitate these aforementioned virtues in a prodigal manner, we can grow in union with the Trinity. The invitation from the Trinity as a partaker in the Household, coupled with an imitation of the Trinitarian virtues of compassion and mercy, dispose us to the divine, unmerited activity of theosis. We are therefore called to both abide in the Trinity and minister in the manner according to the Prodigal Trinity in order to experience growing, gratuitous union with God that leads us to divinization.

A Parable of God’s Compassion

Firstly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a parable of God’s mercy and compassion. Jesus introduces us to a father, representing God, who sees his dejected son from afar and rushes to greet him (Lk 15:20). The son’s rehearsed apology does not even come to completion before the father rolls out the red carpet for the son who has returned, and he plans for a grand feast in his son’s honor (Lk 15:22–24). The parable reveals to us a loving God who is always ready to receive us no matter how far we have wandered astray, and who eagerly anticipates our return.

In turn, God calls us to imitate the mercy that God so readily bestows upon us. As we have freely received, so we are called to freely give. God calls us to recognize how each of us is the Prodigal Son, and having been accepted and loved completely in spite of our shortcomings, God calls us to imitate the father by welcoming and receiving the one who is afar in the manner we have been loved.

Rather than debate if a person in such-and-such category is a sinner, we ought to recognize that we are sinners. From that disposition, we must be ready to receive the other as God receives us, and invite the other to partake in the feast that God so freely offers us. The parable teaches us that the activity of God is one of inclusion, and our efforts ought to be geared toward inclusion if we wish to imitate God and follow Christ.

Shifting to the older son in the parable, we also cannot separate ourselves from the state of this character. We can easily lose sight of how often we fall short and are in need of mercy, and look down on the one who has gone astray. Like the older son, we can judge the sinner and express resentment toward God’s generous compassion, especially when we lose sight of how God offers this to us as well.

But the truth is that both sons are loved deeply by their father, who desires to share his entirety with both of them.

In a similar manner, recognizing both the older son and the younger son in us, God gratuitously receives us and shares divine love with us. In addition, God calls us to reflect this divine love to others, especially those who are afar.

A Parable of the Household of God

Secondly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son introduces us to the Household (Greek: oikos, οἶκος) of God. The household of the father in the parable includes his younger, prodigal son, his older, ostensibly loyal but resentful son, and his servants.

But if the father in the parable represents God, then the Household of God is Trinitarian. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct, divine persons that experiences unity in being in communion with one another. The Trinity is a Communion of Persons — God’s Community of Love — that expresses love through the gift of self.

Fr. George Maloney, SJ describes God’s Community of Love as the following:

The great revelation Jesus came to give us was to reveal to us that God is an ecstatic, intimate, loving community, a circle of inflaming love that knows no circumference, of a Father emptying himself into his Son through his Spirit of love. Such intimacy and self-emptying are returned by the Son gifting himself back to the Father through the same Spirit. In the Trinity, Jesus reveals to us the secret of life. Love is a call to receive one’s being in the intimate self-surrendering of the other. In the ecstasy of “standing outside” of oneself and becoming available through the gift of love to live for the other, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit all come into their unique being as distinct yet united persons.1

The Trinitarian Household, therefore, is a dwelling of eternal, intimate, self-emptying love.

The household in the Parable of the Prodigal Son hosts a feast for the son who has returned, a feast of divine, Trinitarian self-giving love. God freely offers the sinner the most precious of all feasts: divine love from a God who is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:16). The management of the Household of God, i.e. the oikonomia (οἰκονομία) of the Trinity, is symbolized in the grand feast that God offers to welcome and invite the one who is afar.

In light of this divine feast, I am reminded of my favorite icon, Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity. The scene in this icon is inspired by Abraham’s visitation by three angels (cf. Gen. 18:1–10), and is analogous of the three persons of the Trinity. In the icon, the Trinity sits equidistantly in a circular fashion at a table with a chalice-bowl at the center. The circle denotes unity without distinct sides, and infinite connectivity. The chalice-bowl symbolizes communion and love, as the Divine Persons experience a communion of unending love rooted in total unity.

Thus, the Trinitarian Household is one without sides and division. The image of the circle, which denotes unity and equality, expresses the communion that God desires to offer us in this great feast of divine love.

While the Prodigal Son dwelt on what he had squandered, and his older brother focused on his younger brother’s failure and his own self-righteousness, Jesus teaches us that neither shame nor condemnation is how God wishes to operate with us. Additionally, God does not promote an “us versus them” mentality as expressed by the older son. Instead, God desires to invite all of us broken people into the unbroken circle of divine love and to experience inclusion, acceptance, and communion that is without division but complete in undivided love.

Note this is not to promote or excuse moral relativism, nor does this perspective favor looking the other way when it comes to sin. God’s way, which is higher than our ways (cf. Is 55:8–9), is one that delivers us and heals us from sin by pouring forth abundant love and compassion. God’s way is one of mercy and forgiveness, ever ready to receive us even when we choose to go our own way instead of remaining in God’s Household of gratuitous Trinitarian love.

Therefore, we must contemplate, admire, and express gratitude for the Trinity’s prodigal, self-giving love. The Trinitarian Household offers us a model of total generosity, with the Father and Son’s eternal, mutual love offered not only within the community of the divine and perfect, but graciously extended to the one who has gone astray. Even when we squander this precious gift of divine love, God is ever ready to fully return this gift to us — the gift of God’s own self.

Partakers of the Trinitarian Household

Thirdly, God invites each and every one of us to partake in this Household. Specifically, God offers us divine power so that we may come to share in the divine nature (cf. 2 Pt 1:3–4).

Being called to be imitators of God, we must imitate this Trinitarian praxis. Our action toward one who might be astray (for whatever reason) must imitate the love of God that goes forth to receive the one who is afar, as opposed to solely rebuking him or her. Regardless of what wrong one has committed, God deeply desires for the one who has departed to feast on divine, Trinitarian love.

Notice how the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance (Lk 15:12) and the older son was resentful for the father receiving his brother who squandered his inheritance (Lk 15:28–30). Neither son realized the difference between asserting what was “theirs” versus their father’s actual desire to share all he has with them.

Wanting their share is the opposite of sharing. The latter is denoted in the father’s statement that “everything I have is yours” (Lk 15:31). The Trinity exhibits mutual sharing and self-giving expressed in the Greek term koinonia (κοινωνία), which signifies a fellowship of joint participation. God offers us koinonia: to participate and to share in everything that the Trinity has.

Sharing in everything that God has, which is truly receiving and experiencing God’s free gift of self, enables us to share in God’s divinity. The Eastern Fathers described this grace as divinization or theosis.

Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature. Also referred to as deification, divinization, or illumination, it is a concept derived from the New Testament regarding the goal of our relationship with the Triune God.2

As Saint Athanasius famously quipped, “God became man so that man might become god” (On the Incarnation 54:3). Theosis promotes a growing union with God that is transformative, allowing a sharing in the divine nature that restores and illumines us so that we can freely enter into the koinonia of the Trinity, one of total self-gift and mutuality. God desires this for us so that we may have a total sharing of God’s divine love and divine self. Our God does not hold back.

Regarding theosis, the Eastern Fathers used the term uncreated energies to express the Trinity’s action of communicating love to each of us as a gift of self. In other words, God communicates to us by offering divine uncreated energies.

Archbishop Joseph Raya of the Melkite Church explains that the divine uncreated energies are not distinct or separate from God, but are actually God’s self-gift and self-communication to us:

It is not God’s action but God himself in his action who makes himself known to man and gives him the ability to “see” him. God enters into man’s love, remaining there in his intimate reality. This communication of God himself is called “Uncreated Energy.” The uncreated energies of God are not “things” which exist outside of God, not “gifts” of God; they are God himself in his action. They are the very God who is himself Uncreated. They are therefore called “uncreated” because their cause and origin is the Essence of God. In them God as it were goes beyond himself and becomes “transradiant” in order to communicate himself. Thus the Essence and energies of God are not “parts” of God but two ways by which we human beings can contemplate God’s essence.3

God’s uncreated energies, God’s self-gift to us, leads us to theosis.

When we open ourselves to receive the uncreated energies and allow God to fill us with divine love, our eyes begin to see anew — that which we held onto so tightly, our personal beliefs in terms of righteousness and worthiness — lose importance.

Sequentially, the animosity towards those who are astray, and especially those who may pose a threat to our personal beliefs on right living, loses its grip. Our hearts relinquish the attachment to our ideas so that we may become filled with the only matter of importance: being loved by God and loving as God loves.

God’s uncreated energies change our trajectory from self-centeredness to self-emptying, the latter of which leads not to emptiness but to the freedom to enter more fully and completely into the divine communion of love. God frees our hearts from the frigidity exhibited in the older son in the parable, and like a hearth, God’s love draws us close to those we might relegate to the category of sinners so that we can together form a new community by being in communion with God’s Community of Love. Theosis leads us to becoming the Prodigal Trinity.

Invited into the Household of God as metaphorically shown in the parable, communion with the Trinity leads us to theosis. God wants us all to share in the eternal, divine nature, to feast on God’s love, so that each and every one of us can be transformed and become one with the Trinity.

Called to Imitate the Prodigal Trinity

Fourthly, we are true partakers in the divine nature when we imitate the divine, abundant compassion of God. The transformation we experience through theosis not only allows us to enter into the Trinitarian koinonia but to share the divine love we have so freely received with all.

The Trinitarian gift of self is not only expressed within the Trinity. As the famous John 3:16 passage denotes, God’s gift of self is also shared with humanity through the incarnation of Christ. God’s saving action toward humans, as symbolized in the feast for the Prodigal Son, is the oikonomia of the Trinity. Thus, koinonia with the Trinity leads us also to the oikonomia of the Trinity.

This oikonomia is related to phrase ecstasy (Greek: ekstasis, ἔκστασις), which has a much different connotation than the English word. Ekstasis means, “to stand outside oneself.”

The economic Trinity therefore models our call to stand outside oneself and offer ourselves to God and God’s people. Our union with God grows when we imitate God’s action of love and mercy. To be truly like God, we need to love the one from afar as God does and seek this person out. God calls us to reflect the divine love that is inclusive and promotes that God wants to freely share all that God has.

Related to ekstasis, the Trinity exemplifies self-emptying, or kenosis (κένωσις). Jesus demonstrates this by becoming human and dying on the cross (cf. Phil 2:6–8). The kenosis of Christ manifests the economy of Trinitarian love, a self-gift that is self-emptying.

Fr. Maloney describes the self-emptying love of the Holy Spirit: “For the very gift of God’s Spirit to us is the gift that ‘goes forth’ in self-emptying love from the Father to the Son. The true nature of love is not to have a ‘face,’ but to be experienced in the kenotic or self-emptying between two persons.”4

The Trinity also calls us to self-emptying love towards one another, including those we are tempted to condemn rather than embrace.

The older son in the parable has much to teach us. We need to discern how we are the older son because this disposition is what prevents us from loving as God loves and experiencing theosis. When we fall into the “us versus them,” “sinner versus righteous” mentality, we are the ones who depart from the Trinitarian Household.

Our self-righteousness and inability to welcome the one who is afar assumes that we are God, thereby dethroning the Trinity. We set up an alternative household, but one that has neither food nor life because there is no sustenance without God. Ironically, when we imitate the older son’s judgmental attitude, we depart from the Household of God and become destitute in a foreign land, tending swine and longing for Trinitarian love. Therefore, when we act as the older son, we also become the Prodigal Son.

Hence, we need to recognize who are the people and the issues that we relegate to condemnation, and ask God for the grace of healing and conversion so that we can look upon these people and these issues through the compassionate, loving eyes of the Trinity.

The call of kenosis therein includes a surrendering of our positions on who is a sinner so that we may yield to the praxis of the Prodigal Trinity. The parable is a call for conversion, not just the return of the Prodigal Son, but the inability of the older son to share in his father’s joy. The older son who is within us is called to kenosis so that we can die to the areas within us that prevent us from being united with God and sharing in the divine, prodigal compassion of the Trinity. Kenosis is necessary for theosis, leading us to become one with God and act as God does.

Theosis therefore is manifold. Divinization is a grace offered to us by God that allows us to be both in communion with God and act as God does. Theosis enables us to abide in the immanent Trinity and imitate the economic Trinity, thereby reinforcing Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ’s proposition, “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa.”5

Conclusion

Thus, our ministry and engagement ought to be directed by the Prodigal Trinity. By the grace of God, we imperfect members of the Body of Christ are received as God’s children. As children, God generously and fully vests us with divine inheritance — a sharing in the divine nature and the koinonia of the Trinity. And though we fall astray, God fully welcomes us back into koinonia.

As we have been graciously received, so must we receive those who have also fallen and are afar. Sharing in the divine nature forms us into loving and acting as God does — prodigally — towards those who are astray and in need of mercy and compassion. Theosis leads us to union with God and embracing the other as God does.

Therefore, God calls us to minister prodigally and freely with all. Our energies ought not be concentrated on who is a sinner and excluding them, but in bringing the one who is afar back into koinonia with the Trinity. The ministry of mercy originates from our koinonia with the Trinity and leads us to koinonia with the Trinity as we seek to imitate God’s boundless compassion, the oikonomia of the Trinity, to the one who is in need of mercy. By the gift of theosis, we experience the grace to share in the self-giving love of the immanent Trinity and exhibit the saving, compassionate love of the economic Trinity.

  1. Fr. George Maloney, SJ, God’s Community of Love: Living in the Indwelling Trinity (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1993), 7–8.
  2. Mark Shuttleworth, “Theosis: Partaking of the Divine Nature.” Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, http://ww1.antiochian.org/content/theosis-partaking-divine-nature.
  3. Archbishop Joseph Raya, The Face of God (Denville: Dimension Books, 1976), 37–38.
  4. Maloney, God’s Community of Love, 42.
  5. Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ, “Remarks on the dogmatic treatise ‘de Trinitate,’” Theological Investigations, vol. 4; trans. K. Smyth (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1974), pp. 77–102.
Matthew Kappadakunnel About Matthew Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Rite. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder.

Comments

  1. There are so many beautiful and eye opening expressions of kenosis which refers to self emptying and offering up our lives for the well being of another. I particularly like the statement that God’s Love does not have a face but is about self emptying between two persons.

    So the real crux of the matter is how many of us have arrived at such a place of selflessness. Many are caught up in bitter life stories and are stuck in the wilderness of their minds. One might be willing to give of one’s self but the other may not be in a place where they can receive what you are willing to share with them.

    With regard to seeing the mess in which society has found itself and the tendency to keep at arms length all that is sinful and impure is the right frame of mind to acquire. We cannot keep mixing the truth with falsehoods ,light with darkness ,evil with good : and hold our ground in making any breakthroughs in freeing another who we may want to show the light to. This is the problem with where the Church through the synod is leading the faithful astray. They say we must listen and share our stories with one another that’s great.However, those of us who are not mature in faith and listen to other’s stories may be convinced that their story is more credible and that may not necessarily be the case.

    Many believe in a lot of things that are untrue,immoral,sinful,abject and are far over to the other side of no return from all appearances. It is important therefore not to let oneself become too naive into thinking that loving God and emptying ourselves for another is easy as it’s stated here in writing.

    Let’s take the example of Nancy Polosi. She is a law maker of political social policies that affect he lives of those she governs.She has been counseled by her bishop on many occasions and has been shown the seriousness of her view and decision to uphold laws in keeping with the right to abort babies. She was denied communion. Instead of other bishop priests taking a stance to support her bishop who with good reason denied her communion they choose to turn a blind eye to the situation. Who is listening to who?

    Thank you.
    Bernadette

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