The Prodigal Son: A Tale of Ego and Spirit

prodigalIt seems very clear to me that one way to interpret the parable of the prodigal son is as an allegory about the ego and spirit. The parable itself is found in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15 verses 11 to 32. In this blog post I will analyze the parable line by line within this context.

11 … A certain man had two sons: 12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

The assertion “Give me what is mine” is obviously very ego oriented. The younger son in this parable represents this aspect of the ego who is always interested in self-advancement, self-aggrandizement and its position or status relative to others. Notice how the father in the parable (who represents the spirit or the true self) readily gives the ego dominated son what he asks for without question. This is the nature of the spirit who acts with compassion, whole heartedly and without ulterior motives.

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.

Another quality of the ego is that it seeks autonomy from the spirit. In verse 13 we see the ego as represented by the younger son setting out on his quest for autonomy by abandoning the spirit who is represented by his father in this parable. When the ego is free from the spirit it tends to engage in self-annihilating behavior be it addiction, over indulgence, recklessness and racism to name a few. This is what the son proceeds to do.

14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!

But when the ego is free to follow this path it always leads to a negative place because to follow the ego is to abandon the spirit which is the true self. Truth cannot be ignored indefinitely and reality will always catch up with the ego eventually. In verse 17 the parable talks about the prodigal son “[coming] to himself” which is to say he momentarily freed himself from his ego domination and returned to his spirit or true self which gave him a clarity of mind and brought him back to reality.

18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

By “coming to himself” he recognizes the error of his ways, repents and then feels shame. As is often the case, the ego will attempt to reassert itself once a person tries to shake it off. It does this through its most powerful and effective weapon; shame. Seeing that the son can no longer sustain the life of riotous living the ego hijacks his plan to make amends with his father. We see this in the way the ego makes plans and schemes and anticipates how his father will react.

20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

Notice how the son’s father (his spirit and true self) saw him from a far way off. The spirit is always watching because it is always there. This points out the fact that even though the ego can abandon the spirit, the spirit is not capable of abandoning the ego or the aspect of the self that has been misguided by the ego. Notice also how the son begins to recite his premeditated speech but his father cuts him off displaying how the spirit sees through the works of the ego and has no use for them. All that matters is that the once ego dominated persona is now reunited with its true self and this is a cause for celebration.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

The elder son represents another aspect of the ego. This is the judgmental, self righteous aspect that takes pleasure in judging others and takes personal offense when the rules of the broader civilization are violated. This self righteous ego takes cover in these “rules of civilization” because they give it license to judge other people without shame. Notice also how the elder brother complains that he has “slaved” for his father. In other words he did not work for his father freely but did so under protest and begrudgingly. This once more demonstrates how the ego never acts whole heartedly but always with ulterior motives and under false pretense. It is fundamentally dishonest which makes sense because it is not aligned with the true self.

31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

The ego creates a false world which may work for a time but always runs afoul of reality because it can only exist in reality because reality is all there is in which to exist. This is why the ego can abandon the spirit but the spirit can never abandon the ego. In actuality the abandonment of the spirit is a self-delusion of the ego. It has to be a delusion because it is not in accordance with reality. But as the father in the parable is ready to give and forgive so is the spirit and the true self. As in the parable when we come to ourselves and reunite with the father it is always a cause for celebration.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Prodigal Son: A Tale of Ego and Spirit

  1. A very clever and understandable interpretation.
    Your true -self in modern terms is the human conscience which constantly causes us to to judge our own actions.
    The ego wants its own pleasurable way and we become an internal battle- ground.
    This was studied in detail by Freud who endeavoured to help those struggling with life issues.
    Now and again I meet one of those rather rare human beings who has overcome their ego; I say overcome not eliminated as the Buddhists preach.

    • Thank you for your comment. It has been a long journey for me to come to the understanding that I am not my ego. I am still harassed by my ego every day with thoughts of jealousy, comparison, embarrassing memories etc., etc…. It takes constant awareness not to fall into my ego and sometimes I can’t help it. That said, I am much happier and grounded now than before. The journey continues.

  2. Pingback: The Prodigal Son’s Older Brother and the Conservative Mind | Winston Scrooge

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