In God without Being Catholic theologian and philosopher Jean-Luc Marion offers one of the more brilliant interpretations of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:12-32). His purpose for providing an exegesis of the parable is to show how it outwits Being according to the rules Being has set for itself. Marion wants to free us (and God) from the confines of Being, or thinking only in terms of Being, and therefore being enslaved to thinking only in terms of what “is.” It is ingrained in theology that God, before all else, must be. But Marion wants to reveal “God without Being,” and to show that which is beyond Being, and thus to reveal the living God, unconfined by the limits of Being and understood instead in terms of love and the gift: God is love before all else.
What game does Being play when it outwits the difference that inscribes it in being (95)? Marion points out that Luke 15:12-32 offers the only usage in the entire New Testament for the philosophical term par excellence of ousia, or “substance,” a term upon which much of Aristotle’s philosophy (and thus much of philosophy since then) was built. In the parable, Ousia is goods disposable for possession and power, that which the younger son receives from his father and henceforth wastes. Only possession is at stake; the son, as an heir (though the younger heir), already had the use and enjoyment of the ousia, but did not outright possess it. The son’s suffering comes not from being unable to enjoy the ousia, but from having it only as a gift from his father. Therefore, what he asks is not to have his share of the ousia, but to not owe his enjoyment of the ousia to a gift; he seeks not the ousia itself but the ousia as possession. He wants the ousia without it being given by gracious concession. He wants to enjoy the ousia without having to pass through or have contact with the gift. He essentially asks to not have a father any longer, to have ousia without the gift. Annulment of the gift is the point here. But, severed from the gift and orphaned and fatherless, ousia thus dissipates, becomes dispossessed, squandered. It is liquidated and lost. Without a relationship of filiation (the fact of being designated the child of particular parents), such abandonment starves him, but more importantly, being stripped of a father thus strips him of sonhood, makes him into a hireling, depriving him not only of his beloved ousia, but also of filiation, and even humanity as he begins living with swine. When he returns to his father, he therefore cannot even think of himself in terms of filiation; he had no father and was therefore not a son. The father restores his sonhood (“here is my son, who had died and who lives anew.”)
The other son really had the same desires as the younger, to have ousia without the gift that bestows it (15:29). The father’s response to the older son doesn’t distinguish between the two sons: “you son are always with me and all that is mine is yours also.” The term ousia only appears in the sons’ speech; the father virtually doesn’t even see it. For the father the ousia is a gift ceaselessly re-given, not a substance that he owns. For the sons the ousia was an idol, and their gazes were frozen upon it, an invisible mirror perfectly reflecting themselves. Goods are a medium of exchange, through which we give ourselves to one another, a circulation of gift, giving, received, given. For the father the ousia was at best a momentary currency of infinite generosity, hidden behind the title of “property.” The sons’ gaze was idolatrous; it mistook the currency for the exchange which it was supposed to signify. The father’s gaze, on the other hand, was iconic; the currency, or the ousia, was a visible mirror that reflected the infinite and invisible: the circulation of the fathomless and immeasurable gift. “All that is mine is also yours”: hence nothing becomes ousia (as request for possession without gift). Ousia is dispossessed of itself. “Thus, ousia is inscribed in the play of donation, abandon, pardon, that make of it the currency of an entirely other exchange than of beings.” (100) Ousia, or being par excellence, finds itself taken up in a game radically foreign to being. Therefore, being eludes Being: through the gift. And thus it gives beings/Being. The gift delivers Being and liberates it.
Aside from the philosophical implications, Marion’s interpretation is remarkable in elucidating what it was that the son truly desired and how this idolatrous desire wrecked him completely. The father, on the other hand, as symbol of the iconic instead of the idolatrous, reveals the infinite love behind the gift, and how this view of love and giving can utterly change one’s view of the world and how we interact with it and other human beings.