To be a son, in biblical terms, means to be subject to a rightful inheritance. All Hebrew or Greek sons inherited portions of their father’s wealth; there was no single heir. Nevertheless, an inheritance could be withdrawn, and sons were compelled to give honor and service to their family in order to receive their rightful lot.
The prodigal son’s father was under no compulsion to give him an early inheritance — in fact, he could have taken the request for an early inheritance as a reason to disinherit him. When my son says, “Give me my inheritance now”, does this not mean, “I wish you were dead”? The son took advantage of his father’s virtue and humility, knowing very well that his father was not the type of person to disinherit at such a request.
Another biblical father, however, is not known for his virtue nor his humility:
John 8:43-44: Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
What does it mean to be a son, here? It means to want what your father wants. Those who are in submission to the devil desire what the devil desires — indeed, when we are slaves to sin, we are very good sons of our infernal father. What is our inheritance, if we follow the devil? We will become like him, with all his resources: we will be selfish and destructive and deceitful. We will — as the prodigal son did — wish death on all those who stand in the way of our desires.
Our heavenly father will, in turn, die for us.
But not because he wants us to get what we want; rather, because he wants us to learn the emptiness of any inheritance on our own terms. We were sons in Eden, but we are not sons anymore — that ship has flown. And yet, in Christ Jesus, there is a new thing: a new sort of sonship. It is not the sonship of a natural son, but that of an adopted son. By the action of the Spirit, we become the adopted sons and heirs of the living God.
Galatians 3:27-28: For you are all now sons of God because of faith in Christ Jesus. After all, everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
There are two points here: (1) We are sons and heirs, and (2) We are ONE son and heir, since we are one in Christ Jesus. Who is God’s son? Jesus. Logical conclusion: we are Jesus.
Rational correction: Eeek, we’re not Jesus!
But wait. Yes, we must be Jesus. If we are to be worthy, if we are to be heirs, we cannot be anyone else than Jesus Christ. My identity must be IN Christ; it must be wholly subsumed to Christ. How can this be? Well, I will be the HEIR of God precisely when I desire what my Father desires. It is not OK, then, for me to want what I want, and follow Christ despite my ungodly desires. No, I must aspire to desire all and only the things that the Father desires. I must place myself at the mercy of my Father as a servant, and allow Him to treat me as an heir.
This, my friends, is precisely what I do every solemn sacrifice of the mass. Indeed, it is aptly summarized by one of the prefaces to the Eucharistic offering, perhaps the most beautiful words I have ever heard:
So great was Your love that You gave us Your Son as our redeemer. You sent Him as One like ourselves, though free from sin, that You might see and love in us what You see and love in Christ. Your gifts of grace, lost by disobedience, are now restored by the obedience of Your Son.
When God the Father sees in us what He sees in Christ, then His gifts to us — our inheritance — is restored. We are sons, because the Son lives in us. Thanks be to God!