Aristotle’s comments on liberality in Book 4 Chapter 1 of the Nicomachean ethics are similar to the teachings of our Lord on money. Aristotle says that people who have less can give less and be just as liberal as those who have more and give more; Jesus commends the widow for the two mites she gives.
Aristotle says that it is not easy for a liberal person to be wealthy because he is not inclined to safeguard money and is likely to give it away: Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to go to Heaven.
Aristotle says that the prodigal person does not take pleasure and pain where he ought with regards to the spending and receiving of money. He gives where he ought not and he does not take where he ought. Further, Aristotle says that the prodigal person is not necessarily base or corrupt and that he can be changed into a liberal person with proper care or with age and want. He contrasts this with the stingy person who does not give where he ought or takes where he ought not. The stingy person cannot be cured and is worse off than the prodigal person. However, Aristotle admits that the prodigal person who is without proper care can become stingy in that he is prone to take where he ought not to feed his prodigality. These stingy types of prodigals, it would seem, are not curable.
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son confirmed all but one of these claims. In the Lord’s parable, the son desires to take from his father what he ought not to take, thus showing himself to be stingy. He later shows himself to be prodigal as he wastes all his money and becomes poor. What finally turned the man from his prodigality was not pain at the ignobility of his actions, but hunger and want. Thus, the man’s transition was not a true change of character, but a change in the provisions that enabled his viciousness.
The son’s desire to earn from his father what had been previously free could be understood as either prodigality, as he was not taking as he ought, or stinginess, as he was taking what he ought not. Either way, we see that the son has not become more virtuous. What has happened is that the son has become contrite.
Thus, when the son returns to his father, thinking him to be liberal, we discover that the father is in fact Magnanimous. That the father is magnanimous and not just magnificent is revealed by the fact that he runs to meet his son. It is the contrition of the son that brings him back to his father, but the magnanimity of the father that lavishes the son with blessings. The father makes no indication that he believes his son has become more virtuous. Neither does he condition his love on a promise of the son’s future virtue. The robe is not earned by virtue, neither is the ring deserved.
Christ promised us that when we returned to the Father that he would place His Seal in us, the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we are told to put off the old man, like a garment of clothing, and to put on Christ. Aristotle was wrong that some men are so corrupt or base that they cannot be changed.
God receives us into His house and makes us Sons even if we only come because we are hungry.