Scripture Readings: Book of Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; First Letter to Timothy 1:12-17 Gospel According to Luke 15:1-32
The story is told of a catechism class studying the Parable the Prodigal Son. After emphasizing the wrong attitude of the older son in the parable, the teacher described the great rejoicing of the household with the return of the prodigal son. “Amidst the celebration, though,” the teacher said, “there was one who failed to share in the festive spirit. Now who was that?” asked the teacher. One of the pupils immediately shouted out: “The fatted calf.”
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best remembered of Jesus’ parables. The story has been so popular through the ages that along with the parable of the Good Samaritan, many people, even those minimally involved in religion or little acquainted with the Bible, can recount the basic story line.
Artists have taken up the subject too, such as Dutch master Rembrandt in his famous painting. Looking at the image one immediately notices the prominent standing figure, the Father of the Parable, who represents God. Interestingly enough, though, he seems to be depicted as being blind. His eyes are shut, at least to the faults of his son, and he sees the wayward son not with his eyes but with his heart, on which the kneeling son rests his head.
If you look at the two hands of the Father, his left hand seems decidedly masculine and pulls the son’s right shoulder toward the Father’s embrace. The other hand, more delicate and feminine, seems to be caressing the repentant son’s back. In this artistic narration of the parable, God is depicted with traits usually associated both with a loving father and mother, fitting enough as God is a loving creator and parent.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son we find three strong persons, and our Lord probably intends for us who hear the parable to see ourselves in each of the three characters. How is this so? The weakness and straying of the younger son we probably can easily relate to. The jealousy of the older son who doesn’t get rewards for never straying we can identify with as well I’m sure.
And finally, the compassionate outreach of the Father we can likely find in ourselves too. That is part of the beauty of the parable; each character is not to represent just one type of person, but all of us are a mixture of sin and repentance, jealousy and resentment, and finally, it is hoped, overflowing compassion, forgiveness and love towards others.
The point of the parable has to be: try harder to become like the forgiving Father, be less like the jealous older son, and learn the meaning of love of self as the prodigal son finally learned in the compassionate arms of his Father.
Like the prodigal son, we’re often away from God by our weakness. We get itchy feet and long to be anywhere but here, and off we go either really or in our minds. Like the older son we’re often absent from God’s love because of bitterness or anger over what others are getting and we think we aren’t. As we get older maybe we more easily realize we are a mixture of both sons in the parable. At least I do.
What Jesus is inviting us to in this parable is the realization that our God is like a loving parent, stretching out hands to us, always forgiving, totally compassionate, loving without limits. That should spell loud and clear to us: be ye comforted!
The parable is sometimes called that of the Prodigal Father, since prodigal means recklessly wasteful, which the son certainly is in a negative sense, and the Father is a wholly positive sense, of throwing love without restraint, at all times and never counting the cost.
The younger son’s misery, being consigned before repentance to a pigsty (and nothing could be uglier in the minds of Jesus’ hearers), finally brings him to his senses. This is the greener grass on the other side of the fence? Hardly!
How often we think that way, only to realize there is nothing better than to be in the Father’s house. For us, home is meant to mean God’s kingdom and the Church.
Have you ever noticed that the parable of the Prodigal Son has no ending really? We don’t know, for example, if the elder brother ever goes in and enjoys the feast with the rest of the household. We’d like to think so at least.
What we have is not just a story, then, but a challenge, and that’s the nature of the parables. In other words, if I’m the prodigal son, will I eventually go back to my Father’s house? If I’m the elder son, will I stay outside or go on in and rejoice over the repentant sinner, forgiving as I am forgiven? Can I show a similar loving forgiveness so lavishly bestowed by the father in the parable?
Even when we make a mess of things, our loving God is ready to take us in. Forgiveness is the final form of love, because it defies logic and can only be described as God-like. We are all called to show it.
Forgiveness should be extended “seventy times seven times,” as Jesus expresses it elsewhere in the Gospel (Matthew, chapter 18). All of this should inspire us to ponder on God’s forgiveness of our sins, our need to repent and to have confidence in God’s mercy. And we must forgive others. We should always pray for the grace to do so. The fact that we want to forgive means we’re actually nearly or already there, and the grace to actually forgive will follow, though not necessarily right away.
As St Augustine expressed it, “Do what you can do and pray for what you cannot do.”
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB