The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the most well-known in the New Testament. It has been rightly called the Queen of all Parables. This Parable is only to be found in the Gospel of Luke and it is most appropriate for us to take a look at it in the middle of Lent. Lent is a time when we seek forgiveness and this wonderful story aptly teaches us about forgiveness and reconciliation.
Millions of people who have heard this wonderful story have been moved to repentance. We know all its details by heart and yet when we hear it read to us we cannot help but be deeply moved by it. The reason for this is very simple, it is because we see ourselves as the son who went astray and we recognise that God wants us to return home to him who is full of mercy and compassion.
It is generally called the story of the Prodigal Son because the son goes off and squanders his inheritance. But it could equally be called the story of the Prodigal Father because he forgives his son unreservedly for his sinfulness and welcomes him back into the bosom of the family. It says in the text, ‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.’ You can imagine then that the father often found himself gazing at the road up to the house just longing for his son’s return, longing to be in a position to welcome him home.
The same can’t be said for the jealous brother who is angry to hear of the welcoming feast the father has arranged. He thinks that his own loyalty and faithfulness should be rewarded and the fecklessness of his brother ought to result in him being cast off. It is clear that he has no love for his brother.
The love the father has for his lost son can be equated with the love that God has for us when we stray from the right path. God longs for us to return to him in a spirit of repentance. God wants nothing more than to be able to extend to us his loving forgiveness. He longs to reward us for returning to him.
I have been ordained for thirty-five years and according to me one of the most wonderful aspects of the priesthood is to hear confessions and to administer absolution. Not infrequently this involves hearing penitents telling you that it has been five or ten or twenty years since they last went to confession. Clearly during that time they have been carrying a heavy burden and have come to the point where they can bear it no longer and so come back to God seeking his forgiveness. These are occasions of great joy for both the penitent and also for the priest.
One interesting little sidelight in this story of the Prodigal Son is that he ends up on a farm feeding pigs. This story is being told to a group of Pharisees and according to them there is nothing lower that a man can descend to than feeding pigs because in the Mosaic Law they are regarded as unclean animals and are always to be shunned. They would regard the feeding of pigs as an act of the lowest degradation.
But often in life we have to reach an extremely low point before we can come to our senses. This is often something that we notice when dealing with alcoholism; a person suffering from addiction to alcohol frequently needs to end up in the gutter before they find themselves able to decisively return to a life of sobriety. This often makes it difficult for family and friends who cannot bear to see them stoop so low.
Of course, if we regard the son as representing ourselves and the father representing God then we need to ask ourselves who the other son represents. Well, clearly, he represents the Pharisees to whom this story is being told. One wonders whether they saw themselves as represented by this character. Maybe not; maybe they are so stuck in their worldview as not to have the acumen to see themselves reflected in this most perceptive Parable.
Remember, those Pharisees saw themselves as righteous; it was everyone else whom they regarded as sinners. They had the wealth and were born into a class of professional religious people who looked down on others and invented rules which were easy for them to follow but were difficult for everyone else. They don’t recognise their own sinfulness and are preoccupied by showing off to others what they regard as their own perfect religious observance.
We don’t know what the Pharisees made of this Parable because Luke does not record their reaction, after recounting it he moves on to some private instruction given by Jesus to his immediate disciples. We can only hope that a few of the Pharisees were unsettled by it and that it gave them cause for some self-examination. One shouldn’t suppose that the Pharisees were individually all bad but recognise that they were caught up in a privileged class system which they didn’t feel they could go against.
What we see here in this Parable is that God is open-minded while some of those who profess to follow him are closed-minded. God is forgiving while some religious people are unforgiving. If we truly want to be a disciple of Christ then we need to imitate him in all that he does and in all that he says. What we have to do is adopt the attitudes that Christ has so that we can grow more like him each day of or lives. What we need to do is to become more loving and less stern, we need to be more forgiving and less hard-hearted, we need to become more trusting and less judging. The more Christlike we become then the closer to God we will be.
Back on the farm the older brother carries on just as he did before; nothing changed for him. But the younger brother experiences quite a lot of change. He left home, he squandered his money, he was hungry and ended up in the worst job imaginable. But then he came to his senses, he thought things through and made the decision to return home. He then made that long and difficult journey penniless though he was. And then of course he is warmly welcomed by his Father with a banquet in his honour. All of these stages imply change. And change affects a person; change changes us. And if we deal with change correctly it builds us up, gives us experience and makes us much better people.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket