We are surely all extremely familiar with the story of the Prodigal Son. It is unique to the Gospel of Luke and is a wonderful lesson in forgiveness. It has been the Gospel chosen for countless services of reconciliation and maybe some of us are so familiar with it that we have forgotten just what a wonderful story it is.
One thing to observe is how a male a story it is. There is no mention of the boy’s mother or of any other women except for the loose women that the Prodigal Son is accused of consorting with.
When Rembrandt came to painting his famous picture of the Prodigal Son he shows the son on his knees before his father and we see the father with his hands on his son’s shoulders. However, if you look carefully at the hands Rembrandt has painted you will see that one is the hand of a woman, the other of a man.
This shows us that Rembrandt understood very well that this story was just as much about women as about men. He understood that forgiveness was just as much an attribute of mothers as of fathers.
For over ten years I was chaplain of a women’s prison and I can assure you that there are just as many prodigal daughters as prodigal sons. The gender doesn’t matter, the story is about people. It is about those people who go off seeking their own self-indulgence but it is just as much about the people who long for them to return and who are ready to forgive them.
I say it is about people waiting to forgive but remember that it is a parable. And as a parable it is principally about God who is there with his outstretched hands waiting to forgive us and to welcome us back.
There are some other interesting points. One is that the Prodigal Son ends up caring for pigs and even longing to eat their food. This would have horrified the Jewish listeners to the story. You could not think of a better way of demonstrating how far this young man had fallen than to say that he ended up looking after pigs, which were according to them the most unclean animal of all.
The role of the father is very important since he represents God himself. It says in the text that, ‘When he was a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.’ One can only imagine that his father was not at this vantage point by accident, he was probably out there most days looking to see if his son was returning. This underlines the yearning that the father has for the return of his son. And it also underlines the yearning God has for us to return to him despite our sinning against his laws.
It is worth noting that, although the father waited and watched longingly for the return of his son, he does not go looking for him. No, the father lets his son come home under his own steam and as a result of his own volition. He doesn’t go searching for him.
This implies a lot of trust on the father’s part; trust that the son would be able to keep himself safe and trust that he would eventually see the error of his ways and decide to return home. By giving him this freedom, the father ensures that the son returns to him for the right reasons and through his own individual choice.
God deals with us in exactly the same way. He gives us the gift of free will and he does not constantly chase after us. He leaves us free to come to our senses in our own time and in our own way.
The other important character in the story is, of course, the elder son. When he comes home from the fields to find everyone rejoicing at the return of the Prodigal he is indignant. He thinks that it is his loyalty and his work on the farm that should be rewarded rather than the fecklessness of his younger brother.
This older brother thinks in terms of performance and reward. He believes that good behaviour should be rewarded and bad behaviour should be punished. But this is not the way his father thinks and, more importantly for us, this is not the way God thinks.
As we have often seen God is more interested in attitude rather than our behaviour. One, of course, precedes the other. Our attitude leads to our behaviour. The attitude we adopt ends up with us performing specific actions whether they be good or bad.
What we need to do in life is to constantly check our attitude. The trick is to look inwards not outwards. The constant temptation is to look at what other people do and to overlook our own actions. The only remedy for this is to get into the habit of checking on our own attitudes, our own particular outlook on life. If we can get that right then everything else will fall into place.
Here in this wonderful parable we easily see that the Prodigal Son’s attitude has completely changed. Adversity has brought him to his senses and he has moved away from the attitudes of anger and frustration and selfishness towards those of repentance and humility and love.
On the other hand, the elder brother seems stuck with his attitudes of annoyance and jealousy. He does not notice the changes which have taken place in the heart of his younger brother; he does not recognise that he has transformed; he does not see that his brother has come to his senses and now seeks forgiveness.
This is one of the problems when we are hard of heart; we find it difficult to allow other people to change. We are stuck in our own opinions and, because we refuse to change, we cannot allow anyone else to change.
The father’s reaction to the elder brother is interesting and equally loving. He says to him, ‘You are always with me and all I have is yours.’ What great tenderness he shows him and at the same time how touching it is that he overlooks his elder son’s anger towards his younger brother. We don’t get the elder brother’s response but we hope that he realises that his father loves him deeply and that he is then reconciled with his brother.
Both sons receive forgiveness. Both sons experience the father’s love. Both are headed towards reconciliation. There is a lot to learn from each character in this story. From the father we learn to forgive, from the son we learn to repent, from the elder brother we learn to soften our hearts.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket