Today’s Gospel reading gives us the parable of the prodigal son. This parable alone could be the subject of an entire semester course or series of courses. It encapsulates the Gospel perfectly. I would like to focus on just three aspects today.
First, we have the setting. There is a man with two sons. The man has some means, and the sons appear to enjoy a nice life. But this is not good enough for the younger son. He wants to do things his own way, to follow his own heart and passions. So, he commits a grave evil in approaching his father and asking for his share of the inheritance. I believe this to be so hurtful that, as a father myself, is difficult to fathom. Inheritances are bequeathed upon the death of the benefactor. The son, therefore, wishes his father was dead. All he wants is what the father can do for him. He does not want the father for his own sake. This must have been utterly heartbreaking. Nonetheless, the father gives the son his share of the money knowing full well what is in store. There is a further hurt. It tears our souls when our loved ones, especially our children, make choices that we know are not good for them. I’m thankful for God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of my own parents, for the times I have hurt them like this.
Then the son sets off and blows through all the money. He wanted to build his own kingdom. The scriptures tell us he wasted it on riotous living (or a life of dissipation). That is probably putting in in PG language. We know what is involved in this type of behavior. Inevitably, famine strikes. Famines in life strike all of us in one way or another. The son realizes he is in trouble. Hunger pains sharpen his perception. Something deep inside of him knows he went badly wrong. That even his father's hired help lived better than he was in the pig stalls. Sin takes us to the pig slop. When all we want is ourselves, when all we want is to indulge our desires, we eventually find our way to the pigpen. Coming to his senses, the son hatches a plan. He is going to turn back and go to his father. He will ask to be treated as hired help. This arrangement will allow the son to preserve some dignity. He will be giving to get, no longer just getting. There is a profound humility evident in this plan, but I think there is still something slightly askew.
The son returns home. The father sees him from far off and runs to him. I’m sure the son did not expect this type of reaction. How would we react in this scenario? If we are honest, we would probably want an apology right away. We would want the son to acknowledge how badly he screwed up. We might be tempted to lord that over him for a while, making sure the lesson sunk in and would not be repeated. These are natural, human reactions. But God’s ways are higher and better than our ways. The father in the story does not hesitate for a second in throwing his arms around the son, putting a ring on the son’s finger (a sign of fellowship), and throwing a huge party in celebration. The father will not hear of the deal the son had worked out. Love does not bargain like that. Likewise, the love of our Heavenly Father does not work on a quid pro quo basis. This was the wrong assumption made by the prodigal son that I mentioned earlier. The son thought his father’s love was conditional upon something the son did. Not so. The love of the father is unconditional, never failing, perpetually seeking, forever initiating, constantly drawing. Our Heavenly Father loves us because that is who He is. Despite our faults and best efforts to thwart Him, the love of God reaches to us even in the most profound depths of sin and self-absorption.
Much more could be said, particularly when it comes to the reaction of the older brother and his dialogue with the father. I will leave that for another time. I am so thankful that God never stops seeking after us and never stops loving us. He eagerly calls back the lost sinner. He lovingly welcomes all who were lost back to fellowship.