“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” say the pharisees as they level their accusations at Jesus. The accusations are true. Jesus does eat with sinners and tax collectors. In fact, Jesus is getting a reputation for associating with the disreputable. In response to this criticism He tells the story that begins: “A man had two sons.”
Hearing these words we immediately know the story. In common parlance the story is referred to as the “Prodigal Son,” being named after one of its main characters. Yet scholars continue to debate whether this title is the most apt for the story. The reason for the debate is that the younger son, the “prodigal son,” is only one of the three main characters in the story. The other two are the older brother and the father. Each plays a very important role in the story.
The story wonderfully captures various aspects of sin and repentance, love and mercy, death and life. Each character in the story gives us insight into the mystery of God and His overwhelming love for His children.
As the story begins the younger son asks for his share of his inheritance. This being done while his father is still alive. The selfish act is the beginning of his demise that will later be described in terms of “dying” and “death.” The son takes his newfound but unearned wealth and abandons their source, his father. His separation from his family is both literal and figurative. He leaves home and goes to a distant land, cutting off communication from his father and brother. He is lost.
While away he quickly engages in a “life of dissipation.” In other words a life of sin. He squanders all that has been given him and descends into the depths of despair. His degradation comes to its lowest point when the famine comes to the land. When this happens he has to find work to support himself. The only job he can get is to tend swine.
Imagine this in the Semitic context and how the pigs were seen as “unclean” beasts. Here he is feeding and tending these animals which are being treated far better than he is – recall how “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.” Now he is at the bottom of his descent into death. He is at the low point. Here in the darkness of his life with the swine we are told “he comes to his senses.”
He recognizes that his father is a good and kind man. He treats his servants with respect and care. The younger son recognizes his death in sin. He has abandoned his father. He has squandered all the good things the father, in his generosity, bestowed on him. He is lost.
He realizes that he must go back to the father. At the same time he is contrite and recognizes all he has done. When he goes back to his father, it will be as a servant not a son as he plans to say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”
At this point all the son wishes is to live. Mercy is seen as the opportunity for life. He is dying where he is and he knows the only way to life is to return to the father. “So,” as the story goes, “he got up and went back to the father.”
As the story continues the focus becomes the father. Jesus tells us that “while he [the younger son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.” The line is full of meaning. The father not thinking of himself and the losses he endured at the expense of his son is moved with pity. He is not thinking of his child abandoning him. He is not thinking of squandered inheritance. He is not thinking of this unfortunate wretch. He is thinking of his son. His unconquerable love is poured forth in compassion and he runs to his son.
Notice he does not wait for the son to fully arrive. He goes out after him filled with mercy. Certainly the son was hopeful for a merciful treatment by the father. He expected this mercy to show itself in being hired as a servant. Clearly he did not understand the extent of the father’s love. Now he experiences it in a profound way.
Jesus tells us the father “embraced him and kissed him.” The son full of remorse and humbled, not only by his sins but by the unconditional love of his father, says in pure contrition “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.”
The father does not speak words to his son’s statement. Rather his love pours forth in joy as he orders the servants, “quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” The death brought on by selfishness and sin has been transformed. Contrition and mercy lead to new life. The younger son has been restored to life.
Now we might be satisfied if the story ended here. There is certainly a joyful ending. The reunion of father and son, the triumph of mercy, the expression of profound love fill us with joy and hope. Yet the story does not end here. There is one more character to consider.
Jesus tells us that while the festivities were beginning the older son, whom we have not heard much about since the beginning of the story, was “out in the field.” What was he doing? He was at work, doing his father’s will. The older son stayed. He did not take his share of the inheritance and squander it. He did not abandon his father. He remained faithful and at home.
So as he goes back to the house and hears the music and festivities, he becomes inquisitive. He asks a servant what the celebration is about. As the servant tells him that his brother has returned and that the fattened calf has been slaughtered, he becomes full of anger. The anger seems to flow from selfishness. This selfishness puts the older son in the center of his universe, so to speak.
In his exchange with the father he speaks of himself. When he speaks of his brother it is only to highlight his own faithfulness. In his anger he refuses to enter the house. In this he fails to acknowledge the father’s love and the power of his mercy.
The father, once again, has to go out to meet one of his sons. He does so. He goes out and “pleads” with this older son. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” Life with the father is everything. He shares with the son all that he has. There is nothing more that can be given. He has it all. Yet the son does not yet realize what he has and has always had, the father’s love.
The story ends here somewhat unresolved with regard to the older son. What happens next we do not know. Does the older son recognize that his father’s love is a love that is shared? The love that father has for his younger brother is the same love that he has for him. Does he come to understand that the love the father has is to be imitated in his love for his brother? Does he come to see mercy as an extension of that love and that in order for him to share in the fullness of that love he has to “celebrate and rejoice” because his brother “was dead and has come to life again”? Or does he refuse to enter?
As Jesus concludes the story we are left to ponder. Where do I fit into the story? Do I recognize God’s love for me? Do I recognize the greatness of this love? Am I contrite for my sins? Do I seek the Father’s forgiveness? Do I recognize his love for my brothers and sisters? Do I recognize his love for those who sin? Do I rejoice in his mercy, offered to others?
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.