Detail from "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt (1669).
Ex 32:7-11, 13-14
Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
1 Tim 1:12-17
parable of the prodigal son is well known, arguably the most famous
of Jesus’ parables. Yet, as Scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias
states in The Parables
of Jesus (New York,
1963), it “might more correctly be called the parable of the
Father’s Love…”, for it is a powerful and unforgettable
depiction of God’s love and mercy.
the two sons are decidedly humansinful, self-centered,
materialisticthe father exhibits a serene, pervasive holiness that
reveals the heart of the heavenly Father. In Dives
in misericordia, his
encyclical on the mercy of God, Pope John Paul II noted that although
the word “mercy” doesn’t appear in the famous parable, “it
nevertheless expresses the essence of the divine mercy in a
particularly clear way.” Read carefully, the parable offers a
wealth of insight into our relationship with our heavenly Father; it
offers a glimpse of the Father’s face. But it also is a mirror that
confronts us with our own distorted priorities and self-centered
For example, the younger son’s
request for his share of the estate was not just an impulsive,
youthful demand for autonomy, but a harsh renunciation of his father.
In essence, his demand was a way of publicly declaring, “I wish you
were dead!” The son, wrote St. Peter Chrysologus, “is weary of
his father’s own life. Since he cannot shorten his father’s life,
he works to get possession of his property.” In rejecting his
father and the life-giving communion he once had with him, he lost
the privilege of being a son and embarked upon a calamitous course.
As a father myself, I think it is safe
to say that most ordinary fathers would have objected to the son’s
request, even refused to consider it. Yet our heavenly Father does
not object; he respects our
freedomhis great gift to useven when we use it to rebel against
him. So the father divided up the property; in doing so, grace was
destroyed and communion was severed. The familial bond was broken,
and the son took his money into the “far country,” a reference to
a place of utter emptiness and spiritual desolation.
is farther away,” asked St. Ambrose, “then to depart from
oneself, and not from a place? … Surely whoever separates himself
from Christ is an exile from his country, a citizen of the world”
The physical distance was not as painful as the loss of familial love
and embrace; the son’s inner life vanished as quickly as did his
inheritance. He is soon faced with eating unclean swill while tending
unclean animals, the swine.
did the son come to his senses? An answer can be found in today’s
epistle, in which St. Paul confesses his sins of blasphemy,
persecution, and arrogance, and explains he has “been mercifully
treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” By God’s
grace hea prodigal sonrecognized his sinfulness. Confronted by
Christ on the dusty road to Damascus, he experienced divine grace and
prodigal son knew his father had every right to disown him, to
consider him dead and gone. But he was willing to admit his sin and
become a nameless hired hand. Yet, even as he tried to articulate a
cry for mercy, he was wrapped in mercyheld, kissed, clothed, and
restored to life. Having walked away in petulant selfishness, the son
had embraced death; having been embraced by his patient and
compassionate father, he was restored to life.
Paul II explained that God is not just Creator, but “He is also
Father: He is linked to man, whom He called to existence in the
visible world, by a bond still more intimate than that of creation.
It is love which not only creates the good but also grants
participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For he who loves desires to give himself.” The merciful Father
waits for the dead, eager to clothe them with new life.
(This is "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the September 12, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)