The Parable of the Perfect Father

On the Readings for Sunday, September 15th

Detail from 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' by Rembrandt (1669).

Detail from

• Ex 32:7-11, 13-14
• Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
• 1 Tim 1:12-17
• Lk 15:1-32

The 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.

While the two sons are decidedly human—sinful, self-centered, materialistic—the 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 attitudes.

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 freedom—his great gift to us—even 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.

“What 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.

How 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 he—a prodigal son—recognized his sinfulness. Confronted by Christ on the dusty road to Damascus, he experienced divine grace and mercy.

The 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 mercy—held, 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.

John 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.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1230 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.