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The Parable of the Merciful Father

On the Readings for March 27, 2022, the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Detail from "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (1669) by Rembrandt []

• Jos 5:9a, 10-12
• Psa 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
• 2 Cor 5:17-21
• Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

The parable of the prodigal son is, along with the parable of the good Samaritan, the best-known of Jesus’ many parables. The poignancy of the parable is impossible to miss, and the three main characters are incredibly vivid considering the relative brevity of the story. The parable is “perhaps the most moving of the parables Jesus tells in the gospels,” wrote Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The experiences and life of the two sons serve solely to reveal the heart of the father.”

It’s an important point, for we often think the focus is on the youngest son. But the parable is primarily about the astounding mercy and love of the father. “Nowhere else,” remarked von Balthasar, “does Jesus portray the Father in heaven more vitally, more plainly.” This is indicated right from the start, by the father’s reaction to the younger son’s request. We are, unfortunately, so used to stories—often romanticized and idealized—about rebellious youth leaving home to pursue fame and fortune that we miss the seriousness of the son’s demand. His request was outrageous; it was unheard of for sons to do such a thing in the ancient world. Demanding his share of the inheritance (probably a third, with two-thirds going to his brother) was another way of saying, “I wish you were already dead!” So serious was the disrespect shown, the father likely had grounds, under the Mosaic Law, of pursuing severe, even deadly, punishment (cf. Dt 21:18-21).

In light of that, what would most of Jesus’ listeners initially think of the father? Chances are, they viewed him as either stupid or weak, a complete failure. Certainly the Pharisees and scribes (Lk 15:2) would have thought so, as they considered themselves the keepers and defenders of the Law. Of course, one point of the parable was to show how they had, in many ways, either missed or ignored the long-suffering mercy of God and the true nature of the Law.

St. Peter Chrysologus, like so many of the early Church fathers, understood the two sons to represent the Jews and the Gentiles. “Prudent knowledge of the law made the Jewish people [the father’s] older son, and the folly of paganism made the Gentile world his younger son.”

When Jesus described how the younger son was reduced to the pathetic state of working with swine—a nice touch for the Jewish audience—many of his listeners would have thought, “Of course! The son comes to ruin. End of story.” But the real drama was just beginning, for the parable was not just a morality tale, but a revelation of mercy. This is not to overlook the significance of the younger son’s recognition of his sorry, sinful state. He represents each of us at that point when we realize we have left the will and the love of the Father, seeking to live without regard for his loving commands.

The son is a reminder, especially during the season of Lent, that we need the sacrament of Confession in order to be fully restored to life in the family of God, the Church.

But the parable is finally about the father, who represents our heavenly Father. He does not upbraid the younger brother; he does not chide the older brother for his selfishness and lack of charity. Instead, he runs to embrace the prodigal son. “When you are still far away, he sees you and runs to you,” wrote St. Ambrose, “He sees in your heart. He runs, perhaps someone may hinder, and he embraces you. His foreknowledge is in the running, his mercy in the embrace and the disposition of fatherly love.” What must have truly astounded those listening to the parable was how the father—contrary to logic and the Law—not only embraced and kissed his son, he clothed him in his own robe and restored him to full sonship by putting his signet ring on his finger.

God offers life and love to every wayward soul; he runs to embrace the returning sinner.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 10, 2013, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 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.


  1. Theologians, learned priests I’ve known frequently said God does not want us to take him lightly. Von Balthasar is right. This Gospel reveals His vulnerability.

      • An example, is his running to his prodigal son when seeing him from a distance. By vulnerability in context of divine love we’re not speaking of weakness, as in human frailty, rather figuratively suggesting the depth of God’s merciful love. Did he not forgive you when you, along with the rest of us inflicted on Christ all the suffering of the passion?

  2. Just like the robber crucified next to Jesus, repented, confessed and called the Crucified “LORD”. The wayward son repented, returned, redeemed, and the signet ring spelled: JESUS!

  3. The prodigal son is one of my favorite parables.Its a wonderful story with deep meaning. I do agree with the assessment that its object is to stress the mercy of God. Lost in the shuffle in recent times however, is the fact that the younger son was penitent,and expressed his unworthiness. These are almost unknown concepts today. One of the reasons that priests,etc observe how short the lines are for the confessionals is that today’s society has lost it’s sense of sin. It’s lost in no small part due to the fact few priests preach on the topic. The constant drum beat of mercy is all well and good and undoubtedly a valid point. But without a person acknowledging their own sinfulness, it loses much of its deep meaning. After all, what value could mercy have for a person who believes they are not sinful? I am rather sure that any priest could name five “common, everyday sins” right off the top of his head. In that case, they should be spoken about at church, in the parish bulletin, anyplace there is an opportunity.. And if people finally have light dawn and feel guilty, then good! And maybe you will see them at confession next time it is available.

    • Also frequently overlooked is that unlike his brother, the elder son was not repentant. He separated himself from his father, and instead of asking for forgiveness like his younger brother, argued for his own righteousness. Keep in mind Jesus addressed this parable to the religious establishment of his day. For them, and for many of us, the core of the tale is verses 28-32. The sinner shows the way to true repentance.

  4. There a few points that need to be clarified. The father effusively goes out and greets the younger brother. The older brother is out in the field. Nobody goes out to tell him what has happened. As far as I can see the servant only tells the older brother about the younger brother’s return, and not about the younger brother’s penitence. The older brother was not with the father to know anything about the younger brother’s penitence, thus the questioning of the servant by the older brother. When does the older brother actually have the full story? The father’s treatment of the older brother is very different than that of the younger brother. What is the reader to make of this? Is there any aspect of the Jewish culture that would explain why the older brother is mostly kept out of the loop and mostly has to dig on his own for information? The parable is open ended, you are never told what the older brother does in response to the father. When I read the parable I would like to be fair to all of the characters in the story.

  5. Of late we are reminded of God’s mercy without the corresponding need for repentance. But the story of the prodigal son highlights this need to see into our hearts how badly we have disobeyed God, how abject our life has become. Without this recognition, how can we even make a return? If sin is okay, then there would not be a need for repentance and hence no need for God’s mercy.

    To recognize that I am in need of God’s mercy and that it is indeed on offer is to first acknowledge that “I have sinned in thought, in word, in what I have done, in what I have failed to do”.

    I am not ok and you are not ok and it is about time that we acknowledge that it is all mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    And yet, far too many priests opt for the shortened version of the rite.

    A few years ago, during a New Year’s Eve homily a priest enumerated how many communions, baptisms, marriages, funerals and confessions were held at that church that year. I can’t remember the exact numbers but I think it was around 30,000 communions and around 200 confessions.

    He laments that no one goes to confession anymore and yet he would not even pray the Confiteor at every Mass so even that short examen is denied the flock.

  6. What struck me this time is that the Father goes out twice, to both sons.

    He does not assert his ego over the lives of his children, but being greater, has great humility.

  7. Jesus said “Be merciful as my Father has been merciful.” Apparently the word “mercy” at the time of Christ also meant “womb.” What was Jesus saying to the men of his time? To the men of our times? He certainly was a revolutionary, and not just with dietary laws. Jesus truly loved and admired women.

    • We continue to learn [why I peruse comments here]. And wisdom teaches us if we believe we’ve reached the summit, we’ve instead reached ignorance. Thanks Diane.
      “It is amazing that the emotion mercy or compassion, rachamin, רַחֲמִים is derived from the name of the most motherly organ in the human body: the womb, rechem. This is where the strongest connection of compassion and love are bonded between the mother and the baby, respectively. Men may need to learn this, but if you are a mother, no further words are necessary; you have experienced this compassion first hand” (Jerusalem Prayer Team).
      The devastating fracture of our humanness today is that this innate, woman’s [as well as a man’s] apprehension of compassionate love is lost in a culture given to sensual indulgence for its own sake. Christ foretold that toward the End hearts would become cold. Knowledge such as the meaning of רַחֲמִים and the etymology of charity should awaken that love.

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