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The Parable of the Perfect Father

On the Readings for Sunday, September 11, 2022.

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

• 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 is 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 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. The Prodigal Son is all of this stated in the article. However, to go far deeper into the Prodigal Son parable, you have to remember, almost the whole bible talks, in length, on the Rise, Fall, and Restoration of Israel. It is Israel who took all their great treasure given to them by God, through the ‘Blessing of Abraham’, and said adios to God through their massive sinfulness. God, then exiled Israel from the Promised Land.

    Baruch 4:11 With joy I fostered them; but with mourning and lament I let them go. Let no one gloat over me, a widow, bereft of many: For the sins of my children I am left desolate, because they turned from the law of God, and did not acknowledge his statutes; In the ways of God’s commandments they did not walk, nor did they tread the disciplined paths of his justice.

    Isaiah 1:2 Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the LORD speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manager; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood. Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the LORD, spurned the Holy One of Israel, apostatized.

    Jerimiah 10:20 My tent is ruined, all its cords are severed. My sons have left me, they are no more: no one to pitch my tent, no one to raise its curtains.

    Jesus’ First Coming is God the Father sending out His Faithful and Obedient Son to bring His Prodigal Son home to Him. The Jewish Scribes and Pharisees were supposed to be doing this, but they were acting like the elder son in Jesus’ Prodigal Son parable.

    Luke 15:1 The Parable of the Lost Sheep.
    The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable.

    Prodigal Son Israel wants to know when they can come home to God, and out of captivity and exile. The Apostles were shocked when Jesus left without ‘Restoring the kingdom to Israel’. Jesus was the Messiah whom Israel was waiting for to deliver them from captivity and exile. Jesus’ Jewish Apostles certainly would have picked up on Jesus reference to the Rise, Fall and Restoration of Israel, in the Prodigal Son parable.

    Acts of the Apostles 1:6
    When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.

    Jerimiah 15:19
    Thus the LORD answered me: If you repent, so that I restore you, in my presence you shall stand; If you bring forth the precious without the vile, you shall be my mouthpiece. Then it shall be they who turn to you, and you shall not turn to them; And I will make you toward this people a solid wall of brass. Though they fight against you, they shall not prevail, For I am with you, to deliver and rescue you, says the LORD. I will free you from the hand of the wicked, and rescue you from the grasp of the violent.

    Acts of the Apostles 26:17
    I shall deliver you from this people and from the Gentiles to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me.

    Matthew 6:13 The Lord’s Prayer
    deliver us from the evil one.’

    In the Prodigal Son story, the Prodigal Son repents, comes home, and does the will of the Father, in the Father’s home. In the Rise, Fall and Restoration of Israel bible theme, this is Remnant Israel being Restored on earth, by Jesus. Through locutions and apparitions from heaven, God is telling us to Repent now, because Jesus is on His way to Restore the Kingdom to Israel, in the form of His Revelation 21 ‘New Jerusalem’, post apocalyptic, Catholic Church, on free willed earth.

    Divine Mercy in my Soul, 635, The Blessed Virgin Mary :
    you have to speak to the world about His great mercy and prepare the world for the Second Coming of Him who will come, not as a merciful Savior, but as a just Judge. Oh, how terrible is that day! Determined is the day of justice, the day of divine wrath. The angels tremble before it. Speak to souls about this great mercy while it is still the time for [granting] mercy. If you keep silent now, you will be answering for a great number of souls on that terrible day

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