Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Prodigal Son?

Today;s Gospel, taken from St. Luke, is one that most people know almost from memory.  It is the story of two sons of a wealthy father.  One is a bit of a loner and the other is faithful to his father and the work at hand.  The loner decides that he has had enough of his father's house and asks his father for his portion of the inheritance in order that he may leave home and see the rest of the world.  The father obliges and the son sets out on his bold adventure.

The wandering son lives life to the fullest.  He spends his money freely paying little heed to just how much might be left.  Before he knows it, all the parties and hard living catch up with him and he finds himself homeless.  He tries to find work wherever he can, taking any job that will help to see him from one day to the next.  Finally, he ends up feeding pigs.  Nearly starving and without hope of things getting any better any time soon, he comes to his senses and heads for home.

His father we can imagine, has been heartbroken by his son's departure.  We can see him looking to the distant horizon to see if by some miracle, his missing son is returning.  Day after day, the father looks to the distant landscape in vain.  His son seems to be gone forever.  Then, one day, much to the father's amazement, he sees a small figure on the horizon.  The lone figure of a man draws closer and soon the father realizes that his dream of his son returning is about to come true.  Unwilling to await him at their home, the father rushes out to greet the prodigal.  He hugs him and welcomes him back home, throwing him a huge party to celebrate his return.

Meanwhile, the faithful son returns to the house after a long day's work in the fields to discover his errant brother has returned.  Not only that, but their father has rolled out the red carpet to welcome the offending son back home.  Indignant, he approaches his father and demands an explanation for all the celebrating.  After all, the faithful son tells the father, never once had he been the recipient of such a party and he is the one who has remained at his father's side all these years.

The father, we can imagine, sees the hurt in his faithful son's eyes and rather than responding to his anger, he responds to the son's hurt.  He tells his son that the heavens are rejoicing over the return of the wandering son because, as the Gospel puts it, "your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found."  (Lk 15: 32)

Most people see this as a parable about the two sons.  But I think the parable is really more about the father than the son.  The father of the boys represents, of course, God, our Heavenly Father.  The two sons represent all of humanity in its various stages and forms.  The message that Jesus was conveying didn't have so much to do with the sons as it did the forgiving nature of the Father.

The prodigal who goes to his father to demand his inheritance so that he may seek adventure must have hurt the father very much.  The son's demands were a rejection of the father's world and way of life.  It was a way of saying that the son had a better idea than his father of how his life should be lived.  Rather than arguing the point, the father, because he loved his son so much, gave his son his due portion.  It is certain that the father was wounded through and through because of this rejection.  It is equally certain that the father wanted to implore the son to stay home because he could see the dire consequences that lay ahead for his boy.  But there were no arguments, no debates, no desperate pleas ala Hollywood.  Only the father honoring his son's request and wishing him well.

Upon the son's return, we see a father filled with compassion and love.  We see a father who, rather than scolding the son with a million "I told you so's"  embracing him and welcoming him back home.  We also see a father whose healing capacity knows no bounds.  His faithful son, confused and disillusioned by his father's actions, comes to his father with very legitimate questions.  Instead of demeaning the son by telling him that he ought to be glad that his brother has returned and be ashamed of himself because of his selfishness, tells the faithful son of the eternal truth of all of us sinners: we were once dead and, because of the father's forgiveness, we are now alive.  We were once lost to the eternal life that awaits us all but now, because we do have a merciful father, we are found and the heavens rejoice.

Jesus, a remarkable story teller, conveys to us through this marvelous parable, the amazing Father all of us has.  We, like the sons in the parable, need the Father's forgiveness and compassion more than life itself for it is that compassion and love that sustains us from one day to the next.  Daily, we should seek His compassionate heart in seeking forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed.  We must also know through the parable that God is not to be feared as long as we approach Him humbly and with a contrite heart.  He will accept us back "home" as long as we are truly sorry for our transgressions and make a firm commitment to repent.