William Barclay calls the Parable of the Prodigal Son the ‘gospel within the gospels’ because it summarizes the essence of faith. It tells the story of the Father’s great love for his son, the son’s return, and the elder brother’s self-righteousness and resentment towards his younger brother’s return.
The father’s great love is illustrated by his willingness to give his son’s inheritance almost without question: “So the Father divided up his property.” As mandated in the book of Leviticus, Jewish custom has it that the father appropriates to his eldest son two-thirds of his possession while the younger son inherits one-third of what he has. The younger son’s request is one of insensitivity; it would cause any father to be terribly hurt. By taking what he owns by legal right, the younger son is like saying “Give me what is mine as if you already had died.” After his son’s request, he nevertheless ‘divided up his property’.
However, nothing surpasses the Father’s waiting for his son’s return: “While he is still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was deeply moved. He ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.” Here we can see God’s attitude towards any sinner— towards each one of us. First, He waits and watches for the sinner to come home. The son’s rehearsed dialogue was in fact unfinished: the Father will not let any sinner become a ‘hired servant’ in his household. He will not even listen to such a request! No matter how grave our sins. What matters is our return.
In Jewish society, the hired helper is the lowest in rank. They were hired by the day, and could be dismissed without reason. Most hired servants live in dire poverty. Second, He goes out to meet sinners, eager to throw his arms around our necks and to kiss us. We are accustomed to think that we long for God. And yet the opposite is also true: that God longs for us.
There is a story of a Father whose son went away. He sent his messenger and begged his son to return. His son replied, “I cannot return any longer, Father. I am too far away from you.” Then, the Father replied, “Return as near as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.”
Thus, the Father’s waiting should be a cause of great joy. God tremendously believes in humanity. Psalm 8 expresses this wonder: “What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him” (Ps. 8, 5). St. Irenaeus said that God became man that man might become one with him. It is hard for some religions to think of a God who, out of great love, abases himself for humanity, who comes down to us running.
The son comes home because he remembers his father. He was lost because he decided to part from his father. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Adolescent, Makar Evanovich Dolgoruky the stepfather of Arkady, the adolescent speaks about the restlessness of those who are lost: ‘They keep on reading…or talking…although they never find answers…and remain in darkness.’ Like the son, they are lost because they have given away their inheritance, they have lost their destiny. Makar adds ‘life without God is nothing, but torture.’ The plight of the son was indeed torture. But how fortunate that he ‘comes to his senses’ by the memory of his father. And thus, filled with hope, he repents and returns.
The attitude of the elder brother towards the return is unfortunate. But it mirrors a painful truth to us who are ‘proud’ because we ‘never disobeyed God’. The self-righteous regard themselves as faultless: they faithfully perform their duties to the letter, never missed Sunday mass, etc. This is a grave mistake: to regard oneself as faultless is the greatest illusion, the greatest fault. To be without sin is not to need God. To be without fault, is not to need others. It is not surprising why the eldest son cannot see the reason to celebrate with the Father who rejoices and the son who returns. No wonder the self-righteous will not regard the church as the home of the lost. No wonder the self-righteous will think that this parish belongs only to the students, and not of others. No wonder the self-righteous will think that this church belongs only to the parishioners and not the students. Everyone belongs to this church.
The character of the eldest son is an invitation to us who have been ‘faithful’: the real meaning of loyalty is always to be one in heart and mind with the beloved and with all whom the beloved loves. In this Season of Lent, we are asked therefore to rejoice when sinners return, to treat them with equal dignity. After all, the Father has fully reinstated them as sons: he gave them the robe, the ring and a pair of shoes—- tokens of distinction, authority and freedom. Best of all, a banquet to celebrate the return to the family’s table.