In all scripture you will not find a more striking account of God’s understanding and love than in this morning’s reading, recorded for us by St. Luke, of the story of the forgiving father. It is unfortunate that over the centuries this parable has come to be known as that of the Prodigal Son, because it is that father who is the true centerpiece of the story, flanked as he is on either side by his two very different sons.
Turning to the younger of the two sons, we see that his behavior is offensive in a variety of ways. He asks to receive his inheritance ahead of his older brother to whom deference and respect should have been shown. And after having received his inheritance he proceeds to squander it in disreputable ways. Abandoned by his new-found friends when he could no longer afford to spend freely on them, he ends up suffering the ultimate humiliation --- forced to live the life of a Gentile, caring for pigs. Hungry at times, he is even reduced to sharing the food of the pigs to stay alive. His decision to return home, therefore, is not only based on remorse, but on desperate need as well. It cannot be called an entirely genuine conversion, but like many of even the good things that we do, was founded on very mixed motives.
Upon the return of the wayward son, we come to appreciate the true personal majesty of the father, and see the dimensions of his compassion and love. One would have expected him to stand and wait, to let his desperate son grovel before him, to punish and thus teach him a needed lesson. But quite the opposite happens; he breaks with propriety and runs to meet his errant son more than half-way. The gift of forgiveness which he offers is unhesitating and total, and he does not even want to let his son complete his carefully rehearsed plea for mercy. The prodigal is completely restored to his former dignity --- dressed in a robe and given shoes and the ring of authority marking an esteemed son of the household. But this return calls for even more to be done, and a festive banquet is prepared, because new life has been restored to a dead son.
But then our attention turns to the older son. We might best characterize him as loyal, obedient, and respectful. But his very sense of duty has clouded his vision. He finds his father’s forgiveness, and generosity incomprehensible. He can no longer bring himself to identify the younger son as his brother, calling him “your son” to his father. The fact. however, is that he had no right to complain; he had already received from his father all that he had asked of him and more. But he murmured out of envy, just as we ourselves sometimes have difficulty rejoicing in the good fortune and achievements of others. He considered that his labor was somehow deserving of a greater reward than that received by others, and through such pride he had managed to render void all of his admittedly good deeds.
The father, however, is as patient with the older son as he was with the younger. Although the older boy feels put upon and unappreciated, the father refrains from condemning and lecturing him for his misunderstanding of the truth. He tries instead to communicate and share with him something of his own joy at what has happened. And this happiness is not meant to take anything way from his appreciation of the older boy’s faithfulness, or from the fact that all that the father now possesses finally belongs to him. And at the same time, he gently insists upon reminding him that the prodigal is nonetheless still his brother. Regrettably, however, the older son is unmoved, and the parable ends without his participation in the feast.
This parable brings to our needed attention many of the important themes found throughout the whole of St. Luke’s Gospel. It shows us that because of the common inversion of human values, it is the last who shall enter first in the Kingdom of God. Because of pride, the oldest son who was dutiful and constant, finds himself full of resentment and outside the joyous celebration, while the prodigal son through humility and acceptance of his own faults and weaknesses, finds himself the guest of honor, very much like the fact that the pagan gentile peoples of the world entered the church, while the Jewish nation, God’s own chosen people, remained without. But above all, this is a parable about the limitless love that God has for us sinners. Like the father who patiently endured the very different but nonetheless equal mistakes of both his sons, God comes to us in the Gospel bearing the wonderful and hopeful message of reconciliation.
There is great consolation in this wondrous parable. When moments of discouragement come and spiritual failures tend to overwhelm us, there is no better medicine than the reading of the story of this forgiving father --- a symbol of our heavenly father himself. It tells us that no one escapes God’s gracious love or ever gets too far away, for this is no ordinary love; it defies all human standards.
And so today we learn that even those of us who consider themselves particularly faithful are in real ways wounded; and yet, that God scans the horizon hoping for our return so that he might embrace each of us in his upholding love, and help us to complete the journey that will return us home where the celebration and festival of his saints is unceasing.