It has been said that Jesus' parable of the prodigal son is the most beautiful literary work that human hands have ever penned to paper. I would agree. And, there is a immense richness and many levels at which the parable could be addressed. However, notice the father in the parable, and his proximity to each of his two sons. Then, ask, which son is the prodigal son? These are the two points for reflection that I will explore in this post.
First, the father's proximity to his sons is described twice in today's Gospel. The first description provides for us the scene of the younger son returning from the distant land where he has squandered his inheritance: "While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." (Lk 15, 20 NAB) The second description of the father's physical proximity to his sons involves the older son who returns from work in the fields to find the celebration over the younger son's return:
(Lk 15, 28-32 NAB) Notice that in both passages the father is described as moving toward his sons. In the first passage, he runs out to the son, "[w]hile he was still a long way off" and in the second passage he "came out" of the house after the older son refused to enter. Consider the depth of this meaning. God our Father is constantly coming to us, making Himself available to the Israelites of the Old Testament and the new people of Israel--those for whom Christ has come to redeem, who is all humanity--at all times. Consider that it was God the Father that sent Christ the Son for our salvation. He came to us and came for us, we did not go to Him. And, consider that the love of Christ, pored out for us in Christ's passion, death and resurrection is continually made available to us, indeed brought to us, by the ministers of Christ's bride, the Church.He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
Just as the two sons are continually being approached by the father in Jesus' parable, so too are we continually being approached by God! Do we merit this approach of our Lord, Creator of the Universe? Not in our own right, but certainly we do merit God's approach through His love. So, let us rejoice and offer ourselves in thanksgiving for that Holy Love!
So, continually being approached by a loving father, it becomes a question of which one of the sons is the prodigal. Traditional teaching, and our experience, tells us that the younger son is certainly prodigal, He asks his father for his share of the father's inheritance--in essence saying to the father, "I wish to treat you as though you are dead." The father complies with the younger son's request, and the younger son quickly turns his back on the father and goes to a foreign land and squanders his inheritance. Consider how we are like the younger prodigal son. We have our inheritance in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ--that is, life ever lasting. But, how many of us take this inheritance, turn our back on God, and go to the distant location of sin (building not a geographical, but spiritual distance from God) to squander the inheritance that Christ's love has wrought? We certainly are prodigal like the younger son.
However, the younger son also wises-up in the parable. He confesses his sin to the father and reconciles himself to the father. At this, the father rejoices. But, the parable does not disclose a reconciliation moment for the older son. We learn that he is angry with the father and complains to the father that the younger son has been given favorable treatment. But, we do not hear of this older son's reconciliation. Does that mean the older son never reconciled himself to the father? I do not think Saint Luke gives us enough information to know. However, to be sure we do not see a reconciliation in the parable as it is relayed to us. So, which son is the prodigal?
The younger son who squandered his inheritance, but reconciles himself to a rejoicing father? Or, the older son who is angry with the father and for whom we do not see a reconciliation?
Which of the two sons are we most like? Or, can we see ourselves in both of the father's prodigal sons? How often have we turned our back on God, acting as though He were dead, and squandered the merits that Christ's Blood has bought for us in the valley of sin? And, how often have we been angry with the Lord for what we perceive to be an injustice? Did we reconcile, like the younger son? Or, is our reconciliation with the Lord still in doubt?
Of the many layers of richness in this parable, this much is true: Christ is telling us not to leave our reconciliation with Him in doubt. Our Lord is always coming toward us; the burden for us is lighter than the wood of the cross taken up by Christ, Himself. So, let us rejoice in the Lord's generosity for us and the abundance of His love, made present in a love that is continually pored out on us--brought to us--through the Church. All of us are sinners. All of us, one way or the other, have squandered our inheritance and built a division between ourselves and God. But, the Lord is coming toward us, and waiting with eager anticipation-anticipating celebrating with us our return to Him!
IMAGE: The Prodigal Son, Van Rainy Hecht-Nielsen (1974).