In the Jewish literary tradition, repeating a thing three times is a form of grave emphasis. Such is the case with Luke 15. There are three parables in the chapter in immediate succession: the lost sheep, the missing coin, and the prodigal son. All three deal with the Father’s enduring love for the soul who falls away from Him.
For today, however, we will deal with the story of the prodigal son, as it contains all of the elements of the other two parables and is much clearer on the role of the Father and His boundless love.
Before we get into the parable itself, let’s look around to see who is there as Jesus tells it.
Verse 1 presents “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors were regarded as traitors and thieves since they voluntarily worked with the Romans, and may have been “creative” with the tax rates. These are the people who may have been involved in doing what they shouldn’t be doing.
These are the people for whom the parable of the Lost Sheep has been told. These people have wandered away from the House, the Word, the commandments of God.
In Verse 2, Pharisees and teachers of the law are grumbling about the outcasts and Christ’s affinity for them. The teachers always did right, avoided wrong, and, as scholars, were well versed in God’s love – redemption from Egyptian slavery, salvation from the flood, and on and on. Their general idea of religion was pay, pray and obey. These are the dutiful, letter-of-the-law types, i’s dotted and t’s crossed—but ignoring the spirit of the law.
Perhaps the parable of the Lost Coin has been told in a special way for these people. While they are still in the House of the Lord, they have gotten so concerned about the fine details that they have missed the grand plan. They, too, are lost in a way, though they would never suspect it.
The Son’s Blindness
What the three parables have in common is making us aware of the fullness and depth of the Father’s love for us. He loves us so very much more than we can understand, certainly more than we think He can or does, and in a manner which we may perceive as being scandalous.
Remember, there are two groups. The first is hanging on His every word since He is speaking to their deep needs. The second is repulsed: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
In terms of the feeling of being immersed in God’s love, they may have also been at two different levels. One group may have felt very far away from God and did not feel as if they totally belonged to God’s people, while the other group felt as if they already belonged and knew about His love completely.
Please take a moment to read the parable.
I imagine that the younger son thought he knew his father, but didn’t like him all that much. His father had a series of apparently meaningless rules, regulations, laws and precepts. They might have been things such as: you need to be up with the rooster, you need to feed the animals, you need to weed the garden, you need to prune the vineyard, etc.
The son decides that he can get his freedom by getting his inheritance right away. Cash in hand, off he goes; he lives, he enjoys himself, he spends and he spends.
Then a famine breaks out in that nation. He has burned through all his money and has nothing left with which to survive. He, a Jew, is reduced to taking care of pigs, unclean animals. As no one will give him anything to eat, he is even jealous of the swine and their bean pods.
Going through everything in his mind, he decides that life is basically cruel away from the safety of his father’s house. He resolves to go back and ask to be treated as a hired hand, since he is no longer worthy to be a son.
The Father’s Unimaginable Welcome
The son doesn’t know his father. He thinks that his actions have cost him his sonship. After all, he has essentially said, “It’s all the same to me if you were dead, give me my money now.” He reasons now that if his father lets him back at all, he might make his life safe, but never again as good.
The second point that happens is the father’s love and its depth.
While the son is still a long way off, his father sees him, and his heart was filled with pity for the miserable condition he’s in, as well as joy for his return.
The father runs to him, which would not have been done in his culture at all, as it was simply not becoming. He throws his arms around the boy and kisses him, ignoring all of the smells, dirt, mud and debris that his son is wearing. He doesn’t even seem to hear what the son is saying about being a hired hand.
The father’s next words are noteworthy: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand.” Clearly these gifts represent reconciliation and full restoration to the family. However, they may be more than that, too. This is not the only time in Scripture that a robe and ring are given together.
For instance, in Genesis 41:42, when Joseph is made second in power over Egypt, his new rank is granted thus: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ And removing his signet ring from his own hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand, and then arrayed him in garments of fine linen.”
Or again, in the book of Esther, after the king has clothed Mordecai with a robe, he wants to give further honor to this good man. Listen to the words of Esther 8:2: “Then the king took off his own signet ring and gave it to Mordecai.” Here, too, the robe and ring are given together.
What does the giving of a ring mean? It is the granting of authority to a person. Whoever has such a ring has the power of attorney for his master. He has authority, his master’s authority, to make decisions and to help the master govern his realm.
When the father places the ring on the hand of his son, he not only welcomes him back home as a son, as was indicated by the robe, but he welcomes him back to responsibility and authority. The young man is not to sit on the bench; he is to play on the team! He is to be co-ruler with his father and brother.
What does all this mean for us, as we read or listen?
At different stages in our lives, there is a bit of the younger son in each of us. We think life will be better if we manage it our own way. We think following God’s commandments involves too many “shalt nots” to have a good life, too confining and restrictive. We have, at times, traveled to far off lands just to get out from under.
After acting this way, the younger son thinks, and perhaps we too think, that it would be impossible for God to forgive us and welcome us back as sons and daughters.
Some of us may not have been to Mass, Reconciliation or Communion in some time, and may be feeling unworthy of God’s love.
In my case, as with the younger son, I took control of my life and went out and was living life away from the Father’s love, by spending many years as an active alcoholic. I had become unable to recognize, let alone accept, the Father’s love. I had to reach a point where the only thing left was the earlier memory of His love, and start back using only that tiny perspective.
We cannot grasp the depth of God’s love for us. Whatever we can imagine God’s love to be, we need to multiply it by infinity, and that may come close to a description.
“Like a Slave”: The Older Brother
Now let’s look at the older son. On the surface, he is a great son, faithful, obedient, hardworking, and constant. But he does have the same sort of problem as his brother: he fails to understand that love is at the center of the family. He describes himself as having “worked like a slave…” He thinks that what he accomplishes, rather than his relationship with his father, is the basis of his place in the household.
He doesn’t have his father’s heart or joy, because he is filled with anger when he discovers the celebration for his younger brother. He has no desire to go into the house, but allows his anger to grow and fester.
Listen to what the older son says to his father: “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.”
The son doesn’t have his father’s perception, heart or love. Like the Pharisees, he has fulfilled all the rules and exterior obligations, but fails to grasp the underlying spirit. He is indignant that his brother, who has not been so dutiful, should be treated so generously. He thinks only in terms of service and reward, or lack thereof—not a freely given, merciful love.
I can see the father putting his hands on the elder son’s shoulders and waiting for their eyes to meet. He says 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.”
If some of us have felt like the younger son, there may be times when we can relate more to the elder son and his perceptions. Perhaps we have faithfully attended Mass, prayed a daily Rosary, donated generously to charities, done various forms of penance, etc., and eventually wonder whether our efforts are profiting us at all, or whether our Father notices or cares. We may notice when someone who has apparently done far less receives some great grace, and wonder why all our labors have never brought us such a favor.
There are times when we, like the elder son, each need to be reminded of our Father’s total, unwavering, scandalous love for us. We are always with Him, and yes, all that He has is ours. He has given us the beauty of this world, which speaks to us of Him; the endless abundance of grace that comes through the Church, through which He is near us in this life; and the hope of perfect, never-ending union with Him in the next life. We have no reason to be anxious, still less angry. We should be working for our Father, not like slaves hoping for a reward, but like children expressing gratitude and love.
Calling Sons to Accept their Father’s Love
Each of us may have felt, or be feeling, the pangs of being the elder or younger son. At such times, all that we need do to begin the healing process is stop where we are, look up and turn to our Father.
Let’s close with a prayer.
Lord, you know who we are, and you know who we are growing to be. We know of your love for us, and we know, and are trying to understand, the scandalous and boundless nature of that love.
Please help us to know, feel, and relish that love upon which we cannot put human limits or boundaries, your Divine Love.