Although the title of this parable would lead us to assume that the focus is on the selfish son who squandered his inheritance, the real hero of the parable is the father.A brief reflection on a familiar story
[The Return of the Prodigal, LK 15: 1-3, 11-32]
I’ve heard and read the parable of the prodigal son many times. I didn’t see anything wrong with the youngest son’s request to have his inheritance early. What he did with it, well, that’s what was wrong. This is what I thought until a few years ago when during a Sunday homily, the priest said that the son’s request was actually an insult to the father. Because inheritances are given after someone dies, it was as if the son had said to his father “I wish you were dead.” So if I’d misunderstood the beginning of the story, maybe I needed to rethink the whole thing.
Maybe I was focusing on the wrong person in this parable. Oh yes, the actions of the first son were bad and the consequences were proof of that. Even he came to that conclusion when he found himself tending — of all things — pigs! (At that time, pigs were considered to be the ultimate unclean animal.) And not only was he tending them, he was yearning to eat the husks that they were eating. When he came to his senses he turned around and went home. The young son’s story is so dramatic that it’s easy to see how it would get all the attention. I can certainly identify with going off the rails in life and needing to make a drastic course correction.
The older son’s grumbling also grabs my attention. Haven’t we all worked in the background at one time or another, doing the lion’s share of the work on a project perhaps, only to see someone else get all the attention? The feeling of resentment — however slight or momentary — is not one to be proud of. Being generous in spite of my feelings has been a hard lesson to learn, but one that has brought me more peace than all the recognition and praise ever did.
The father offered forgiveness
immediately and freely.
But even the older son’s story is not the real focus of this parable. The real hero is the father...the merciful, forgiving father. He must have been broken-hearted when his younger son asked for his inheritance and then left. And imagine the joy he felt when his son returned. He didn’t even let him finish his prepared speech of repentance. No, the father offered forgiveness immediately and freely, with extraordinary love. And when he noticed that his older son refused to join in the celebration, the father went out to find him and teach him how to forgive, how to be merciful.
So even though it’s easy to identify with the wayward youngest son and the resentful older son, I find that I’m drawn to the father. He’s the one to imitate. He shows me how to forgive, how to welcome back those who have been lost no matter how long they’ve been away. He shows me how to be merciful. I want to imitate the father and rejoice with the angels at every return of a prodigal. And I want to freely forgive those who hurt me and tell others about God’s forgiveness and mercy so they can share my joy. By God’s grace, it will be so.