St. Luke has given three parables successively; the sheep which was lost and found, the piece of silver which was lost and found, the son who was dead and came to life again, in order that invited by a threefold remedy, we might heal our wounds. Christ as the Shepherd bears you on His own body, the Church as the woman seeks for thee, God as the Father receives you, the first, pity, the second, intercession, the third, reconciliation. –St. Ambrose
While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most beloved, if not the best loved, of the parables of Jesus. It is not hard to understand why. Even if our loose living differs in the details, we can identify with the prodigal son. We have all in one way or another squandered what we have been given. So much opportunity and so little to show for it. We should also be able to identify with the older son, although that is more difficult and may require more self-examination to realize that we are hoarders. We easily imagine that we have done so much and received so little in return for our efforts. Squanders or hoarders of the father’s gifts, take your choice.
If that were all there is to this parable, it would be more than enough, more than enough to challenge our consciences, to ready ourselves for our Easter confessions: “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. . . . And there is no health in us.”
In fact all this, as important as it is, is not the main thing about this Gospel. The experiences of the two sons serve primarily not to draw our attention to them and eventually to ourselves but to tell us of the heart of the Father. He is the one who makes the story more than just another account of human failure. Nowhere else does Jesus portray his Father in heaven more powerfully, more clearly.
We can see this, if we look at the context of the parable and the other parables which precede it.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable. Actually he tells them two other parables first: the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.
In these parables it is not the joy of the pardoned sinner, as we might expect, but the joy of God in what he has made and what belongs to him. The human race, however much it has squandered or hoarded his gifts, is precious to God like sheep are for shepherds, like a piece of silver is for a poor woman, like a son to a father.
In modern fashion we might think that it is the father’s fault: he was an over-indulgent parent. But even if it is so still Jesus wants us to see, insists that we see the depth of the divine mercy. Giving the son his portion of the inheritance may seem like a big mistake but it is nothing more or less than what God has done. For us a portion of God’s inheritance is our existence, our freedom, our intellect, our accountability – all of these are the most sublime goods imaginable, goods that only God give us. That we waste it all and end up in the pig sty and that it is only our hunger that brings us to our senses is not really as significant as the father’s providence, extravagant greeting, refurbishing the prodigal and feasting in his honor. Coin, Sheep, Sons just signs pointing us to something bigger.
The father does not even have harsh words for the angry and envious brother; he is not being scolded: the father merely speaks the full truth: whoever sticks by God possesses everything with God.
As St. John of the Cross prayed: “Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me. What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in anything less or pay heed to the crumbs that fall from your Father’s table. Go forth and exult in your Glory! Hide yourself in it and rejoice, and you will obtain the supplications of your heart.”
The remarkable thing about this parable is that the Son of God is so concerned to reveal his heavenly Father that he says nothing of himself. He says nothing about the fact that it is his death which will bring all the prodigal sons home to the Father. But this is the way of Trinitarian love: The Father says ‘listen to the Son;’ the Son says ‘obey the will of the Father;’ the Holy Spirit says ‘behold the Father and the Son.’
It is so easy for our confessions to turn into psychoanalytical sessions: we have to get to the bottom of our sins; find someone or something to blame; to wallow in the pig pen. I fear that confessors are as much or more to blame as penitents. But just remember whenever you say “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” it is not the priest who blesses you but the Father in heaven, who unlike the priest has unwearied love for you, who has already seen you at a distance, whose merciful love has come down into your heart, his eternal love which has taken possession of you.
While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.embraced him and kissed him.