The parable of the prodigal son is, along with the parable of the good Samaritan, the best-known of Jesus’ many parables. The poignancy of the parable is impossible to miss, and the three main characters are incredibly vivid considering the relative brevity of the story. The parable is “perhaps the most moving of the parables Jesus tells in the Gospels,” wrote Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The experiences and life of the two sons serve solely to reveal the heart of the father.”
It’s an important point, for we often think the focus is on the youngest son. But the parable is primarily about the astounding mercy and love of the father. “Nowhere else,” remarked von Balthasar, “does Jesus portray the Father in heaven more vitally, more plainly.”
The son’s request was outrageous. Demanding his share of the inheritance (probably a third, with two-thirds going to his brother) was another way of saying, “I wish you were already dead!” The father likely had grounds, under Mosaic Law, of pursuing severe, even deadly, punishment (see Dt 21:18-21).
In light of that, what would most of Jesus’ listeners initially think of the father? Chances are, they viewed him as either stupid or weak — a complete failure. Certainly the Pharisees and scribes (Lk 15:2) would have thought so, as they considered themselves the keepers and defenders of the Law. Of course, one point of the parable was to show how they had, in many ways, either missed or ignored the long-suffering mercy of God and the true nature of the Law. St. Peter Chrysologus, like so many of the early Church Fathers, understood the two sons to represent the Jews and the Gentiles. “Prudent knowledge of the Law made the Jewish people [the father’s] older son, and the folly of paganism made the Gentile world his younger son.”
When Jesus described how the younger son was reduced to the pathetic state of working with swine — a nice touch for the Jewish audience — many of his listeners would have thought, “Of course! The son comes to ruin. End of story.” But the real drama was just beginning, for the parable was not just a morality tale, but a revelation of mercy. This is not to overlook the significance of the younger son’s recognition of his sorry, sinful state. He represents each of us at that point when we realize we have left the will and the love of the Father, seeking to live without regard for his loving commands. The son is a reminder, especially during the season of Lent, that we need the Sacrament of Penance in order to be fully restored to life in the family of God, the Church.
But the parable is finally about the father, who represents our heavenly Father. He does not upbraid the younger brother; he does not chide the older brother for his selfishness and lack of charity. Instead, he runs to embrace the prodigal son. “When you are still far away, he sees you and runs to you,” wrote St. Ambrose. “He sees in your heart. He runs, perhaps someone may hinder, and he embraces you. His foreknowledge is in the running, his mercy in the embrace and the disposition of fatherly love.” What must have truly astounded those listening to the parable was how the father — contrary to logic and the Law — not only embraced and kissed his son, he clothed him in his own robe and restored him to full sonship by putting his signet ring on his son’s finger.
God offers life and love to every wayward soul; he runs to embrace the returning sinner.
Carl E. Olson is editor of The Catholic World Report.