Opening the Word: What prodigal son parable teaches us about God

The parable of the prodigal son is well known, arguably the most famous of Jesus’ parables. Yet, as Scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias states in “The Parables of Jesus” (Prentice Hall, $31.40), it “might more correctly be called the parable of the Father’s Love,” for it is a powerful depiction of God’s love and mercy. 

While the two sons are decidedly human — sinful, self-centered, materialistic — the father exhibits a serene, pervasive holiness that reveals the heart of the heavenly Father. In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), Pope John Paul II noted that although the word “mercy” doesn’t appear in the famous parable, “it nevertheless expresses the essence of the divine mercy in a particularly clear way.” Read carefully, the parable offers a wealth of insight into our relationship with our heavenly Father; it offers a glimpse of the Father’s face. But it also is a mirror that confronts us with our distorted priorities and self-centered attitudes. 

For example, the younger son’s request for his share of the estate was not just an impulsive, youthful demand for autonomy, but a harsh renunciation of his father. In essence, his demand was a way of publicly declaring, “I wish you were dead!” In rejecting his father and the life-giving communion he once had with him, he lost the privilege of being a son and embarked upon a calamitous course. 

As a father myself, I think it is safe to say that most ordinary fathers would have objected to the son’s request, even refused to consider it. Yet our heavenly Father does not object; he respects our freedom — his great gift to us — even when we use it to rebel against him. So the father divided up the property; in doing so, grace was destroyed and communion was severed. The familial bond was broken, and the son took his money into the “far country,” a reference to a place of utter emptiness and spiritual desolation. 

“What is farther away,” asked St. Ambrose, “then to depart from oneself, and not from a place? … Surely whoever separates himself from Christ is an exile from his country, a citizen of the world.” The physical distance was not as painful as the loss of familial love and embrace; the son’s inner life vanished as quickly as did his inheritance.  

How did the son come to his senses? An answer can be found in today’s epistle, in which St. Paul confesses his sins of blasphemy, persecution and arrogance, and explains he has “been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” By God’s grace he recognized his sinfulness. Confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus, he experienced divine grace and mercy. 

The prodigal son knew his father had every right to disown him, to consider him dead and gone. But he was willing to admit his sin and become a nameless hired hand. Yet, even as he tried to articulate a cry for mercy, he was wrapped in mercy. Having walked away in petulant selfishness, the son had embraced death; having been embraced by his patient and compassionate father, he was restored to life. 

Pope John Paul explained that God is not just Creator, but “He is also Father: He is linked to man, whom he called to existence in the visible world, by a bond still more intimate than that of creation. It is love which not only creates the good but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For he who loves desires to give himself.” The Father waits for the dead, eager to clothe them with new life.  

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.