In this most beloved of the parables of Jesus, great spiritual benefit can be had from looking more closely at the figure of the father. We are usually inclined to focus on the two sons and ask ourselves where we might fit in with them. That is surely also very beneficial, yet in some ways we can only fully appreciate them in their relation to the father. I thought it might be helpful to look at the verbs used by the evangelist to describe the father’s role. In other words, what did he do in the face of both sons?
“A man had two sons.” He gave them life. Understanding the father to be God the Father, he gave them not only life but their very persons. God chooses to create these persons out of an infinite variety of possibilities, and that is because he loved what he could see in them. He also hoped that they would recognize the loving potential he had placed within them. He hoped they would mirror the love he had for them as their father and work freely to bring it to fruition. “A man had two sons.”
“The father divided the property between them.” Sadly, the younger son does not appreciate the true richness of being with his father. He, and later the older brother, see him as a source of property, as a financial asset. By dividing the property, the father accepts two things. He accepts that his son does not really see his love or appreciate being with his father; the father also respects and ratifies his son’s freedom. God is saddened when we leave him, leave his loving presence, but he won’t force us to stay; he made us free and so he is the first to respect our freedom. He sees that we sometimes prefer other people, other things or other experiences to him. He knows that is a mistake, but he will not impose himself. “The father divided the property between them.”
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.” The father remains always vigilant for a lost son to return. He knows that apart from him, his son will sooner or later come to grief. He hopes against hope that his son will come home, will remember something of his father’s love, even if it is just the easy availability of bread. Although his son had gone far, his father’s heart still held him close. The father now sees him at a long distance. He recognises his gait or his shape because for years he will have studied them with the eye of his paternal heart. He sees into his son’s soul, he sees its drama and trauma, its sense of failure and emptiness. To see is to understand; it is the father’s heart reaching out and grasping the son’s heart. “He was moved with pity.” Here we touch on the visceral compassion of God for the repentant son. God is moved. As the prophet Hosea says of God’s compassion, his whole being trembles with pity for the sinner who has been devastated by the deceit of sin. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.”
“He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.” The father is so moved with pity that he runs, he sets off into the long way off of his son. If we imagine the father to be of a certain age, running would not come easily, so it testifies to the depth of joy and exhilaration of the father as he sees his son trudge wearily home. Jesus here gives a beautiful image for our minds and imaginations to help us on our path of repentance: God the Father running towards us, exerting himself to come to us. The father clasps his boy in his arms. That word clasp has the connotation of holding tightly, in a fixed embrace. It is as if the father is saying, “I am holding on to you in case I lose you again.” It speaks to the depth of divine emotion at our return to him after we have fallen away. If the angels rejoice over the sinner who repents, what must God do! The father kisses his son tenderly. What’s in a kiss? In this case, there is the expression of the unfathomable love of God for the sinner who comes home. It is a love that has always been there but which could not be expressed so long as his boy did not want it. But now that had all changed. “He ran to the boy, clasped him his arms and kissed him tenderly.”
“But the father said to his servants.” The word “but” tells us that the father was having none of his son’s speech about not being worthy to be his son. He gives orders to the servants as if to emphasize to his son that he, unlike them, will not be treated like a servant. And the orders he gives are to bring three things which symbolize and restore his dignity as son of his father: the best robe (not any old robe), the ring and the sandals. The father’s unbridled joy is then expressed in the killing of the fatted calf, something done for extraordinary celebrations of jubilation. For the father, his son’s return was nothing less than having him back from the grave. You might say that the angels in heaven only rejoice at the return of the sinner because God himself cannot contain his joy. “But the father said to his servants.”
The drama now switches to the elder son.
“His father came out to plead with him.” Just as he had run out to greet the returning younger son, so the father comes out of the celebration in the house to meet the elder son. The younger son had a speech which the father barely listened to, but the elder brother also has a speech which the father listened to attentively. Sadly, the speech is filled with anger, bitterness, accusations, self-righteousness, jealousy towards his brother and insolence towards his father. The elder son is short on compassion, forgiveness and respect. His main concern is neither his father nor his brother but property, money. He dresses it up as injustice towards himself, casting himself as the victim. “His father came out to plead with him.”
“The father said ….” After listening to his son’s diatribe, the father meekly responds, not taking him to task, nor condemning him for his dark heart. His response deals with the two main points raised by the elder son: property and the younger son’s return. On the question of property, the father gently corrects the elder son: “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.” In other words, your complaint about getting nothing is wrong. On the question of his brother’s return, the father faces the elder son with a basic truth: people are more important than property; love is more important than wealth; compassion and joy are more important than joyless jealousy; mercy is greater than justice; reconciliation is more important than recrimination; and, indeed, you, my elder son, are more important than your fiery speech.
We don’t know if the elder son went in to the feast or not. If he did not, it was not because his father excluded him; he excluded himself. He wanted his father’s house to be run on his own terms; he knew better than his father and he wanted no brother, whom he dismissed as a debauched renegade, to be part of the family. Thankfully, it is the father who is the father: life-giving, love-giving, freedom-respecting, vigilant, moved with pity, compassionate and tender, forgiver and restorer of dignity, patient and earnest. In sum, although the younger son was prodigal in wasting, the true prodigal one is the father in the generosity of his grace.
During Lent, we pray that this powerful parable will move many hearts, many lost sons and daughters, whoever and wherever they may be, to come to their senses, to remember their father’s house and to find their weary way back to the heart of God.