The Prodigal Son, by Christine Hides
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” Luke 15:11–32
Reflection: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when he hears a complaint: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he tells them three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son who are all found. We know the story of the prodigal son so well it becomes dangerously close to a myth. “Myths are designed to do just the opposite of parables. They are designed to make us comfortable with the familiar.” (J. William Harkins)
Children who make unreasonable requests, poor decisions that lead to hardship, squabbles over inheritance, jealous siblings… these elements of the story might be familiar. But can you imagine a party thrown after so much discord? Because this kind of reconciliation is rare and sacred, this parable stretches us to imagine the unfamiliar wideness of God’s welcoming arms and Christ’s celebratory banquet where especially those we deem undeserving receive divine generosity, mercy, and love.
Henri Nouwen was familiar with this parable. He stared at Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son for days, looking at it from the perspective of each character. When he encounters God’s embrace through the father, he realizes he is to embody this same unrestrained love and compassion: “Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives.”
God of Inexhaustible Love,
Free us from the familiar to
embody your unlimited compassion.