A Look at the Prodigal Son Parable

Prodigal son

Opening Prayer

O God, Our Loving Parent,

At times your love seems impossible to us,

but with you it is ALL possible.

For where love is, there you are.

May we find your love in all things,

and be instruments of your love

in the world.  AMEN

Henri Nouwen says we need to be attentive to moments that may move us to new directions, to refind balance, and to remain fully alive.  These spiritual signs have the following characteristics:

  1. Simple not complicated
  2. Persistent
  3. Seemingly impossible
  4. Always about others as well as ourselves (Home Tonight, p. 12)

From Living Liturgy, 2004:

This parable reveals the dying and rising of the paschal mystery at work. The prodigal son is brought to repentance because he is in dire need; he is “dying from hunger.” There is nothing he does to deserve the father’s response except return. Yet, his decision to repent (turn from death) is met with warm, welcoming love and feasting – at least from the father. For all of us, the invitation to repent is always there – to turn from dying-ways to new life and feasting. What can bring us – and the elder son – to the feasting?

Notice also, that sin is ‘going away to a distant land’ – it is about losing who and where we are called to be. Repentance is about ‘coming back to our senses.’ Sin is an alienation from ourselves, like the son who no longer deserves to be called his father’s son.  Sin affects our relationships – with the father – and with others (the elder son). In the father, we find a love that bridges the gap.

From John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context”, http://liturgy.slu.edu :

In this culture fathers were greatly discouraged from distributing inheritance before their death. The younger son acts very shamefully by effectively wishing his father dead. The elder son is no better. He makes no effort to reconcile his father and brother as the culture demanded. When he ‘comes back to himself’ and repents, the younger son is willing to become a servant and take the rejection and physical abuse that the village will heap on him for his shameful behavior. In this, he does show some measure of honor. But then, the father acts totally out of cultural character. He runs (very inappropriate for an elder).  He publicly forgives the son by kissing him, giving him the best robe (which certainly would be the father’s), putting a ring on his finger (a sign of trust), and sandals on his feet (a sign of a free man not a slave). Killing the fatted calf means that the whole village will be invited to come and accept this son and celebrate. (This size calf could feed 100 people.) And then, what does the elder son do? Instead of honoring his father’s wishes, he publicly insults and humiliates his father. Yet, the father also goes out to him (another shameful thing for the father to do). The parable ends here with the father pleading with his son . . .what did the elder son do? What would you do?

The father – God – doesn’t act the way we think he’s going to act.  We can never put God in a box!  There is nothing we can do that would get God to stop loving us!

This is one of Jesus’ most powerful and best known parables.  With which character do you identify?

From Good Goats:  Healing Our Image of God by Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Linn:

This story is Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees who ask why he welcomes tax collectors or other unrepentant sinners, and even eats with them.  Jesus portrays the prodigal as the greatest possible sinner.  Was he repentant?  Scripture scholars indicate that the prodigal’s motive is most likely self-interest.  Although the words of his prepared speech sound like repentance, he composes them after observing that we would get a lot more to eat if he were back in his father’s house.  The son regrets that he has lost all the money he got from his father, but it is unlikely that he has yet repented of breaking his father’s heart.  The emphasis is on the father.  The father forgives whether the son is repentant or not.   This is echoed with the older brother.  The lost son, the lost sheep and the lost coin all represent the unrepentant sinner; God takes the initiative to seek out what is lost and unrepentant, rather than waiting for the lost one to repent and come back.

Richard Rohr talks about the “Deuteronomic Code mentality”.  That is:  I sin, God punishes me, I repent, God loves and rewards me.  But stories such as Paul’s conversion or the prodigal son turn this code upside down:  I sin, I am unrepentant, I am loved and rewarded by God, this heals me so I can repent.  Nothing is earned…God’s love (grace) is a free gift  (p. 59-62).

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”  The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor

“But Rembrandt, who showed me the Father in utmost vulnerability, made me come to the awareness that my final vocation is indeed to become like the Father and to live out his divine compassion in my daily life, ”  Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, p. 121)


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