Pondering the Prodigal Parable

Some thoughts on today’s Gospel of the Prodigal Son:

The Gospel is overly familiar. We know it so well that we tend to tune it out when it’s opening lines dawn on our ears. But this is a signal to listen with the heart. To focus on a detail or two we may have ignored before. Focus perhaps on what SEEMS to be a side point, or off the main lines of consideration. Jesus was a master story-teller and every detail is dripping with meaning. I propose to you two such issues. You may or may not have considered them before, but in case not,  consider them now….

1.  The Goal in life – The Father comes out and begs his second son to enter the party. The second Son who was obedient to his father but distant from him lets loose with an  angry catalogue of grievances. Those grievances finish with these words: You never even gave me a kid goat to celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours returns who went through your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him.” Now behold the goal of his life is to celebrate with his friends. This is sad, for the goal in life is not to celebrate with your friends. The goal in life is to celebrate with the Father! See how messed up we can become. We often demand things on our own terms and create our own notions of what heaven should be. Some will talk of mansions, some talk of clouds and harps, some talk of reunion with loved ones, some talk of streets paved in gold, and so on. But the heart of heaven is to be with God, to rejoice with him and to praise him. Our reunions will be precious but not as precious as being with and seeing God. The son has defined a very small heaven for himself: “celebrating with his friends.” The Father has something far better for the son but the son allows the good to be the enemy of the best. And by insisting on what is merely good he may well miss what is best. What do youwant? Do you wnat merely to “celebrate with your friends” or to celebrate with the Father? What a joy heaven will be as we consider the indescribable glory of God and praise him forever caught up in his joy and serenity in a hymn of endless praise. This first video sets forth the theme of God’s indescribable glory:

2. The parable is unfinished– What does the son finally decide? Do he reconsider and enter the feast or does he stay outside and refuse the Father’s pleading that he enter? It really is an amazing portrait isn’t it? The Father outside, pleading for his son to enter. An old song by Don Franciso puts it this way: The Father’s voice is calling with an urgency I’ve never heard before “Won’t you come in from the darkness now before it’s time to finally close the door?!” The parable is unfinished because you and I have to h finish it with our repsonse. And not just you, but your spouse, child, grandchild, brother, sister, co-worker. For them we are to be the Father’s voice pleading with them to enter the feast before the door closes. Yes, it is we who must finish this parable. Here is a video of Don Francisco’s song that I just mentioned. I have posted it before but it seems so appropriate here:

26 Replies to “Pondering the Prodigal Parable”

  1. Yes, we tend to overlook the son who stayed, focusing instead on the son who took the money and ran. But we also tend to overlook the father as well.

    It is quite interesting that, after the younger son has received his share of the inheritance and leaves, the father lets him go without a word. The father doesn’t stop him, he doesn’t plead with the son to stay. And after the son has been gone for a while, he doesn’t go running after him, doesn’t send others out to spy on the son. The father doesn’t send letters telling the son how much he loves him and begging him to come home, he doesn’t try to bargain with the son for his return.

    Rather, the father respects the free will of his son, he respects the choice that he made, as foolish as the father surely knew it to be. The father lets the son go, and lets him choose for himself to come home. It’s not that the father is cold-hearted and does not love the son, but he has already taught the son, he had made it known to the son his entire life that the father loves him, and in respecting the son’s choice, the father is exercising love. A tough love to be sure, but love nonetheless because love doesn’t force itself on anyone, love doesn’t lock-up the other when the other wants out.

    The father is the Father, of course, but he is also us. Too often we fret and worry about someone close to us who is falling away from, if not the Catholic Faith, then other lesser “faiths,” other values and beliefs that we would like the other to have. And we fight and struggle in a vain attempt to get them to stay. And then we run after them and harass them and harangue them to come back. All of which backfires.

    Usually, however, it is better to let them go and learn their lessons on their own, even though it may be a very hard lesson. It is better to let go of their hand and let them walk on their own, even if you know they will stumble and scrape their knee. If you’ve done the right thing before, if you’ve prepared your child and taught him properly and fully growing up, and given him the gift of faith as you should, including the seed of the Holy Spirit in baptism, then there is a good chance that eventually he will get tired of starving and come to his senses. Sometimes people just need to wander in the desert for 40 years before they get their head straight. But you can’t force it into them. All you can do is let them go, and then kill the fatted calf in celebration when they return.

    As for the other son, the one that didn’t fall away, that didn’t drop out of college and spend all his time partying and hooking up, choosing “bum” as his career choice, the one that was always the “good son,” likewise, if you have taught him right and raised him properly, he most likely will eventually do the right thing. If those seeds of your goodness and of the Holy Spirit have not been planted in him, however, then he might be the “good son” on the outside, but inside he is festering death.

    And if you are the good son, the one who stayed home even though you too thought of seeing the world, if that is you — do the right thing. Get over your resentment and hug your brother. Welcome him not only into your arms, but into your heart. Don’t be angry at the Father’s mercy, adopting a counterfeit justice that thinks the other son should be condemned, not welcomed. Don’t let the fact that some pretty notorious sinners might get to heaven before you so scandalize you that you refuse to go to heaven yourself.

  2. Dear Msgr Pope, thank you for another insightful article. I regularly read your article where I am in Singapore and I am thankful for your great efforts in spreading the Good News which I hope is reaching all parts of the world. Please keep up the great work.

    As you said, even though the parable of the prodigal son is familiar to many people and the main message of repentance and forgiveness is clear, there are many fine details that can be appreciated because no detail is too small to be neglected by Jesus. I noticed several other important fine points yesterday during mass that I would like to share with you and other brothers and sisters in Christ.

    First, the son “hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.” The son is in the position to tend and feed the swine. He long to eat what he is feeding the swine as he is very hungry. If he is to take some of that feed and eat it himself it is not likely that anyone will notice. But in true repentance the son does not succumb to the temptation of taking what does not belong to him and does not violate the commandment of not to steal. This shows that he is now truly repentant and has converted his ways to righteousness, justice, and integrity.

    In this truly repented state, he said “I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.'” He does not ask to go back to be the son again and to enjoy the riches and privileges that come with that. He asks to be one of the hired workers/servants instead. He is now humbled and is ready to serve the Father and others in the house (Kingdom of God). In this state of true repentance and readiness to serve, the Father welcomes him with open arms, forgives his past sins, and celebrates his return as his son (not as a servant). The moment we repent and are ready to serve God’s will, we are redeemed to be God’s sons and daughters, with the accompanying privileges and responsibilities, and are no longer considered as slaves to sin or to the world.

    I used to not really understand the concept of purgatory very well within the Catholic faith. My previous understanding was that if one has truly repented and God has already forgiven the sins why is there a need for purgatory. In this parable, the swine farm that the son was staying was actually the purgatory. Sins come with consequences and will eventually lead one to a place of suffering. It is in this place where a person may contemplate his/her ways, come to the realization of God’s majestic divinity, and ignite the true desire to be reunited with God our creator. The place before we can reach Heaven to be with God in pure holiness is the purgatory where we are purged of our sins in the past and become truly repented and holy.

    This parable also helps me to realize that Christ is our role model and guide for us to become the perfect son that God wants us to be. Christ, being both God and human as one, and being truly sinless and holy, shows us how we can practice and live our faith in words and in deeds, how we can love God passionately and serve God’s will faithfully. Christ is truly the way, the truth and the life. Alleluia.

    1. All the way from Singapore. When I am posting “Late at night” it must be about noon where you are. Thanks for reading and thanks aswell for a very good addition to the article.

  3. Pope Benedict at today’s Angelus —
    “The two sons represent two immature ways of relating to God: rebellion, and an infantile obedience. Both these forms can be overcome through the experience of mercy.”

    1. This was exactly the point our pastor made this morning – people tend to sympathize with the other son rather than looking at it from the perspective of how he resents his hard work and subservience to his father.. So, you have the Prodigal, who basically tells his father – “Gimme what’s mine, I want it now and I know what to do with it,” which, apparently in Jewish tradition is akin to saying “I wish you were dead so I can have what’s coming to me,” then he comes crawling back hoping only to be treated as a servant. And you have the other who is so resentful of his brother – maybe he wishes he’d had the nerve to do what the Prodigal did – that he can’t even celebrate his return, so busy is he in deliberately enslaving himself and acting like a servant, rather than the son he is.

      Monsignor makes a good point – we’ve heard this story so many times that we stop really listening to it.

  4. At our monthly Ultreya last night we had a reading and reflection on this Gospel, and then discussed it in small groups. Just like reflection on the seeds in the parable of the sower, all three of us concluded that we have played all three roles at various times in our lives. People usually don’t see themselves in the role of the Father. As a father of four children and seven grandchildren, I can assure you that much can be learned from the example of the Father. This is in addition to the knowledge that our Father in Heaven will always run to us when we repent.

  5. Monsignor,

    You describe the other son as “obedient to his father but distant from him”. What is your source for this assertion? It sounds like you might be reading more into the parable than Our Lord put in it. Where did Our Lord indicate that the other son was “distant” from his father?


    1. The sons words to his father: for years I have slaved for you, I never disobeyed one of your “orders” This does not sound like the words of a close or affectionate Son even if he is angry. I may be reading into it as you say but hey, isn’t that what parables invite? Anyway it isn’t an essential point I am making, just an observation. Also, just to show you how this goes, I might wonder what our evidence might be that the second Son was either close or affectionate? It seems to me that he is a rather blank slate on which we may right. That is the beauty of parables, where not everything is spelled out as is often the case when historical figures are in question.

    2. Erik, back up a bit in the Gospel and see to whom Jesus is telling the parable — the Pharisees and scribes The strictly-following-the-letter-of-the-Law Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees and scribes who had been out working in the Lord’s fields, serving Him when others were out consorting with prostitutes, who are now critical of Jesus spending time with tax collectors and sinners.

      The older son is the Pharisees and scribes. They have been “obedient” to God, but they are distant from Him, they are “like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.” (Mt. 23:27).

  6. This parable is very special to me personally. I was a sick child and had many major surgeries for the first 15 years of my life. When I had the last one, the one that gave me a clean bill of health, I did just as the first son did. I ran from home to immerese myself in the treasures of this world. I lived responsibly, but definitely was looking to this world for my happiness. Eventually, I realized just how cruel and unforgiving the world can be. So, I ran back to God and pleaded with him and was willing to do whatever was necessary to once again gain favor with him. The transformation has been awesome. I used to go by my last name. People, other than family, never called me Brian. Now I look back and I think to myself, “Z” is dead”. I left him at the door when I returned to the house of God. That person no longer exists. The more time that passes, the closer I come to Jesus , the more I can’t believe that I was ever that person. All my pride in thinking I didn’t need him that much, the times I chose sin over him and the times I got angry at him, and he was still waiting at the door. My only fear now is not so much losing him in this world, but not being with him in the next.

  7. The message in the parable of the Prodigal Son is that God’s capacity for Love, Justice, and Mercy are greater than any sin. The fooish and wasteful son though sin and vice deprived himself of the Father (God), and upon seeing the light of faith, he repented, wishing to restore what he had through the virtue of humility and love, he sought out his creator. His journey was that of a pilgrim, his soul being made of love, could not live without love, and needing something to love returned home. His voluntary return demonstrated his pure love for the Father. God is love, and as he forgave Peter, he can forgive any sin. To depriciate God’s mercy, believing it to be less than one’s misery and dispair, is a very great displeasure to God who is Supreme and Eternal Good. And like the parable of the lost sheep, and the lost coin, the Angles in Heaven rejoiced, so then we must assume that the older brother being full of grace from haveing the virtue of brotherly love, also rejoiced. Therefore the atmosphere in the Father’s house must have been Heavenly.

  8. “Prodigal” can mean 1 : characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure; lavish;
    2 : recklessly spendthrift ;3 : yielding abundantly. All three meanings apply to the father. The progigal father lavishes his love on both of his sons with a profuse, even “wasteful” generosity; and with reckless, (super)abundance. The prodigal father in the embodiment of unrestrained love. It’s understandable that people often miss the main point of the story of the prodigal son: THE PARABLE HAS BEEN MIS-NAMED. It should be known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.”

    1. Yes, I have heard this too and remarked along the same lines. The word prodigal in its orginal meaning was “generous” and that would surely be applied to the Father. Over the years we let it slip and it got attached to the son. But because of this most people think prodigal means sinful when as you point out it does not.

  9. This parable is very special for me because three years ago I was the child returning to God.

  10. Like Carolyn, I also heard Christ talking to me about my journey.

    Charles Dickens, on one of his tours of the United States and being a great short-story writer, was once asked by a commentator; “What is the best short-story you’ve ever read?”

    “The Prodigal Son.”

  11. I think the parable’s name is incorrect. I think it should be called the parable of the two sons. It even starts out “there was a certain man with two sons”.
    I, also, identify with this parable. Because of anger and pride I left the church over thirty years ago. With the help of alchohol I was able to ignore GOD’ s loving call to return. I was adrift and floundering. For some reason, this loving and caring woman came along and helped me straighten out my life and make me a responsible person. It took another fifteen years, but one day I realized that everything good in my life, although undeserved, came from the loving GOD I turned away from years ago. I have since come back to the fold and the joy in my heart is indescribable. The real twist is that my loving wife is not even Catholic but, I believe,GOD sent her to call me back. He truely works in mysterious ways

  12. I spent much of last week pondering this parable with various groups. Most of us were able to relate to at least two of the characters. During one of the discussions I learned how my lack of gentleness can interfere with the one returning. Even though I want all converted, I come on VERY strong and try to drag people back. Because I need to be hit over the head with a 2×4 to be woken up I thought everyone needed this. I have learned that SOME others need gentle persuasion. Need some discernment in this area!!! I have always been open to the one returning BUT the one returning doesn’t always see my openness perhaps because of shame or fear or whatever. I also do think that the Prodigal was correct in thinking he would have to work for his Father. In many instances the offense is one that doesn’t make full relationship possible immediately but the repentance is still valid. We can’t, as prodigal, expect that all will accept our repentance with open arms on a human level when we return BUT we know that if our human parent or spouse or child or friend does not accept our amends that our Heavenly Father always will. I believe that when the son was in the foreign country he may have had only imperfect contrition BUT after he was embraced by his Father that his contrition was perfected.
    Unlike the previous commenter I have changed my name. I use my confirmation name to protect the innocent and the guilty!!!

    1. There is a truth that is very valid, here in this story. A truth that has just hit the mark with me,recently, although i had felt it’s “fearfull” weight some time past. The awesome responsibility of the Gift of the Father, our ‘free will”.
      Imagine a Father willing to let us go our own chosen way! He loves us so much He chooses not to control, and He continues to love and Hope for our return, lovingly forgiving all our transgressions,even forgetting them in His happiness that we ,”who were once dead, are now alive”. Not only are we “alive”, we are transfomed and being “in Christ Jesus”, are experiencing the Resurrection!
      A”hunger” has brought us Home to the Father. Something was missing within us.
      Leaving our Pride behind and embracing Humility, we came Home to a New Beginning.
      Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again!

  13. This parable is very special to me these days. As a child of about 8 years of age I decided to go to church. My family was neither for nor against it but, my parents did act responably by selecting a small church with a minister who had a simple, yet sincere message. I wanted to go to the Eastern Catholic church my paternal grandmother attended but, my father had broken away from that church.
    I suspect, but may never know, that everyone thought that my attendance was a “flash in a pan” thing that would die out in a few weeks or so. However, when I returned for a second year and expected another level of Sunday school the parish council seemed startled and excited (as best as I can recall.) All in all I attended three years then, dropped out. Not just of church but of life. I went to school only as required and hid in adventure stories and other books until I turned to alcohol at seventeen.
    Drifting about as a functioning alcoholic until my forties there was always a yearning to return to a Christian church and lifestyle. Promises to attend “next Sunday” were put off by Sunday morning hangovers; working overtime to cover the bills because the money had been wasted in bars, by whatever. Church was replaced by new age paganism and idolatry with its glittering exterior and lack of substance. Then guilt would lead me to flea to a church to attend once every few months and, always a different church.
    As mentioned, by my late forties the alcohol wouldn’t work anymore. I could get drunk; stumble around; babble nonsense and – finally pass out – but the “feel good” aspect had abandoned me. In desperation I turned to street drugs and experienced a mixed blessing as they brought me to my knees – both literally and figuratively. I was fifty years old and walking through a park in the country because there were so many people in town would have beat me up on sight. Suddenly, it was like a curtain parted. All the rationalizations, denial and other lies stood before me appearing as the stone walls of a prison which encompassed me. Then a huge foot about eight feet long appeared hovering in the air and, with one swinging kick after another kicked those stone walls apart with kick after kick until they were rubble on the ground. Then the curtain closed and I stood alone feeling naked and ashamed.
    I walked to welfare and asked for help and went to de tox and to rehab. They taught me to look at myself with the help of others instead of hiding from myself with toxic substances. After rehab it took over 6 months to gain even a hint of stablity and I decided to return to church, to make a committment. After checking out many; including the evangelical ones whose constant hallelieaus wore me out (I like “Handel’s Messiah” and “When Angels Sing on High” in the appropriate time and place) I decided on the Eastern Catholic church of my grandmother. About a year after hitting bottom I walked into a service there. I’d been there a few times but, as someone checking it out; now it was as day one as a member.
    Here is the return to the point. The sermon that day was the Return of the Prodigal Son. During the sermon the tears started from my eyes. They could have easily been stifled as I had decades of practice stifling my true feelings but I let them flow. Afterward the priest approached me outside – we had a little talk and he hugged me. That was six years ago and I still attend regularly.
    I don’t know why the shyness of using anon. My address will show who I am to the blog managers. I have other e mail addresses but, don’t feel so shy as to use them.
    I don’t feel so inclined toward shyness when someone needs help though. Those of us who are “living evidence” to the addict who feels hopeless – for that I do not hide – it’s such a small return for all I have. For their sake I have no secrets. I am unshamed for I was sick and those I support are sick and I try my floundering and honest best.

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