11 things we might need to know about the Parable of the Prodigal Son

  1. What is a “prodigal?”

The word “prodigal” is mysterious to us. Almost the only time we ever hear it is in the title of this Lukan parable.  Its basic meaning is “wasteful”–particularly with regard to money.  It comes from Latin roots that mean “forth” (pro-) and “to drive” (agere). It indicates the quality of a person who drives forth his money–who wastes it by spending with reckless abandon. That’s what the young son has does with his family money in this story. He took off with it and wasted it all away– ‘like a wild ride in Las Vegas that ends in dismal poverty, and a guy then going through garbage to eat—not pretty.

The parable leaves us, at first to think, Hey, this lost “wasted” person may never come back.

Yet there is Someone in the story who will be the inspiration for their possible return.

  1. Why does Jesus tell this lesson and as a parable? What’s it getting at?

It’s a story, probably based on real cases and persons, but the lesson is to apply to many persons.  It is first meant to apply to Pharisees and scribes, who just don’t seemingly care about the right religious things.  Jesus says that “saving the lost” is a very important thing in the Big Picture, and He gives this (and two other parables) about it to them.  Saving lost people was not on the religious priority list of the Pharisees and scribes. In fact, Jesus had heard the murmuring of the Pharisees and scribes over His spending time with ‘questionable people’ or ‘people of dishonor.’  Jesus point in the parable starts off with that we all are sinners, and He is come to help us all.  He wants to help them, the Pharisees and scribes to His message, especially because of their own sin of arrogant self-righteousness, shown in their false, judgmental ‘piety.’ This parable of Jesus to them teaches how there is a spiritual poverty that is the most tragic, and Jesus teaches that the second son (at home) in the story is representative of this category, and they fit into it (the scribes and Pharisees) with their haughtiness and unopen attitude to Jesus’ message of salvation.  It is definitely a problem, and it’s the back end point of the parable.  Jesus is putting an uncomfortable reality into a parable for them to “get,” in that it applies to them.  The son in trouble (in the parable) IS the older, and at home son, who is unrepentant and fairly unresponsive to his father.  The father is an amazing and generous and merciful man, and they (Pharisees and scribes) don’t seem to know this father—but live the choice of being cold or chilly to Him. (The Father is God the Father.) He is Mercy and renewal and amazing love right there with them, but they don’t think they need that. The parable says:  But oh so much you DO NEED the Mercy and Love and Salvation of the Father!

  1. How does it apply to us?  We could be in need of hearing the story from that point of view of those to whom it was told:  religious people that Jesus wanted to open up more to God.

Or, we could be more the son who is become lost and enslaved a bit or a bunch by the sinful world.

In either way, the Prodigal Son story is really best entitled as The Loving Father story.  It’s a parable message not just for that fellow in the story, but for us out here today. If we can’t identify with this life-saving mission of God the Father come in Christ, then we miss a lot of the meaning of Jesus.  If we don’t know what excitement it is to be experiencing and living in the salvation of Christ, then we have some needful lessons ahead, and hopefully not learned the hard way (like the guy in the story).

Do we know the heart of this Loving Father Who is reconciling sinners?  (By the way, paired with the gospel today is the epistle reading which highlights St. Paul’s identity as a priest reconciler, whose working/serving diligently for God.)

  1. What’s the Square One message here? The parable teaches us that Jesus came to save sinners, of which we are one. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner. That’s a good prayer of Lent and all year round.  And another few prayers of ours likewise could be:  How can I be of help in Your soul-saving mission, O Jesus?  And, how am I personally cooperating with you, right here in Your House (the Church), as humbling myself to You and growing as your son/daughter in love, and welcoming the lost to our fold at Resurrection, and perhaps even helping in finding them?  And, is our parish the place where someone can discovering more and more again of their own needy cause for the Lord’s Mercy and Love, and thus inspiring some more Christian witness or evangelism or service out of that dawning disclosure?!

The point blank ending part of the parable is Jesus’ way of saying to the look-good outwardly scribes and to the supposedly lawful Pharisees:  How do you see yourselves as not lost or at least needy yourself?  For–you are quick to point it out an unsavory condition in your brother/sister—but why can’t you see yourselves in need, too, and as pretty lost?  For don’t you notice how far you are from God—without having to ever leave nor squander anything?  O Pharisee, could you actually be now worse off than your brother, whose has had the heart and humility to come Home to the Father’s Love, while you remain compromised and apart?

  1. What’s a hidden aspect of the story?

It’s that this is so much about a story of the older son.  While the attention often falls on the squandering lustful wanderer son—the younger brother—he gets a happy ending, but we are left wondering about the older son, the one living still in the house of the Father.  We can ask:

Will he remain distant from his dad and brother, and just complain and stay away?  We don’t know, for the parable ends there.  One might conclude that the older son in the story became, in a differing way, just as distant or lost as the prodigal boy.  The older son’s coldness towards his returning, repentant brother will expose his spiritual problem.  In this parable, it is precisely what Jesus is getting at about the Pharisees and scribes’ problem.  They need His rescue from their hard hearts.

This Parable is an inheritance story, which involves two sons, and money often can be the point of contention in life, especially among greedy ones in the mix.  The second son in the story, the one at home, (who’s the oldest son and the bigger 2/3rds beneficiary) actually sounds right, at first, in complaining that the brother who left has blown his 1/3rd inheritance should dare not get such a welcome by dad or him, or much less be celebrated back with a feast? Shouldn’t the prodigal son’s be rather punished?  Or, at least, shunned by the family? (That’s what the older son would say. He’d complain: Why all the love be given for the bad boy?!)

Parables are meant to get us going like that.  Yeah, what’s up with this father figure?!

Now the wasteful, straying party boy comes back, in shame and fear, and what the Father does, in getting his lost and seemingly dead son back, will reveal a lot of who the Heavenly Father is.  Jesus will use the parable’s father figure as a new view of God to teach His people.

  1. Why an inheritance story? In Jewish society, there were laws regarding how inheritances were typically divided. It may not sound fair in 2019 USA terms, but back then, the oldest brother got a double share inheritance (cf. Deut. 21:17), and it was a law of the people, while the other brothers only got a single share. When there were two brothers (as here in this account), the older brother would get 2/3rds of the estate, and the younger brother would get 1/3rd.  In this parable at its start, the younger son demands “the share of property that falls to me” (v. 12).  That means he is asking for the 1/3rd of the father’s possessions that he would ordinarily get when the father dies. Think about that. He’s asking his father to give him 1/3rd of everything that he owns right now, before the father is dead, when his father would still have use for these possessions. How many fathers would receive that suggestion well today? How many would comply with it if one of their children asked it? Not many!  This is a truly astonishing request, and it would have been even more astonishing in the ancient world. In a society that highly reverenced parents, it would have been equivalent to saying: “Father, I can’t even wait for you to die. Give me 1/3rd of everything you have–right now! “
  2. What does the father’s reaction teach us?

Despite the breathtaking–and insulting–audacity of the younger son’s request, the father grants it!

Amazing! This reflects the amazing indulgence that God shows toward us. Even when we are acting as selfishly as the prodigal son, God indulges us.  He yields what is His and allows us to misuse it out of respect for the freedom that He has given us.  But He knows that the misuse of our freedom will have no better results than it did with the prodigal son’s misuse of his freedom, and God trusts that we will learn our lesson and come back to Him.

The father’s witness in the story is that, after his demanding young son leaves, probably off to a pagan country for that (v.13) “loose living,” the Father will still search towards the hills for a chance of the son’s return, even have look-outs viewing for any sight of the lost son.  After months of this, maybe years, that day of return comes, surprisingly, and the Father is there to meet the boy, all stinking and ragged and a bit hard to recognize—but the Father knows him.  The father (representing the heavenly Father) greets to lost one at the end of the property or even up in the hills, to assure the son of his constant love as a father.  The lost one has journeyed back to his father, and that is enough for a loving welcome.  That is what God has ready for us, if we stray away like that.

In maybe the more amazing line of the story, Jesus tells that “while he is still at a distance, the father sees the prodigal, has compassion upon him, runs to him, hugs him, and kisses him.

  1. What does the prodigal son do in his return?

He is prepared in his heart to plead three things:  (a) “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (v. 18),  (b) “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 19a), (c) “you should treat me as one of your hired servants now, but if I could just be even near you and be home again, it would be enough.” (v. 19b).   That is an attitude of a repentant, humble person.

The father somehow already knows this son’s heart, and the father knows the process it must have been to get him headed back home to him, to His love, so the hugs and love he gives out to his boy are genuine and grateful.  The boy has remembered his love and come back home.  Terrific.

It’s account is used in contrast to the way the older son is behaving.  He is enraged at the welcome back, and in his arguing and protest, he actually exposes what kind of distant heart he had with his father, and what steps he might need to take to “feast” in something he already had close at hand, but never really “got it,” because of his pride made him blind.  He still had the inheritance of the 2/3rd but he didn’t have the closeness to his father, not because the father wasn’t loving, but because he had blocked that loving intimacy.  Now this reunion moment calls out to him to make his change, too.

  1. What do the actions of the prodigal son and older son teach us?

In the prodigal, they teach us the depths to which our own misuse of freedom will bring us.  If we are bent on leaving God, things will go badly for us. We will be humiliated in the uncaring world. The farther we get from the Father’s loving care, the worse off we will be, and our best course is to return to God and his forgiveness.

In the older son, they teach us that we can be close and yet so far, when we are living as a son/daughter of the Everlasting Father, even as living in the Church.  Some Church people, and even leaders or clergy, can somehow be lost or even very lost, even while in the proximity of the Father, and witness to His actions.  Just because you are in a church sometimes, doesn’t mean you yet know the Father and the Passionate Love of the Son or the drive of the Holy Spirit.   As a teen told me, like, just as if a person might be in a garage, they’re not necessarily a car, right?  I’ve never forgot that funny analogy.  I agreed:  Just because one stands in a church doesn’t save them, but if they are standing in one with a sincere, trusting, believing, repentant heart—then they are indeed a Christian. And the Father loves them so for it.  Whether once a wild prodigal or a quiet, distant, rich, arrogant person— it is where God is getting you to end up that is the focus.  We have our hearts to be changed to be like His.

Sometimes a complacent person or too self-sufficient person or status quo person needs to see the conversion of an “obvious sinner” to truly get the lesson of what the Love of God does do in our world.  God helps people, even those one might think wouldn’t deserve His attention or bother.  In the title of a Christian song: What does the Father bother? To call us His children. Well, frankly, it’s because we are of His making, and we are God’s children, and always will be.  But we need to be saved and redeemed in His Son.  That action is required.  Note that even the prodigal son would not be treated as a hired servant, in the return, because he is still a son!  Note that the chilly older son also will be unconditionally loved by the Father, and when he complains that he’s never had a fatted calf feast given for him, the father will show that “all I have is yours (well, the 2/3rds left, that is) but I have been waiting for your heart to be mine, and not just have you by name as a son.  I am waiting on your love, and when you are ready to open up, then you’ll have a feast too, one that has been ready a long time for you.   So, come in and see what great love I really do have, but you weren’t willing to receive, as I lovingly welcome your brother home.  Learn a lesson from this, my older son.

  1. What do the actions of the father in the parable teach us?

Can we fathom the Love of God for us?  Can we realize that God is looking for our intimacy and our coming home actions and our heart’s desire for Him?  It is the Heavenly Father running for an opportunity to embrace us—that is an outstanding lesson to learn in the story.  He is looking for the returning spirit in His people, and He will meet you on the way back in to His heart.

For those who are in the close arms of The Lord, please share how deep that experience is for you. Do so with your brothers and sisters in this parish sometime, and use it as your Good News to share to others who don’t know Jesus yet.  Maybe your witness will steer their heart home and to the bosom of the Father.

  1. What about that older son—are there some comforting lessons of him—in his relationship to the father?

The father tells the son three things.  First, he tells him: “Son, you are always with me.” This seems to be a reassurance to the elder son that he has not lost his place in the family. His place is secure.  Second, he tells him: “and all that is mine is yours.” This is because the division of property has already taken place. The younger soon took his third, so the two-thirds that remain will go entirely to the older son.  This means that the current celebration does not represent a threat to the older brother or his inheritance. Instead, it is a celebration of joy occasioned by the return of the son.  Thus the father thirdly tells him: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

I think of the RCIA and the RCIC programs in the parish–they are places where we have parish members as merry and glad for the new persons learning about our Catholic Faith and committing to it and receiving Sacraments of Initiation.  They (the RCIA/RCIC leaders) are not like the upset scribes and Pharisees, but rather thrilled at the new conversions Jesus is winning.  We are an older son/daughter rejoicing in the Home Hearted Happening going on.

I think the parable could be stretched to say in that we have members who are very good ones, and who don’t have any problem with conversions going on, or any judgments of people (as much different than the Pharisees and scribes) but these good Catholics have not caught on yet to the evangelism spirit that is meant to be in their vocation.   We have people to reach for the Gospel, and people to save from their dying in mortal sin, and we need to seek outreaches into our neighborhoods to bring people to Christ.

Jesus said:  Go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation.   It was a command, not a suggestion. We can do better to answer His call to spread the Word about Him.  Jesus saves sinners.

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