The Parable of the Prodigal Son is, for me at least, one of the most beautiful and memorable parables in the Bible. It reminds me that, no matter how far I’ve strayed from the God who made me, he is always waiting for my return so that he can embrace me with his love and grace. It has become even more important to me as I’ve become a father myself, and the deep love that the father has for the Prodigal Son has become a much more concrete reality because I have experienced feeling this love for a child myself. I want to give all my love, all my patience, all my faith, my entire self to this new person in my life. Though sometimes, I have to admit, I am giving him an impatient or tired self. On the first Good Friday after he was born, I took him to the Church of the Advent, I knelt in front of a fragment of the cross on which Jesus died, and I prayed that Abraham would grow up to be a generous and faithful person.
But I think the moment I identify with the most is when the Prodigal Son is sitting with the pigs feeling sorry for himself, and it hits him that it would be so much easier just to go back home. It’s as simple as stopping to ask himself “Wait, I forget…WHY am I even doing this?” And he realizes that there isn’t some rule that says he has to sit there being miserable, he can just as easily lump his pride, go home, and at least be a worker or something on his father’s estate.
As a child I was continually bullied to the degree that I can hardly remember feeling anything but misery as a child. I was such a sad little boy. Part of becoming an adult was realizing that it was even possible to move on. It was that same bolt out of the blue realization that I was taking the hard way through life. It suddenly hit me at some point in my teenaged years— “Hey… why don’t I not carry around anger like this? Of course! Why didn’t I think of that before?” It’s hard to see that possibility when you’re in that sort of situation. Life has a way of anesthetizing you like that. Which isn’t to say that it was easy as it was for the Prodigal Son. It actually took years for me to figure out how to stop resenting all these children that had tortured me for so long and leave behind the desire to make them understand how much they had hurt me. In fact I had to lay down the burden of that despair again and again. Sometimes it still strikes me. Sometimes I carry around resentment at some situation, anger at another person, or especially guilt at something I’ve done for weeks before I realize anew that I don’t actually HAVE to carry it around. Like the Prodigal Son, I don’t have to sit with the pigs feeling bad for myself.
This isn’t just a metaphor, by the way. A study at Princeton University found that guilt and misery literally feel heavy on a sub-conscious level. People who feel guilty estimate themselves to be heavier. Our Lord says instead “Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” He doesn’t want us to carry all that stuff around anymore than he wants us to waste away with hunger in a strange land. His simple command is “If all the stuff makes you so miserable, then put it down!” That’s what repentance is. That’s what the fourth week of Lent is traditionally about. Lent is such an intense time when we stop to consider how far we’ve strayed from the God who loves us, and to look for the things that are keeping us from a relationship with him. The fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday, is intended to remind us of the bigger picture. It’s like a father who welcomes his son home, and there is a great feast and a party. It’s the end game of all this introversion we are called to during this season.
I will say, though, that many people find this parable to be an extremely frustrating one. Taken another way this is a story about a father blithely welcoming back an abusive, selfish, destabilizing person on behalf of the whole family. The older son’s misgivings are, quite frankly, not entirely unfair. The Prodigal Son has outrageously insulted his father, he’s exploded the family’s finances by selling off a huge portion of the land that is their only source of income, and he’s returned with no prospect of supporting himself in the future, since his inheritance is gone. Not to mention the question of whether the Prodigal Son’s resolution to turn over a new leaf will even stick—we all know how that sort of resolution tends to go in the real world. And the father welcomes him back, with no question of how this catastrophic relationship is going to be fixed.
I suppose in that regard the father here is joining the long list of not entirely great biblical fathers, like Jacob whose brazen favoritism caused so much grief between his sons. The father even blames the older son for feeling upset about this situation—he didn’t even send for his son toiling in the fields as the party was starting. The parable just doesn’t say what happens after this party he throws for the Prodigal Son. I suppose Jesus has already made his point, and that point doesn’t have much to do with how family dynamics in the real world work.
I’m not trying to be a downer here. All parables are like this in some way, they are supposed to be a little confusing and even disturbing at times. I will point out that both sons have greatly misunderstood the nature of their father’s love. They both understand his love to be reciprocal in some way, in terms of what their father owes them. The older son thinks all of his years of faithfulness should have been rewarded, and the younger son thinks he’s already used up all his “currency” in his relationship with his father and can only expect to be treated as a servant from here on out. But the father’s love—GOD’S love—isn’t like that at all. God freely gives his entire self to us in Jesus, not because he owes us anything, and not because of what can do for him. Rather he is waiting on the porch, keeping his eye on the horizon, and the moment we come to our senses he is ready to give himself to us once again. He runs out to meet us, and believe me, it’s impossible to look dignified running in the long robes the father would have been wearing.
Jesus doesn’t say at that moment how we’re supposed to work this out in our lives. We might have to “come to our senses,” to “turn over a new leaf” again and again as we learn how to leave our burdens behind. We may have to do a lot of work to repair our relationships with him, with our families, with the people around us. It’s not all fatted calves and dancing, there is a whole life to live after the welcoming party. Frankly, some relationships might only be repaired in the Kingdom of God.
But Jesus gives us the bigger picture of God’s infinitely patient love to implore us to not wait outside the party feeling sorry for ourselves when there is so much more joy for those who will undertake this hard work.