What are the Keys to the Father’s House? The Prodigal Son Parable Explained (Lk 15: 11-32)
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One of the best ways to enrich your experience at Sunday Mass is to pray the gospel reading personally. A great way of doing this is using the “Lectio Divina”; this is a powerful method which we explain here. The following is the Sunday gospel reading with a reflection that is especially aimed at youth.
We hope that this reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son helps you in your personal prayer and that it serves as a resource that you can share with your apostolate.
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Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Lk 15: 11-32)
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them Jesus addressed this parable: “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he 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. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. 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.”’
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.
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Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again;he was lost and has been found.’”
Relationships break down and sometimes we don’t know how to rebuild them. Relationships break down because we decide to walk away when love becomes demanding. But relationships also lose meaning when we decide to stay solely to please someone that we no longer love.
We leave without ever knowing what we were looking for to begin with; we turn back empty handed, trapped in our fantasies. But even if we decide to stay, we may struggle to find meaning and we consume ourselves in bitterness.
Living in rebellion and settling are two temptations that lurk in our hearts. They are signs of an immature love: the capricious love of a child that wants affection without responsibility, and the competitive love of the adolescent that is always conflictive, always rejecting any form of authority. They are two poor forms of loving that persist in our hearts and that are in need of reconciliation. Love is hard work and it requires commitment.
One often loses oneself in love. But by inhabiting this loss, we discover God as He who has been looking for us all along. Like the sheep and the coin, even children may become lost. And like the shepherd and the old woman who seek them out, so the father waits and watches.
Perhaps relationships fall apart because we try to possess love, as if we could own it: give me my share! The younger son is like those who find relationships suffocating: they want to love, but without commitment, without constraints. Affection becomes a right to be claimed and love, something to be demanded.
But every authentic relationship is demanding and pulls us out of our egoism; it forces us to give up some of our freedom. We hunger for real relationships: thus he who flees from relationships, in the end, inevitably hires himself out to another. In the end, simply to eat, he accepts even the pods meant for swine! In the midst of his hunger that the son remembers his Father.
Now the younger son represents those who believe they can only ever be in a relationship of servitude: treat me like one of your servants! For him a relationship is still something asphyxiating but the Father will show him that there is such a thing as a relationship of freedom.
The Father is He who creates paths of reconciliation. Many times the steps we would take towards reconciling ourselves with others exist only in our imaginations, never becoming reality. But Luke describes how the Father’s love is expressed in profound actions – the new robe is a symbol of restored dignity (it is the same as God’s gesture to Adam and Eve when he makes clothes out of animal skins after they sin and realize that they are naked). The ring bears the stamp that permits him to manage the father’s goods (despite it all, the Father re-entrusts the son with everything that is his). The sandals are a symbol of the free man (the slave walks barefoot), because in a healthy relationship we should never feel condemned to be the servant of the other. The feast is the celebration that the son lives again: desiring the other’s good means celebrating every day of his or her life.
If some people are in relationships of servitude, others are in relationships of strangers: the older brother only appears to have stayed at home with the Father. It’s a false relationship. In fact, the older brother isn’t even in the house: Luke shows him as being out. He is such a stranger that he must ask others what is going on at his own house. The older son is he who is never fully involved in his relationships: he never even uses the word “brother!” Others must remind him that he who has returned is his brother.
The older son represents those who live love as if it were a rivalry; since he is always in competition with others, he is always measuring love. That is why these people are always angry, unable to enjoy the feast in honor of the other person. Somehow they always feel that celebrating the other person’s life takes away from what they could have received.
People who live like this are angry people and anger is blinding, it makes us generalize, to paint the whole world black: you never even gave me a young goat! Anger makes all accusations absolute and even erases the good that there had been before. Anger only sees what it doesn’t have.
The Father is he who confronts the anger and rejection. He reaches out, even to the older son. He does not ignore his suffering, he does not remind him of his duties as an older brother, he does not pull on his sense of responsibility because he is older. The Father shows his vulnerability: he replaces the never with an always (you are always with me), he helps his son to see things as they really are: that theirs is a relationship of complete sharing (everything I have is yours). In his anger, the older son is blind to this sharing.
This parable does not reach a conclusion; it is open just as the door of the Father’s house is always open. The older son may choose. But especially you, reader, you are invited to write your own ending to this parable.
For further reflection:
– How would you end this parable? What will the older son do?
– What have you learned about who the Father truly is?