Returning to the Prodigal Son

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Friday, Sep. 16, 2022

By Marie Mischel

Intermountain Catholic

The Gospel reading for this past Sunday was the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is probably one of the most well-known stories from the New Testament, and reams of commentary on it have been written by everyone from St. Augustine to Henri Nouwen.

As I settled in for the homily, I reflected that this parable must be difficult for a priest or deacon to preach on. How can you make such a familiar story fresh?

Nouwen managed to do so, using Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” as the basis for a book by the same name. In the book, Nouwen discusses everything from details of the painting – he describes, for example, the differences between the father’s hands, which are placed on the back of the repentant son kneeling in front of him – to his own life, acknowledging that he has regrets like those of the returning son, resentment like that of the elder son and the knowledge that, like the father, he is meant to reach his hands “out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”

Of course, Nouwen also delved into biblical and spiritual aspects of the parable, but one of the things I most appreciated was his explanation of how startling the tale would have been to those who heard the parable from Jesus’ lips. I was so familiar with the story that until I read the book I never stopped to consider just how insulting the younger son was. By requesting his share of the property, which he normally wouldn’t have received until after his father’s death, the son in essence was saying that he wished his father was dead.

Fast forwarding through the story, we find that the father saw the returning son from a long way off, which implies that he had a habit of keeping watch, yearning for that event.

Before reading Nouwen, it never occurred to me how unusual it would be for someone to long for the return of a person who had offered them such an offense, especially in Jewish culture in Jesus’ time, when fathers were supposed to be revered.  

Then the father goes running toward the son; again, a behavior that would have shocked Jesus’ listeners because the Jewish fathers they knew would never cast aside their dignity in such a way.

Sitting there in the pew on Sunday, it occurred to me that knowing the cultural background of the parable gives a much deeper understanding of just how extravagant was the father’s love. He forgave his son for wishing him dead, for squandering his money, for living a life of sin. In fact, one notable scholar – I can’t recall which one – suggested that the parable should be renamed the Prodigal Father; the word “prodigal” means wastefully extravagant, a wonderful description of the love of the father, who didn’t even wait for an apology before welcoming his son back into the fold.

The obvious lesson from the parable is that God waits for us, too, yearning to welcome us with open arms if only we return, truly penitent, willing to acknowledge that we are not worthy to be called his child but still wanting to live under his roof.

But there is another lesson, too, and that is from the elder son, who resents the welcome his brother has received. He’s indignant because he’s worked for his father and never once disobeyed, yet has never been rewarded, and he doesn’t seem to be reassured when his father tells him, “All I have is yours.”

As difficult as it is to repent of my sins, I think it’s even harder to not be self-righteous when a “sinner” is welcomed more warmly than I in a place I think I deserve some recognition.

Reflecting on all this while waiting for the homily, I realized that the parable of the Prodigal Son is one each of us can tell. Like Nouwen we are all at different times the dissolute younger son, the resentful elder son and the forgiving father, and there are endless ways to tell the tale so that the lessons Jesus taught can be made fresh and learned again.

Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at marie@icatholic.org.




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