The Parable of the Prodigal Son
In this article, we would like to discover some aspects of the Revelation of who God is, of the mind-blowing Love that the Lord is bestowing upon us.
Time and time again, the most crucial point in the Gospel, is the revelation of God’s Face brought to us by Jesus: “No one has ever yet seen God. The only begotten God, the One being in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” (John 1:18) One of the most important aspects of the Lord’s mission is to reveal for us the depths of God, to make Him known… to show us the true face of God. As we mentioned in another article, this new revelation of God wasn’t readily welcomed by the Lord’s contemporaries who questioned it loudly. Is this too good to be true? Too gentle to really function and manage us humans? Is it in contradiction with the God of Moses? The list is long.
One parable that is an outstanding example of the true face of God is the one known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Here we have something really of another world, where Jesus introduces us to the depths of God’s being. Let us first read the parable and call to mind all its parts.
The Text of The Parable
“11 And He said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to the father, ‘Father, give to me the portion of the property falling to me.’ And he divided the property between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son having gathered together all, went away into a distant country, and there he wasted his estate, living prodigally. 14 But of him having spent all, there arose a severe famine throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 And having gone, he joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to fill his belly from the pods that the pigs were eating, and no one was giving to him.
17 But having come to himself, he was saying, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have abundance of bread, but here I am perishing with hunger? 18 Having risen up, I will go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 no longer am I worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your servants.”’
20 And having risen up, he went to his father. And he still being far distant, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and having run, fell upon his neck and kissed him.
21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; no longer am I worthy to be called your son.’ 22 And the father said to his servants,c‘Quickly bring out the best robe and clothe him, and give him a ring for his hand and sandals for his feet; 23 and having brought the fattened calf, kill it, and having eaten, let us be merry. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
25 And his elder son was in the field, and while coming up, he drew near to the house; he heard music and dancing. 26 And having called near one of the servants, he began inquiring what these things might be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother is come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him in good health.’ 28 But he was angry, and was not willing to go in. And his father, having gone, was begging him. 29 And answering, he said to his father,‘Behold, so many years I serve you, and never did I disobey a commandment of yours; and never did you give to me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, the one having devoured your living with prostitutes, you have killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But it was fitting to make merry and to rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; and he was lost and is found.’”” (Luke 15:25-32)
This parable was originally offered by the Lord to the Pharisees and the Doctors of the Law of Moses. This is how the parables of Chapter 15 are presented: “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were drawing near to Him to hear Him. 2 And both the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”” (Luke 15:1-2) The main thrust of the parable seems to be aimed at the scribes and the Pharisees, so that modern exegesis considers that the parable should be named: “The Parable of The Elder Son”. The reason for this is that his behaviour depicts that of the Pharisees and the Scribes for whom sinners were irreconcilably damned and who felt that treating sinners this way was in keeping with the Law of Moses. Therefore, the were shocked to see that the Lord received sinners and drew closer to them (see verse 22 onward). The Pharisees preferred to condemn the sinners and to exclude them. In fact, the word “Pharisee” itself means “the chosen”, “the selected”, “the pure”.
The scribes and doctors of the Law were highly conversant with Moses’ Law and how it was capable of being very harsh on sinners. A prodigal son, for instance, should normally be treated the following way according to the Moses’ Law:
“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and does not listen to them when disciplined, 19 his father and mother are to lay hold of him and bring him to the elders of his city, to the gate of his hometown, 20 and say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he does not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.”
21 Then all the men of his city will stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you, and all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Dt 21,18-21)
To stone to death is something very harsh and radical to enforce the heinous nature of sin, yet Jesus not only fails to condemn the sinners, but He also draws closer to them, sits with them, eats with them. Jesus’ behaviour strongly clashes with Moses’ Law. It is to help the Pharisees and the Doctors of the Law to get to gain new understanding that this parable is given. The Lord would like to help them soften their hearts and welcome their repentant brothers.
Indirectly, then, through the immensely kind-hearted Father, we are meant to learn how God sees sinners. The Father in the parable, indeed, represents God the Father. Through the parable, Jesus is offering us a very human heart, the broken heart of this father who saw his son asking for his part of the inheritance, and deciding to leave his home and go and spend his money with prostitutes. Jesus does this in order to explain to us just who God IS and how He reacts and feels toward sinners. The newness of this method (although used in the Old Testament: « “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! » (Isaiah 49:15)) really staggers belief because it shows us that God is more human than we are, more tender and caring of us. In trying to know God, we compare Him to ourselves – like human beings. This method used in this parable and elsewhere means that being God doesn’t deprive Him of our human qualities but instead, it multiplies them or intensifies them infinitely. Hence, if we are good, God’s bounty is infinitely greater. But “being good” is a quality that we humans can know, understand. The fact that God is God doesn’t make Him alien to our human qualities or virtues, it just intensifies them, put them to the infinite degree.
The Lord himself indicated this path or method in other places in the Gospel when He said : « Therefore, if you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in the heavens give good things to those asking Him! » (Matthew 7:11). The phrase « how much more » is an indication to us of a method of knowing God. Bottom line: God is infinitely much more human than we are. What a paradox! What a discovery!
Let us always remember this method of reading the Scripture in order to know God. We are created “in the image and likeness” of God. His “likeness” in us is diminished because of our sins. Therefore, his infinite tenderness is much reduced in us, but in order to know God, we can still use whatever tenderness we find in our human life and extrapolate from it!
Before stopping at a key verse, let us just remember the Father’s behaviour toward his youngest son at the start of the parable. When the son asked him for his part of the inheritance, the Father, gave him his part. He didn’t deny him his freedom, his energy, his desires, his goals. In the case of each and every one of us God leaves us free throughout our lives.
Let us now stop at verse 20 and ponder on it.
God’s Visceral Love for Each One of Us
Sometimes we think that God’s love for us is just a decision He makes, but we don’t necessarily see the link between God himself, his being on one hand and his love for us on the other. We fail to see the hidden link between us and Him, the link that makes Him feel the void of our absence, that pains Him physically to the core for our absence and loss. It gives God feelings. It shows that God can suffer because of us. How can we ever express this…? The cold uniform equanimous image of God the philosophers show us seems here to fade and be replaced by a much more human God, a God that we can understand, and feel for. This is simply mind-blowing.
Let us see what the text says about the Father:
“And having risen up, he went to his father. And he still being far distant, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and having run, fell upon his neck and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
The phrase “being far distant” in the line: “And he still being far distant, his father saw him” means that the Father used to go to the main road and look out for his son. He was sad, he had lost his own child. He didn’t give up hope, however, but stayed there waiting for his son. Then one day he saw him. He was able not only to see him but to notice his state, his clothes, the fact that he had lost weight and wasn’t clean. But this was still his son and he was deeply “moved with compassion.” Here, indubitably, we witness a God not insensitive to our state. He suffers. He is sad because of our state.
Let us pause for a moment to note that, in Greek the expression is “splagchnizomai” which means “to be moved in the inward parts”, i.e. “to feel compassion”. “splagxnízomai”, from “splanxna”, ‘the inward parts,’ especially the nobler entrails – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. These parts gradually came to denote the seat of the affections” (WS, 111).)
Did he wait for his son to arrive? Did he prepare himself to level harsh criticism at him and reproach him for his behaviour? Was he angry at him? No. Quite the opposite: “he ran toward him,” he wanted to meet him, to touch him to hug him to get him close to his heart. He didn’t wait. He couldn’t wait! Do we understand God’s Heart? God’s viscera? Did he go slowly? He ran! Ran!
You would expect him to say angry or highly critical words to his son! To rebuke him! None of this happened! He “fell upon his neck” …. The Father threw himself upon the neck of his son! Aren’t we God’s children? Created in his image and likeness? It comes as no surprise, then, that He fell upon his neck, he embraced him, he hugged him!
As if this were not enough there is more… He kissed him profusely. Translators try to render the Greek word in some of the following possible translations of what the Father did: kissed him “repeatedly”, “profusely”, “fervently”, “affectionately”, “passionately”, “like a torrent of kisses”.
This is the reaction of God himself! This is what He does to the sinner! He needed to feel that close to his son! He hugged him and kissed him profusely. Remember, his son is dirty! God didn’t feel any disgust toward the state of his son! He didn’t say to him: go, have a good bath, and put on new clothes and then we need to talk. None of this! None of this! He hugged him at length… he kissed him! To the one who had betrayed him and his trust, to the one who had lost all his hard-earned money on prostitutes, God gives back a kiss! A long hug and plenty of kisses!
Who can understand?
Not only that, but God goes on to defend the younger son when talking to the elder one who didn’t agree with this behaviour! He took time to explain to the elder son that his younger son had been lost, and that he was finally back and that they needed to celebrate!
Who can understand this? Who can fathom “who God is”?
He didn’t blame his wasteful son once for what he had done! He wanted to celebrate. He offered him new clothes, a ring, and a big celebration. This is God!
Of course, it is difficult for the average human being to accept this image of God! One feels some justice should be implemented here! No, none! One feels some fairness should be applied! No!! Not our fairness, but another more comprehensive one!
As above-mentioned, we have the impression that the father used to go out of his house every day, to go and gaze, check on the horizon to see if his son was returning. He knew very well that far from the paternal house only harm could happen to him! He knew, because it is easy to guess, the state in which his son was when he had made the demand of his father and left. He is worried, he feels anguish, he is only half-alive because his love and compassion for his son make him one with his son with all his heart, all his soul, so that he can feel all that his son feels.
It comes as no surprise then that the way the father receives his son is unconditional and full of love and tenderness. This is God! He didn’t ask him to give an account of all that he had done; he didn’t judge him as the elder son would do! The latter, indeed, with his vision of justice doesn’t correspond to the true Face of God. It is imperative, therefore, that we drop the elder son’s understanding of justice and clothe ourselves with the sentiments of God!
To reiterate once again: the father jumps on his son’s neck and kisses him tenderly and profusely! This passage reveals to us God’s Face! This passage is deeply moving! God waits for the human being, God waits for the human being to turn towards Him, to receive his love, his tenderness.
Another passage from the Gospel where God’s tenderness shows is the following: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets, and stoning those having been sent to her, how often I have wanted to gather your children, the way that a hen gathers her brood under the wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34) This passage moved St. Therese of the Child Jesus, so that when in the garden of her monastery she saw some chicks she remembered this passage and cried for joy contemplating God’s tenderness:
“Descending the steps leading into the garden, she saw a little white hen under a tree, protecting her little chicks under her wings; some were peeping out from under. Thérèse stopped, looking at them thoughtfully; after a while, I made a sign that we should go inside. I noticed her eyes were filled with tears, and I said: “You’re crying!” She put her hand over her eyes and cried even more. “I can’t explain it just now; I’m too deeply touched.” That evening, in her cell, she told me the following, and there was a heavenly expression on her face: “I cried when I thought how God used this image in order to teach us His tenderness towards us. All through my life, this is what He has done for me! He has hidden me totally under His wings! Earlier in the day, when I was leaving you, I was crying when going upstairs; I was unable to control myself any longer, and I hastened to our cell. My heart was overflowing with love and gratitude.” (Yellow notebook, 7 June n°1)
Again, this tenderness and love is reflected in the father’s reaction when his son says: “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; no longer am I worthy to be called your son.” But the father says to his servants: “22 ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and clothe him, and give him a ring for his hand and sandals for his feet; 23 and having brought the fattened calf, kill it, and having eaten, let us be merry. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” Let us note that the father doesn’t make any reproach to his son! He immediately receives him without any conditions. The father is happy to have his son back. He could have made him feel guilty. Not at all. On the contrary he explains why he is happy: “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Indeed, we are being confronted by a mind-blowing revelation of who God is! Of his being, of his feelings, of his behaviour, his love! Yes, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus, came to reveal to us the true God. Who could have imagined God like this? God the Father wants to hug you, at length and tenderly! He doesn’t want you to go. He wants you to stay with Him! He is very happy to have you! He rejoices and find his delight in you! Take heart – you are truly loved and wanted!