Reflections on the Prodigal Son

At Mass on Sunday, most people heard the story of the Prodigal Son – the little brat who says, “Hey, Dad, can we pretend you’re dead so I can have my inheritance and go do whatever I want?”

You know the story. Dad says, “Sure” and the son goes off and soon finds himself destitute.

But put yourself in that first-century audience. The story is always told to Pharisees when Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and sinners. Almost from the beginning of the story, we are in trouble. Not because the son asks the father for his inheritance – though we might find that absurd – the Jews would not have. Where the wheels fall off the wagon is that the son not only loses the money, he clearly loses his faith. After all, he becomes a swineherd. He takes care of pigs, which the Jews knew to be unclean. Not only does he care for them, he longs to eat from the food on which they feast. A swineherd, to the Jews listening, was beyond the pale of God’s forgiveness. There was no reconciliation available to such a person.

Then we have another problem. The inclination is to feel sorry for the son. But he actually practices his apology before ever returning home. If we pay attention, we understand that while he might be sorry he is poor, but the contrition is contrived. It’s rehearsed. He knows just what to say.

But none of that matters. While the son is still a long way off, the father sees him and runs to him.

The father runs.

At this point, the Jews in the audience are really squirming. For a Jewish father to run in a long tunic, he would have to lift the tunic and bare his legs – in public. He would have to shame himself and this father is only too happy to do this to get to his son. Nothing is more important to the father than bringing the son home. He waited for him. He was moved with compassion. He runs to him. And he doesn’t let the rehearsed speech continue. He stops the son midstream and forgives.

Would we ever do as much for a family member, a friend, a coworker? Or would we let them squirm through their apology while we wait for them to finish, silently enjoying their pain?

The hits keep coming as we see the story turn from the forgiving father or the prodigal son towards the unbelievable mercy of God. Everything is exaggerated. The robe is a sign of importance. The ring is a sign of authority. The sandals are a sign of a free man. The fatted calf is a sign of a family meal. The Jews who are listening would not have missed these clues. They would have understood that the storyteller was putting two things – swineherd and forgiven – in the same sentence. And they would have been embarrassed.

Then there is the older brother. Looking into the party from the outside and thinking, I would imagine, “What the heck is going on in there?” Again, the father goes to the son. The son says, “I’ve always kept the law” just like a Scribe or a Pharisee in the audience would say. The older son calls the prodigal, “your son” not “my brother.” He has already distanced himself as we distance ourselves so quickly from someone who offends. We are so quick to walk away from someone who needs mercy.

In the end, the older brother doesn’t look that great. But he doesn’t look as bad as the Pharisee who Jesus chastises for praying, “Thank God I am not like these people.”

It’s a parable – a story that is meant to invite us in and then turn us on our heads. Why? Because with Jesus, history has to stop being ibid, ibid, ibid. All things are new. You can only be a part of the reign of God if you are willing to have your life turned upside down, to be converted. You will never reform your life if you are not open to the possibilities that people who sin can be forgiven, that hate can be overcome by love, and that evil can be beaten by prayer and good works.

It is easy to stand outside the party and criticize. It is easy to stay inside and wait for someone to approach you and beg forgiveness.

Yet, we are called to forgive. We are called to lift our tunics – even at the risk of shaming ourselves – and run to those who need us most.

And yes, we are called to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and enter the party where all are welcome equally.



This entry was originally posted on The Leadership Institute director’s personal blog.