Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
he Prodigal Son is not a story featuring an indulgent father; it is meant to illustrate God's boundless mercy towards sinners. More than that - for there is the other son - it was intended by Jesus as a challenge to those who could not stomach such mercy. Always the second level of meaning is the essential one. The purpose of a parable is to challenge decision and invite action.
In chapter 15 of his gospel, Luke tells how Jesus reacted to the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that he 'welcomes sinners and even eats with them.' Jesus' reply was that he consorted with sinners precisely because he knew that God was a loving Father who welcomed the repentant sinner. The parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin (parables for men and women) carry the message: God will rejoice over a sinner who turns to him. Both parables show from God's point of view, the conversion of a sinner: he rejoices because he can forgive. It is likely that the emphasis on repentance is Luke's qualification; Jesus was a friend of sinners.
The story of father and sons is allegory: the characters being God, the sinner and the righteous. Jesus' Jewish hearers would have grasped the pathos of the young man's plight: a Jew herding pigs! He had hit rock bottom. What they would have found disconcerting was the incredible conduct of the father. That particular father represents a God eagerly looking for the first steps of homecoming. After that initial turning on the part of a sinner, the action is all his. Not a word of reproof. Stirred only by loving compassion, he embraced and kissed the lost one. All is forgiven. The son’s little speech is no longer a confession (as his rehearsed speech was meant to be); it is a spontaneous response to forgiveness. Best robe, signet ring, shoes: the youth is reinstated. He is son as though he had never left, had never gone astray. Nor is this the end. It is a moment to be savoured, a time for partying. Such is God's forgiveness, Jesus says.
In contrast, the attitude of the elder brother was effective armour against the plea of vulnerability and the foolishness of love. He had never really known his father, and now he rejects his brother. The story ends with an invitation: the elder son is invited to acknowledge his brother and enter into the joy of homecoming. Only so will he know his father as Father. The story is open-ended; we do not know how the son responded. It is an example of the literary feature of unresolved conflict. Its purpose, is to involve the reader (or hearer). We are made to wonder how we would act. In effect, we must write the ending of the story.
On many counts this is a disturbing story for us Christians of today. Luke took it out of the ministry of Jesus and addressed it directly to the 'Pharisees' in his own Christian community. And, surely, we must look to ourselves, to our possible resentment at God's graciousness to sinners. We can find comfort in the warm treatment of the younger son. Always, there is the father. He is the real challenge. Our gracious and forgiving God holds the stage.
This story persuasively shows God's loving concern for humankind and, in particular, his favouritism towards the outcast. It sets a question-mark against the theology of forgiveness reflected in much of our penitential practice. God's forgiveness seems too good to be true. Above all, there is the uncomfortable message that one really comes to understand this Father only by acknowledging the brother and sister as brother and sister - a lesson learned by the author of 1. John: 'Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love the God whom they have not seen' (4:20).
This is the Story of Jesus drawn from the four Evangelists
Gospel passages accompanied by a number of brief commentaries