The story of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Lost Son, follows the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Jesus is responding to the Pharisees' complaint: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
Jesus tells the story of a man who has two sons. The younger son asks his father to give him his portion of the family estate as an early inheritance. Once received, the son promptly sets off on a long journey to a distant land and begins to waste his fortune on wild living. When the money runs out, a severe famine hits the country and the son finds himself in dire circumstances. He takes a job feeding pigs. He is so destitute that he even longs to eat the food assigned to the pigs.
The young man finally comes to his senses, remembering his father. In humility, he recognizes his foolishness, decides to return to his father and ask for forgiveness and mercy. The father who had been watching and waiting, receives his son back with open arms of compassion. He is overjoyed by the return of his lost son! Immediately the father turns to his servants and asks them to prepare a giant feast in celebration.
Meanwhile, the older son is not one bit happy when he comes in from working the fields and discovers a party going on to celebrate his younger brother's return. The father tries to dissuade the older brother from his jealous rage explaining, "You are always with me, and everything I have is yours."
Points of Interest from the Story:
• Typically, a son would receive his inheritance at the time of his father's death. The fact that the younger brother instigated the early division of the family estate showed a rebellious and proud disregard for his father's authority, not to mention a selfish and immature attitude.
• Pigs were unclean animals. Jews were not even allowed to touch pigs. When the son took a job feeding pigs, even longing for their food to fill his belly, it reveals that he had fallen as low as he could possibly go. This son represents a person living in rebellion to God. Sometimes we have to hit rock-bottom before we come to our senses and recognize our sin.
• The father is a picture of the Heavenly Father. God waits patiently, with loving compassion to restore us when we return to him with humble hearts. He offers us everything in his kingdom, restoring full relationship with joyful celebration. He doesn't even dwell on our past waywardness.
• Reading from the beginning of chapter 15, we see that the older son is clearly a picture of the pharisees. In their self-righteousness, they have forgotten to rejoice when a sinner returns to God. Bitterness and resentment keeps the older son from forgiving his younger brother. It blinds him to the treasure he freely enjoys through constant relationship with the father.
Questions for Reflection:
Who are you in this story? Are you a prodigal, a pharisee or a servant? Are you the rebellious son, lost and far from God? Are you the self-righteous pharisee, no longer capable of rejoicing when a sinner returns to God? Maybe you've hit rock-bottom, come to your senses and decided to run to God's open arms of compassion and mercy? Or are you one of the servants in the household, rejoicing with the father when a lost son finds his way home?
Through this parable, Jesus teaches us clearly that there is no condemnation in God. The prodigal left home and wandered deep into the far country of illusion and despair.
One morning, the story says, he awoke and "came to himself."
He remembered that he had a home and a kind and loving father. He decided to go home.
The prodigal set out on his journey home believing that he had sinned against his father and that he was no longer worthy to be called his father's son.
Yet when his father heard that he was coming, he sent an escort to meet him and make the journey of return with him. When the prodigal came before him, the father greeted him with unreserved welcome, joy, feasting, and celebration. In effect, the father said to his son,
You are mistaken in how you see yourself.
You are still my son, my heart's treasure, whom I love and in whom I delight.
Only then did the prodigal come to understand that nothing had changed, nothing had been lost, nothing had destroyed his identity or his father's love.
The teaching of the parable does not end, however, with the prodigal's return. There was a second son, who had appeared to be "good" and to do everything his father wanted.
This son became jealous and angry over his father's celebration of his brother's return and complained bitterly that his father had never held such a feast for him. He would have denied his brother welcome, pointing out his brother's "sins" and contrasting them with his own "righteousness."
Just as the father did not condemn the prodigal for his wanderings, neither did he become angry with his second son's bitterness and jealousy.
He simply reminded this son, gently and lovingly, that all his, the father's, wealth was also his—and always had been.
It was freely his for the accepting, just as it was being freely given his brother.
This second son's belief that his father's favor and grace had to be earned shows that he did not really know his father's loving nature.
That lack of understanding and his self-righteous stance had separated him from his father just as much as the prodigal's misguided wanderings had done. He too had denied himself the experience of his father's limitless abundance and love.
Regardless of the past, the second son's unforgiveness of his brother was all that kept him from fully sharing in the feast now.
The unforgiveness in our minds is all that is keeping us from awakening and sharing in the overflowing richness of Creation.
It is not God's forgiveness that we need, for as this story makes clear, our Father has not condemned us.
It is our own forgiveness that is needed, for we have banished ourselves from the awareness and experience of His Love.
We receive the gifts of forgiveness as we are willing to extend forgiveness to our brother.
The challenge of our healing journey is twofold—for we are like both the prodigal son and the self-righteous son in this parable.
Like the prodigal, we need to recognize that we cannot find fulfillment, happiness, safety, or peace in the ego's world, in all the misdirected ways and places we've sought for them.
We can find our treasure only by remembering who we are, by coming home.
This is our deepest longing, our true heart's desire. Even in the midst of lostness and pain, for a moment we can "come to ourselves."
We can glimpse a memory, however vague, of a home we dearly loved. We can hear it call softly to us in the longing of our heart, and we can decide to go home. In the holy instant of that decision, our journey has begun.
Then, like the second son, we must learn that whenever we would deny a brother his rightful place as God's Son, we also deny our own.
Only by our willingness to recognize and celebrate who he is in truth—no matter how far he may seem to have strayed, no matter what he seems to have done—can we know our own Identity as well.
We can share in the blessing that is ours only as one. In this way our dream is transformed. In this way we are made ready for awakening.
"Dream softly of your sinless brother, who unites with you in holy innocence. And from this dream the Lord of Heaven will Himself awaken His beloved So."