The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Written by John Paul Rainone
A story that I have developed a great appreciation for is the parable of The Prodigal Son, found in the gospel of Luke (15:11-32). Reading this parable and an essay done by Bishop Robert Barron regarding the tale, I have discovered a plethora of great values and teachings within it that I myself am moved by and would like to share.
For those that are not familiar with this parable, the story told by Christ goes (in summary) as follows:
The youngest of two sons demands his inheritance from his father, so that he might go off and live his life how he wants. The father abides by the younger son’s demands and the son travels to a distant country. There, the son “squandered his property in dissolute living”. He spends all he has, and a famine breaks out in the country, so he is forced to search for a job in which he hires himself to a citizen who sends him out to feed the pigs. The son is left in severe poverty, wanting to eat from the pig’s pods, but “no one gave him anything”. He comes to realize that even his father’s servants are living better than he is and decides that he must go back and apologize to his father for the wrongs he has committed.
Upon his return, the father runs to his son and embraces him with a kiss. The son cries, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”. The father does not rebuke his son, but calls for a celebration, ordering the servants to dress the son in his finest clothes and prepare a fatted calf saying, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
The elder son, however, has much contempt for his younger brother, feeling that he himself has been treated unfairly. The elder son complains to his father, arguing that he has worked for him and never disobeyed him once and yet was not treated as the younger brother is now. The father replies to his elder son, “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”.
I believe this parable that Christ tells is often underestimated in its value and teachings. Many readers only scratch the surface of what it has to say about humanity and our role with God and his Love. Bouncing off of an essay done by Bishop Barron (no title given), I would like to break down this short story and provide a much deeper meaning to it.
First of all, one ought to realize the significance of the younger son’s actions in the beginning of the story. By demanding his share of the inheritance, the son is essentially saying to his father’s face that he would rather him dead. He wants his father’s property, something he can call his own without having ties and therefore cuts off his relationship from his father. The son believes that happiness will come by taking what his father has. By demanding the inheritance, however, this gift of sorts is no longer made a gift. For something to be a gift, it must be given, used for others, not clung to. The father is almost certainly hurt by this demand but respects the son’s will.
The son then travels to a place where there is no sense of gift and giving at all. Everyone, including himself, is seeking their own benefit, and, by the end of it all, “no one gave him anything”. The son spends all his money trying to satisfy himself through worldly pleasures only to be left dissatisfied, unhappy, and everything, quite literally, withered around him. He realizes the effects of turning a gift into a possession: A gift is meant to be shared, spread, cultivated. If it be clung to and used for one’s own happiness, it dissipates and never grows, and that gift is now weak; that happiness is left without foundation. As Master Oogway says in Kung Fu Panda: 3, “The more you take, the less you have”, so too is this shown through the son’s lust for worldliness.
The prodigal son, impoverished in both body and spirit and desperate for love, is now left with a choice. He can either stay where he is, empty in a loveless land that gives nothing, or return to his father and beg for mercy and forgiveness. Beg for love.
The son returns home, exhausted, miserable, filled with sorrow and empty in joy. It is here, where we turn to the father’s actions. He does not look down on his son with disgust or hatred but chases him down and embraces him upon his return. Like in any society, it is considered wrong for an elderly man to get up for someone younger than him. The younger one should come to him out of respect. The father, however, filled with love for his son, throws out respectability unwaveringly. The son neither earns nor deserves the gifts that his father offers, but that is exactly what makes them gifts.
A gift cannot be earned or demanded, only accepted and embraced. He has returned to the graceful life with his father; a renewed, love-flowing life of giving and receiving. Relating to this story, Saint Pope John Paul II makes the remark in his writing, Mercy of the Father, saying:
[M]ercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes, and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission.
The mercy of the father in this story is powerful and inspiring. The son has repented, and the father has forgiven. Their love is abundant.
The story does not end here, however, for the elder son is said to harbor feelings of contempt for his younger brother. But really, he is in the same spot as the younger brother was. Just like him, the older brother wants to claim his father’s happiness as his own possession. He does not demand the gifts like the younger brother but has attempted to labor for them. Again, we come to see that a gift cannot be earned or clung to when received. Here the father explains his relationship to his elder son saying that all he has he shares with him. He helps both sons to realize that they are not trying to obtain what he has but are to live coherently with him and accept the gift of his life.
The father and son share a grace-filled life of constant, reciprocal giving and receiving of love. This is the relationship between our heavenly Father and Son, one God, whose shared Love is the Holy Spirit. A strong Love that is shared, grown, and cultivated. Coincidently, I write this work on the solemnity of the most Holy Trinity.
Additionally, I encourage my readers to view the painting done by Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, a piece of art that, viewed with this knowledge, is quite powerful.