On the Gospel of Luke (15:1-32)
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most famous and discussed stories of Jesus. The father welcoming his wayward son back with a warm embrace has become an ionic image of forgiveness and God’s love for each one of us. In response to the narrow minded grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees who complain “This fellow welcomes sinner and eats with them”, Jesus shows us how the mercy of God smashes apart such hardhearted and narrow ideas, drawing all of us, despite our faults and failing to his embrace, calling us to true conversion of life.
I think that at the heart of this story is the question of human freedom. God loves each of us and wants us to be truly free. He gives us the power to accept or deny him. He does not wish to force us to love him. He allows us to choose. This is an immense privilege and responsibility that requires maturity and reflection. This is the choice faced by the two sons in this parable. The younger son, wanting to be free of his father and family, asks for his share of the inheritance. He journeys to a place far distant from his father and quickly wastes all he has on dissolute living. But has his quest for freedom as he sees it made him happier or truly free? As soon as he has spent everything he has, he finds himself in the midst of a severe famine. When his wealth and luxury desert him, he finds that at the heart of who he is, both internally and externally, he is really impoverished, empty and hungry. In trying so hard to be free he has found himself anything but free. Only when he has hit rock bottom and honestly acknowledges this truth to himself does he realise that in returning to his father he will find the nourishment and help he needs. So, hungry and tired, the son gets up and travels the long distance back to his father. No doubt he could have stopped off in many places along the way to find work and begin anew life. But he doesn’t. He goes the distance all the way back to his father. Once there he finds his father running to meet him on the road, having waited so long for his return.
By contrast the older son never tries to use his freedom. He has kept this gift locked up in a box, unwilling or afraid to use it. He has waited all his life for his father to hand him things or to tell him to do things. He complains bitterly to his father: “you have never given me even a young goat so that I may celebrate with my friends”. This is not how the father sees it. “Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”. The older brother has never understood that part of his dignity as a son was using his gifts and talents, exercising his freedom. They were his to use. He did not need to ask for a goat because it was already his to use. The father has given him everything and just expects him to make the very best use of it. He expects him to have the maturity to be fully himself. But the older son is afraid of the responsibility of this and prefers to complain about how everything around him is wrong and unjust rather than looking to himself and seeing where he needs to change and grow. One son abuses the freedom his father has given him by going to far, the other son abuses it by refusing to use it at all.
Whatever the faults and failing of either son, the father still goes out to meet both of them to draw them back into his house, to come home. Whether it is running to meet the fallen and hungry younger son on the road or going out to plead with the angry and bitter older son outside the door, the fathers love and mercy remain the same. He goes to meet them. In both cases he wants them to see the truth about themselves. They don’t need to run from him or be afraid of him. They are his son and he wants to share everything with them. He wants them to find out this truth about themselves, to live it in true freedom – the freedom of the sons of God.