The Parable of the Merciful Father
Although commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son this story in the gospel today is misnamed. It should rather be called: “the parable of the merciful Father” for the story concentrates all its attention on the compassion of the father, not the sinful prodigality of the wastrel son. The father simply longs for his son to return. Indeed St John Chrysostom explains that this must be our interest in the story as sinners. He says: “This parable then was written to the end that sinners should not despair of returning, knowing that they shall obtain great things.”
When we sin we claim that we do not despair of returning to our heavenly Father, yet this is often not true. We may be so weighed down by our sin and our inability to do anything about it that, despairing of ourselves, we begin to think that God despairs of us as well. This thought, is from the devil and it must be confessed and rejected for the evil garbage it actually is. God never despairs of anyone no matter how many times he should sin, even the same sin, over and over and over again. What is deadly to the soul is giving up on both confession and the resolve, over and over and over again, to better one’s life with the assistance of divine grace. Such persistence is built upon a conviction that God’s mercy and compassion outstrips our weak and often ineffectual act of repentance. If we could just let his superabundant merciful love, lavished so freely upon us, melt every the hardness in our hearts, then we should find our lives changing more rapidly.
If we look at this parable again but concentrate on the father’s actions, new insights into the power of the gospel to change our lives will arise. First of all we note that the father actually agreed to his younger son’s outrageous request that he be given his share of his inheritance, even before his father’s death. To the father his son was still very much alive but as far as the son was concerned his father might as well be dead. He was going to have all that was due to him, now!
We may puzzle that the father agreed to the request for he must have known that his son would make a mess of things. Parents often find themselves in this position, knowing that their children may be about to sin and yet also knowing that at this time they must grant them their freedom to make their own choices and learn through their mistakes.
St Ambrose of Milan explains thus: “Now you see that the Divine patrimony is given to them that seek; nor think it wrong in the father that he gave it to the younger, for no age is weak in the kingdom of God; faith is not weighed down by years.” (St. Ambrose of Milan)
He means that God treats us as responsible in order to make us responsible. Youth is no barrier to this learning and the wisdom that is granted to it by repentance. So, just like God, the Father takes a risk. He grants freedom to his son, even when he knows what is to come, because that freedom, with all its attendant risk, is vital to maturity. He gives his son what he asks, knowing both the cost and the danger. So, we should be careful what we pray for!
Next we observe that the father ran out to accept his returning son before any confession could be made. Let us listen again to St Ambrose of Milan:
“He runs then to meet you, because He hears you within meditating the secrets of your heart, and when you were yet afar off, He runs lest anyone should stop Him. He embraces also, (for in the running there is foreknowledge, in the embrace mercy,) and as if by a certain impulse of paternal affection, falls upon your neck, that he may raise up him that is cast down, and bring back again to heaven him that was loaded with sins and bent down to the earth. I had rather then be a son than a sheep. For the sheep is found by the shepherd, the son is honoured by the father.”
How much better then to be a son rather than a sheep! As sons and daughters we can know God the Father as the one who will stop at nothing to get us back home. As we stumble towards him, he runs on ahead towards us, meeting us more than halfway. As we cast our eyes downwards in shame, he falls upon our necks with his sweet embrace and bids us not be sad. As we fall he holds us strongly, raising us up to Himself, that is to heaven. This gladdens His Heart and because He himself rejoices, like the father in the parable, God lavishes gifts upon us and calls a great feast. St John Chrysostom says:
“For the father himself rejoices in the return of his son, and feasts on the calf, because the Creator, rejoicing in the acquisition of a believing people, feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son. Hence it follows, ‘For this my son was dead, and is alive again.’”
“By the sacrifice of His Son” refers of course to the cross. This is how we know how much God loves us in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The feast in the parable, therefore, is the sacrifice, not now of a calf, but of Christ Himself for the life of the world.
The astounding generosity of God’s love, however, sometimes provokes jealousy amongst those who think that the good times of God’s kingdom should be earned by long service. They do not wish to understand the teaching of our Lord that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” (Matthew 20:16)
This is the resentment of course of the elder son; yet the final action of the father in the parable is yet another expression of that self-same love that He has for all. In a word, the father did not rebuke his grumpy elder son but gave him assurance of his love and invited him to share in the joy of his brother’s return and acceptance. As St Augustine affirms:
“But the father does not rebuke him as a liar, but commending his steadfastness with him invites him to the perfection of a better and happier rejoicing. Hence it follows, ‘But he said to him, Son, you are ever with me.’”
Poignantly perhaps, the story does not give us the elder son’s reaction to his father’s appeal. We are reminded that God’s love and generosity, his infinite compassion and mercy can always be rejected. The parable wants us here that we should not be found amongst those whose love is false by being constricted and small. It is a lifelong task perhaps for all of us to learn how to love others as God loves all, yet we had better learn this before we die because in the next life we shall live with our choices, for good or for ill.