The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming – Part 3: The Father

While he was still aa long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him… the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate. …his father came out and began to urge him to come in… The father said, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”

The Father Welcomes Home

Luke’s story makes it very clear that the father goes out to both of his children. Not only does he run out to welcome the younger wayward son, but he comes out also to meet the elder, dutiful son as he returns from the fields wondering what the music and dancing are all about and urges him to come in.

We do not choose God, God chooses us. From all eternity we are hidden “in the shadow of God’s hand” and “engraved on his palm.” Before any human being touches us, God “forms us in secret” and “textures us” in the depth of the earth, and before any human being decides about us, God “knits us together in our mother’s womb.” God loves us before any human person can show love to us. He loves us with a “first” love, an unlimited, unconditional love, wants us to be his beloved children, and tells us to become as loving as himself.

I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home. In all three parables which Jesus tells in response to the question of why he eats with sinners, he puts the emphasis on God’s initiative. God is the shepherd who goes looking for this lost sheep. God is the woman who lights a lamp, sweeps out the house, and searches everywhere for her lost coin until she has found it. God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home.

Many consumerist economies stay afloat by manipulating the low self-esteem of their consumers and by creating spiritual expectations through material means. As long as I am kept “small,” I can easily be seduced to buy things, meet people, or go places that promise a radical change in self-concept even though they are totally incapable of bringing this about.

The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother. It is the fountain of all true human love, even the most limited. Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives. It is love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.

The Father Calls For A Celebration

The father does not even give his son a chance to apologize. He pre-empts his son’s begging by spontaneous forgiveness and puts aside his pleas as completely irrelevant in the light of the joy at his return. But there is more. Not only does the father forgive without asking questions and joyfully welcome his lost son home, but he cannot wait to give him new life, life in abundance. So strongly does God desire to give life to his returning son that he seems almost impatient. Nothing is good enough. The very best must be given to him. While the son is prepared to be treated as a hired servant, the father calls for the robe reserved for a distinguished guest; and, although the son no longer feels worthy to be called son, the father gives him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet to honor him as his beloved son and restore him as his heir.

Celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom. God not only offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, but wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them. In all three of the parables (lamp, coin, brother) which Jesus tells to explain why he eats with sinners, God rejoices and invites others to rejoice with him. “Rejoice with me,” the shepherd says, “I have found my sheep that was lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the woman says, “I have found the drachma I lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the father saus, “this son of mine was lost and is found.”

The father wants all the people around him to join him around the table, to eat and dance with him. This is not a private affair. This is something for all in the family to celebrate in gratitude.

Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming – Part 2: The Elder Son

Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property -he and his loose women- you kill the calf we had been fattening.” (Luke 15:25-30)

The elder son leaves

The main observer, watching the father embracing his returning son, appears very withdrawn.

This parable might well be called “The Parable of the Lost Sons.: Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree.

This is not something unique. There are many elder sons and elder daughters who are lost while still at home.

The lostness of the elder son, however, is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.

There is so much frozen anger among the people who are so concerned about avoiding “sin”.

Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually?

Whenever I express my complaints in the hope of evoking pity and receiving the satisfaction I so much desire, the result is always the opposite of what I tried. A complainer is hard to live with, and very few people know how to respond to the complaints made by a self-rejecting person. The tragedy is that, often, the complaint, once expressed, leads to that which is most feared: further rejection.

The story says: “Calling one of the servants, he asked what it was all about.” There is the fear that I am excluded again, that someone didn’t tell me what was going on, that I was kept out of things. The complaint resurges immediately: “Why was I not informed, what is this all about?” The unsuspecting servant, full of excitement and eager to share the good news, explains: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.” But this shout of joy cannot be received. Instead of relief and gratitude, the servant’s joy summons up the opposite: “He was angry then and refused to go in.” Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal.

Is the elder brother willing to acknowledge that he is not better than his brother?

It leaves us face to face with one of life’s hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not to trust in God’s all-forgiving love.

Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs.

The elder son’s return

The Father’s love does not force itself on the beloved. Although he wants to heal us of all our inner darkness, we are still free to make our own choice to stay in the darkness or to step into the light of God’s love. God is there. God’s light is there. God’s forgiveness is there. God’s boundless love is there. What is so clear is that God is always there, always ready to give and forgive, absolutely independent of our response. God’s love does not depend on our repentance or our inner or outer changes.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The harsh and bitter reproaches of the elder son are not met with words of judgement. The father does not defend himself or even comment on the elder son’s behaviour.

God is urging me to come home, to enter into his light, and to discover there that, in God, all people are uniquely and completely loved.

It is not surprising that, in his anger, the elder son complains to the father: “…you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property -he and his loose women- you kill the calf we had been fattening.” These words reveal how deeply hurt this man must feel. His self-esteem is painfully wounded by his father’s joy, and his own anger prevents him from accepting this returning scoundrel as his brother. With the words “this son of yours” he distances himself from his brother as well as from his father.

Here I see how lost the elder son is. He has become a foreigner in his own house. True communion is gone. Every relationship is pervaded by the darkness.

I know the pain of this predicament. In it, everything loses its spontaneity. Everything becomes suspect, self-conscious, calculated, and full of second-guessing. There is no longer any trust. Each little move calls for a countermove; each little remark begs for analysis; the smallest gesture has to be evaluated. This is the pathology of the darkness.

The words of the father in the parable: “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours” express the true relationship of God the Father with Jesus his Son.


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The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming – Part 1: The Younger Son

The younger son said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.” So he left the place and went back to his father. (Luke 15:12-20)

The Younger Son Leaves

Implicit in the “return” is a leaving. The immense joy in welcoming back the lost son hides the immense sorrow that has gone before. The finding has the losing in the background, the returning has the leaving under its cloak. Only when I have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can I come to a true understanding of the return.

The evangelist Luke tells it all so simply and so matter-of-factly that it is difficult to realize fully that what is happening here is an unheard-of event: hurtful, offensive, and in radical contradiction to the most venerated tradition of the time. The son’s manner of leaving is tantamount to wishing his father dead.

The implication of ‘Father, I cannot wait for you to die’ underlies both (the division of the inheritance and the right to dispose his father of his part) requests. The younger son speaks about a drastic cutting loose from the way of living, thinking, and acting that has been handed down to him from generation to generation as a sacred legacy. More than disrespect, it is a betrayal of the treasured values of family and community.

In essence the son says that he can do a better job on his own than together with his father and brother in asking for his piece of the inheritance.

Leaving home is, then, much more than an historical event bound to time and place. It is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to.

Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests” -the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, the second Adam; the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light.

When I hear that voice, I know that I am home with God and have nothing to fear. 

Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.

The true voice of love is a very soft and gentle voice speaking to me in the most hidden places of my being. It is not a boisterous voice, forcing itself on me and demanding attention. It is the voice of a nearly blind father who has cried much and died many deaths. It is a voice that can only be heard by those who allow themselves to be touched.

Sensing the touch of God’s blessing hands and hearing the voice calling me the Beloved are one and the same. Something very tender, called by some a soft breeze and by others a small voice.

But, there are many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. 

Almost from the moment I had ears to hear, I heard those voices, and they have stayed with me ever since. And they say: “Show me that you are a good boy. You had better be better than your friend! How are your grades? Be sure you can make it through school! I sure hope you are going to make it on your own! What are your connections? Are you sure you want to be friends with those people? These trophies certainly show how good a player you were! Don’t show your weakness, you’ll be used! Have you made all the arrangements for you old age? When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When you are dead, you are dead!”

It is not very hard for me to know when this is happening. Anger, resentment, jealousy, desire for revenge, lust, greed, antagonisms, and rivalries are the obvious signs that I have left home. 

I am so afraid of being disliked, blamed, put aside, passed over, ignored, persecuted, and killed, that I am constantly developing strategies to defend myself and thereby assure myself of the love I think I need and deserve. And in so doing I move far away from my father’s home and choose to dwell in a “distant country”.

At issue here is the question: “To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?

The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain “hooked” to the world -trying, failing, and trying again.

It was love itself that prevented the father from keeping his son home at all cost. It was love itself that allowed him to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it.

The Younger Son’s Return

What were the inner consequences of the son’s leaving home? The sequence of events is quite predictable. The farther I run away from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the Beloved, and the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations and power games of the world.

The younger son became fully aware of how lost he was when no one in his surroundings showed the slightest interest in him. They noticed him only as long as he could be used for their purposes. But when he had no money left to spend and no gifts left to give, he stopped existing for them.

Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common.

It was this complete lostness that brought him to his senses. He had become so disconnected from what gives life -family, friends, community, acquaintances, and even food.

In retrospect, it seems that the prodigal had to lose everything to come into touch with the ground of his being.

Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation.

One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness. The question is, do I truly want to be restored to the full responsibility of the son? Do I truly want to be so totally forgiven that a completely new way of living becomes possible? Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and renewing. As long as I want to do even a part of that myself, I end up with partial solutions, such as becoming a hired servant.

Jesus goes up onto the mountain, gathers his disciples around him, and says: “How blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness.”

These words present a portrait of the child of God. It is a self portrait of Jesus, the Beloved Son. It is also a portrait of me as I must be. The Beatitudes offer me the simplest route for the journey home, back into the house of my Father. And along this route I will discover the joys of the second childhood: comfort, mercy, and an ever clearer vision of God. And as I reach home and feel the embrace of my Father, I will realize that not only heaven will be mine to claim, but that the earth as well will become my inheritance, a place where I can live in freedom without obsessions and compulsions.

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