Two Sons and a Father
This parable, often called “The Prodigal Son,” is perhaps the most studied of all of Jesus’ pithy little stories. It has been called “The Gospel in Miniature,” for its message of mercy and forgiveness. All the accolades are well deserved.
In its full form, it is far longer than any other parable. In fact, it is two stories, in sequence. The first, and better known, tells of a brash younger son who asks for his inheritance early, and goes and wastes it, ending up penniless. He comes back and begs his father for mercy. (His mother is nowhere mentioned.) Many of us can identify with the young man who makes very bad choices. Many of us also can identify with the father, who is so glad to have his son back safe and sound.
The second part concerns the older son. Here the meanings and emotions become more complicated. The older son seems ungracious when he learns of his father’s lavish reception of the wayward younger man. He is jealous (one of many tales of sibling rivalry in scripture). It’s easy for many of us who have siblings to understand his reaction.
But upon close reading, we realize that the father has completely left his older son out. The father has not even called the older son in from the fields to come to the “welcome home” party. The father has sinned against his more faithful son.
So all three figures here are complex: all have strengths, all have failings. Their humanity draws us into the story; we too are human beings who are sometimes virtuous and sometimes hurtful. In families, we often screw things up. Such is life. Jesus’ teaching is about forgiveness, given and received. Without it, our relationships will wither and die. JBM