“A man had two sons.” When I hear those five words, I immediately settle myself to listen once again to the story of the Prodigal Son. It happened again this past Sunday. Many people consider this the most well-known parable in the Bible, and one can hardly argue that point. Any careful hearing introduces one to characters, personalities, and relationships that challenge us, even as they invite self-examination.
When I proclaim this Gospel story, I want to do so in a way that highlights the care with which the tale unfolds. Three clearly defined and equally sized divisions focus in a particular way upon each of the characters—the younger son, the father, and the older son. Within these sections, aspects of the makeup of each of these individuals emerge. One does not read the Scripture as a dramatic interpretation of a text, but elements of the dialogue and movement really do beg for distinctive emphasis and understanding. Just notice, for example, the way in which the words “father,” “son,” and “brother” are used.
An analysis of each of the persons in the story would reward our study, but let me single out the way in which the father responds to his younger son’s return. It captures my heart.
While [the younger son] was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
The action is swift and decisive:
- The father spots his son while he is “still a long way off.” He has not simply been waiting for his son to arrive at home and knock on the door; he has been watching for him. One can imagine him frequently scanning the road as far as he could see in hope of catching a glimpse of his son returning.
- The father is “filled with compassion:” not anger, not satisfaction, not indifference but compassion. The Father feels the hurt and need in his son. We can remember how often the Gospel texts tell us that Jesus is “filled with compassion” when he provides for the hungry or heals the blind, leprous, and possessed.
- The father “runs” to his son. He rushes to his child to cut down on the time of their separation. He brings the energy and momentum to his return.
- The father “embraces him and kisses him.” This candid parent loves his offspring and is not afraid to show it even—and especially—now at his return.
The lessons of mercy, forgiveness and love define every action of the father.
The parable of the “prodigal son” has much to teach. Perhaps foremost is the message that God loves each of us without qualification or condition. Knowing this truth makes the Lenten journey home easier and more direct.