The Gospel reading for this week is commonly called “The Prodigal Son.” If we take “protagonist” to designate the main character of the story, it is certainly neither of the two sons, but rather the father; for the father initiates all the significant actions. He gives the younger son the inheritance due to him. He welcomes him back after his disastrous life away from the family. He pleads with the elder son to come into the party celebrating the young man’s return. From a merely literary standpoint, then, the father is the main character in the parable.
To understand why the father functions as the hero, we must go to the opening lines of the Gospel. There we learn that tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus. We also discover that others were grumbling about this situation. In order to answer the complaints, Jesus tells three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. The shepherd searches for the sheep as does the woman for the coin. And, “… while [the younger son] was still far off; his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” The conclusion of each parable indicates that there was rejoicing and celebration over the return of what was lost.
What about the other son who was lost also and refused to come in and join the celebration? Even here, the father’s action is noteworthy. Pleading with this son, the father invites him to acknowledge that his brother who was lost and dead is now found and alive. Simply put, the invitation for this elder son is to act like the father and the others by rejoicing in the good fortune of the younger son’s return. For when God acts, mere fidelity is trumped by mercy and love.
During the early part of Lent, we work to reform our lives by performing the three tasks of the season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As we celebrate this Laetare Sunday, the Lenten emphasis shifts from our efforts to God’s action. Since the season concludes with the great paschal mystery, we can figuratively say that, even in our case, God, like the father, is filled with compassion, runs to us, puts his arms around us and kisses us. Since Jesus taught that the Father is a God of abundance, in the paschal mystery, God provides for humanity more extravagantly than anything we could imagine or desire.
During the final two weeks of Lent and Holy Week, even though we continue our Lenten practices, we now make God the center of attention as he prepares the final celebration of having found what was lost. In the second reading, Paul says, “All this is from God, who reconciled himself through Christ.”
Jesuit Fr. Jack Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.