Jesus begins the parable of the prodigal son by saying, “A father had two sons.” One quickly discovers that these two sons have quite different personalities. The younger son is free-spirited and adventuresome; he wants to experience the world and all that it has to offer. The elder son stays at home living in a smaller, much more restricted world. It is very easy for us to identify with one or the other of these young men. We realize that our lives at one time or another manifest characteristics of each. Sometimes we set out on our own not realizing the consequence of our actions. Sometimes we stay at home and resent all that is required of us.
Paying attention to the sons sometimes causes us to forget the father who raised both children. In his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming,” Henri Nouwen points out the necessity for us to pay attention to the father. He even claims that we should become like the father. It is significant that the church places the reading of this parable during Lent, for it seems to require much more than simply giving up certain items or practices during this season. The thrust of this parable illustrates that there is a place for both sons in the father’s house.
The father functions as the one who unifies his family by accepting and inviting both sons into the party. As the younger son returns, “the father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” Then the father plans a party. As the elder son comes in from the fields and refuses to come to the party, “his father came out and pleaded with him.” The father explains to the young man, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” Both sons react to the party differently but it is obvious that the party is for both of them. The father accepts each of them. Both of them are his sons.
If we take the father in the parable to be an image of God, then we too must accept others just as they are, just as God acknowledges us without qualification. What starts out as a family drama becomes an icon for all of human social life. Some are adventurers, some are stay-at-homes. Some are wealthy, some are poor. Some are white or black or brown or yellow. Still, all are sons and daughters of one Father who is God. All are invited to the party regardless of our different approaches and backgrounds. The lesson we learn from the parable comes from a realization that the father forgives hurts and rejections from his sons just as God continues to forgive all of us as his children.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.