In addition to being one of the most familiar Gospel passages, the story of the loving father from Luke 15:11-32 is a classic of world literature, often appearing in anthologies as an example of a perfect short story.
We all know that the younger son left home and led a life of dissipation. The elder son stayed home and did whatever work was required of him. The father missed the younger son during the time he was away and depended on the elder son to ensure that the estate ran efficiently. Each of us at different times in our lives might identify with one or other of the sons. Sometimes we run astray and must return to our father because our own lives have become a disaster. Sometimes we are dutiful and lead lives of integrity and honesty. So, we are really both children.
The main character of the story, however, is the father who endures the whimsies of both children. The one wants adventure and freedom from the boring life of the estate. The other obeys, but does so grudgingly, performing his tasks from duty rather than love. Despite this, the father continues to love both of them. When the younger son returns, the father’s only response is to get him cleaned up and then have a feast, for the son who was lost has been found, the one who was thought dead is alive. When the older son refuses to come to the feast, the father comes out to listen to the son’s complaint. He responds by pointing out that everything he has belongs to the older son. He urges the older son to rejoice because his brother has come home.
When we put this story in the context of the other two parables that appear in Luke 15 (the lost sheep and the lost coin), we realize that all three of the parables are about God eternally seeking out what is lost. Luke introduces the chapter by saying, “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain saying that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, Jesus tells them the three parables of the loving father with two sons, the lost coin and the lost sheep.
We can get so caught up in the various details of the story of the loving father that we miss the whole point of the father’s love and actions. He loves both sons. He invites both to the feast even though they come from very different ways of living. If we understand the father as an image for God, embedded in the father’s love for and treatment of his sons, we discover a call to a way of life modeled on God’s own life. The parable presents us with a hidden invitation to be like God who loves all his children. As such, the invitation asks us to put aside all division among ourselves because our adversaries also share God’s unifying love.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.