The Parable of the Prodigal Son - we are like each of the sons

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C

by Fr. Tommy Lane

The Parable of the Prodigal son in today’s Gospel (Luke 15) is most beautiful. Whenever we hear a parable, to benefit from it, we compare ourselves to each of the characters in the parable to see what similarities we have with them. I would like to help us do that by looking firstly at the figure of the younger son in the parable and then at the elder son.

The younger son had a dissatisfaction, a longing for something and so he tried to satisfy it by going away and living a loose life. If there is dissatisfaction in us, a longing for something that we don’t have, we could look on that as longing for God. St. Augustine said,

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
And our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

The unfortunate thing is that the further we are from our Father, the more difficult it is for us to hear his voice. The father did not go in search of the younger son. The son had to make the decision himself to come back. If the father had gone in search of the younger son, no doubt he would have resented it. The son had to make the decision himself, “I will arise and go to my father” (Luke 15:18). That is a decision we all have to make, to leave the illusions of happiness that the world offers us and go to our Father. If we follow the illusions of false happiness with which the world tries to seduce us we will end up with the pigs in the pigpen. This image of the younger son which the parable offers us is shocking but it is a symbol of the mess we could get ourselves into by blindly following the selfishness of the world. To help us see in what ways we may be like the younger son I would like to read for you some comments on the younger son that I have found in spiritual writers:

“Never to grow up ‑ never to outgrow God. That is a goal of the spiritual life. Never to foolishly think that we can make it on our own without God or grace. The false self tries to convince me that the really important things in life are based upon what I do, upon my abilities. If I buy into that illusion, I begin to take charge. I begin wielding power. I become manipulative. I insist upon things being done my way. I demand what I think is rightfully mine and, like the prodigal son, off I go! This independent, self-sufficient approach to life is the fundamental sin of so many of us...It is the refusal of grace…It is Adam and Eve reaching for the apple all over again. But, luckily, self-sufficiency can take us only so far. Sooner or later we run up against a brick wall…We finish eating the apple and discover, a few hours later, that we are hungry again. We gradually realize where we actually are and where we truly belong.”
(taken from Swimming in the Sun page 134 by Albert Haase, published and copyright 1993 by St Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, OH, USA and used by permission of the publishers.)

The point is that if we are to make progress in the spiritual life we need to rely not on ourselves but on God. Relying less on ourselves and more on God are signs of spiritual growth.

“The whole Christian life is a life in which the further a person progresses, the more he has to depend directly on God...The more we progress, the less we are self-sufficient. The more we progress, the poorer we get so that the man who has progressed most, is totally poor ‑ he has to depend directly on God. He’s got nothing left in himself.”
(from Monastic Spirituality: Citeaux Tape AA2083 by Thomas Merton; recorded and copyright by Credence Cassettes, Kansas City, MO, USA, and used by permission of the publishers.)

The younger son got lost in life and became addicted for a time to the pleasures of this world:

““Addiction” might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates contemporary society. Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in “the distant country,” leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in “a distant country.””
(from The Return of the Prodigal Son pages 42-43 by Henri Nouwen, published and copyright 1992 by Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd and used by permission of the publishers.)

I am sure each of us can see some similarities between the younger son in the parable and ourselves. Now I would like to look at the character of the elder son in the parable to see if we are in any way similar to him. The elder son, despite the fact that he was with his father all those years, was shocked that his father threw the party. He still didn’t know or understand his father’s heart; maybe the servants understood his father better. The elder son never felt accepted, appreciated or loved by his father. That was his problem. So his resentment towards his younger brother was really pointing to a deeper wound; he did not feel loved. The older son had no real relationship with his father. He was distant and aloof. He was like the Pharisees and scribes who complained about Jesus’ ministry to sinners in Luke 15:2. For years he had done the right thing but with the wrong attitude. “Lo these many years I have served you” (Luke 15: 29). The elder son didn’t recognize his brother as his brother, “this son of yours” (Luke 15:30). The elder son has been called the prodigal who stayed at home. He is also lost, but his lostness is more difficult to see. So the parable is about a loving father and two prodigal sons or two lost sons! We are all like the elder son in the sense that none of us yet knows our Father’s heart. During the remainder of this season of Lent let us try to get to know our Father’s heart better. We come to Mass and try to live a good life; let us also try to get to know our Father’s heart better.

Now I would like to look at the figure of the father in the parable. Obviously the father in the parable represents God our Father in heaven. We notice from these parables that God is somehow incomplete if not loved by us! When we come back to God he throws a party! Love is a risk, it depends on the response of the other person. Yet God has taken that gamble with us. How does God feel when we don’t respond? The prophets said that God feels like a husband abandoned by his wife when we forget about God. Does God ever grow tired of loving us? No, God keeps believing in love and in our potential to respond.

“It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God. Yes, God needs me as much as I need God. God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn’t move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their aberrant behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. To the contrary, he leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running toward them, pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to the table richly prepared for them.
(from The Return of the Prodigal Son page 106 by Henri Nouwen, published and copyright 1992 by Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd and used by permission of the publishers.)

Often we are told that we are not good enough, that we have to earn love. This may hurt our relationship with God. Also our sin gives us a warped outlook on life and on God. God made us in his image and likeness but since the Fall of Adam and Eve we make God in our image and likeness. But Jesus’ picture of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son, the picture of our Father in heaven, is a loving merciful Father with arms thrown wide, ready to forgive and forget. Only Jesus, the sinless one, could have drawn such a picture of God. Notice what the father says to the elder son “All that is mine is yours” (v 31). I think that is the most beautiful statement in the parable. Our heavenly Father keeps opening his arms to us also and saying “All that is mine is yours.”

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in a parish in Maryland near where I have joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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