The parable of the Prodigal Son forms the main part of the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Few New Testament stories include so much detail. It’s a parable not only about a particular father and son who lived two thousand years ago but about anyone urgently in need of forgiveness and love — a story about confession, pardon, and the healing of shattered relationships.
There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.”
Christ describes a young man so impatient to come into his inheritance and be independent that in effect he says to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re already dead. Give me now what would have come to me after your funeral. I want nothing more to do with you or with this house.” We can only guess what prefaces the story. Perhaps the younger son saw his father as too strict or his home life too confining, too dull. Perhaps he felt less loved than his older brother who seemed always to be a model of good behavior.
Most of us need only to look in the mirror to catch a glimpse of younger brother: someone in a hurry to have what he wants and ready to neglect, even despise, those whom God intends him to love — parents, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, strangers, enemies. The young man of Christ’s story is me.
And he divided his living between them.
With God-like generosity, the father agrees to do what his son asks, though he knows his son well enough to realize that all that the boy receives might as well be burned in the kitchen stove. The boy takes his inheritance and leaves, intending never to return. With money in his pocket, he is at last free of parents, free of his brother, free of domestic morals and good behavior, free of boredom, free to do as he pleases. He is unable to imagine how short-lived his adventure will be, how quickly the money will be spent, or to conceive that not a single person who enjoys the company of a reckless spender will want to see him once he is penniless, or in what loneliness and misery he will eventually find himself.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. He would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
This was a story first told to Jews — thus there was a special poignancy in the detail about the boy being so cut off from his own people that he lived with pigs and ate their food. Jews regard swine as too filthy to raise or eat.
But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.'” And he arose and came to his father.
Near starvation, he finally realizes what a hell he has made for himself. Every door is locked against him. People he had thought of as friends sneer at him. He has made himself filthy in body and soul. He knows he has renounced the claim to be anyone’s son, yet in his desperation and misery dares hope his father might at least allow him to return home as a servant. Full of dismay for what he said to his father and what he did with his inheritance, he walks home in his rags, ready to confess his sins, to beg for work, and to ask for a corner to sleep in.
But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
The son cannot imagine the love his father has for him or the fact that, despite all the trouble he caused, he has been desperately missed. Far from being glad to be rid of the boy, the father has gazed day after day in prayer toward the horizon in hope of his son’s return. Had he not been watching he would not have noticed his child in the distance and realized who it was. Instead of simply standing and waiting for him to reach the door, he ran to meet him, embracing his child, pouring out words of joy and welcome rather than reproof or condemnation.
And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
This is the son’s confession compacted into a single sentence. It is the essence of any confession.
The moment of confession and reunion is what Rembrandt focused on in an etching he made in 1636. The father enfolds his son in much the way an Orthodox priest bends over a person who has completed his confession. The father’s right arm gently rests on his son’s back while his left hand supports his son’s clasped hands. The arrangement of the father’s feet suggests the act of having run toward his child. His face radiates compassion, forgiveness, and anguish for all his son has suffered. While the ravaged face of the kneeling son is marked with the hard times he has known, most of all we see his grief, remorse, and appeal for forgiveness. His hands are clasped in a gesture of urgent prayer. He cannot comprehend his father’s joy.
But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to make merry.
In a stairway to the right two servants are bringing shoes and fresh clothing, though one of them turns his face aside, perhaps in aversion to the boy’s smell. A maid, having pushed open a shuttered window, gazes with amazement at the miracle of reconciliation. Beneath her, Rembrandt has arranged father and son in the form of a triangle, a traditional symbol of the Holy Trinity. The restoration of mutual love between parent and child is an image of the restoration of communion for each repentant person with God. This moment of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation is also the theme of a huge painting by Rembrandt that now hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and is reproduced on this book’s cover.
The story has another layer not hinted at in the etching: the resentment of an older brother.
Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
Hatred can burn hottest within a family. Siblings often bitterly resent each other. The first murder — the first war — involved the sons of Adam and Eve: Cain and Abel. The older brother in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son, while no killer, represents those who take pride in their obedience and good behavior but who fall prey to self-righteousness. The “good boy” arrives home from a day of labor to discover a celebration under way, his unmissed brother at its center, and refuses to take part. Why such joy and honor for someone whom he thought he had seen the last of and whom he regards as worse than a thief? His father has to reassure his older son that his love for him is as great as for his younger son. “Your brother has risen from the grave,” he explains. “Now you must rise with him.” It was as hard for the older brother to welcome the younger as it was for the younger to come home in rags and failure.
At a recent conference on confession in Oxford, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, a former physician who now heads the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, spoke about the Prodigal Son. “This parable is the same experience we have in confession,” he said. “God longs for our return. He cries over our betrayals of him and of ourselves. At the moment we reappear, he rushes to greet us. We discover that we are longed for, we are awaited, we are loved even in our sinfulness, loved with a love that never diminishes, something other than the quiet and peaceful love the father has for the son who has never done wrong. We are met by a father who opens his arms, who is not a judge but a savior.”
He noted too how much each of us resembles the son who took his inheritance and squandered it. “We are no different. All the time we take from God all that he would give, all that we want, and use it according to our own tastes. God gives us life. How do we use it? Occasionally we may think: ‘Wasn’t it kind of him to give me so many things that I want. It was God’s — now it is mine.’ Of course we don’t dare to actually say it. We say it not directly but indirectly. It is a sin against God, a turning away that is more horrible than denying him. We cross the river from God’s realm to Satan’s, where life is more interesting. We leave God to cry over our betrayal. This is sin: turning our back on God for more interesting things. We turn our back on God — God who loved us into existence at risk to himself. We say to God, ‘You are not interesting enough.’ Still, we turn to him occasionally, for he is the provider. We demand more of our inheritance. We sin against God by discarding and despising his gifts. We sin against God in the way we treat people. Yet everyone is loved, loved to the measure of Christ’s death on the cross. He descends into hell for us, to find us even there.”