What does ‘prodigal’ mean? Right. Recklessly wasteful. Lavish, extravagant—but in a destructive way.
The son asked for his inheritance, and the Father let him go. The young man sought adventure. He wanted to see, to experience, to know about the world beyond his home.
The older brother had no such sense of adventure. For this reason, we like him less. His younger brother might have squandered his inheritance in a thoroughly undignified manner. But at least the prodigal son never whined, never pouted like a baby. The older son seems not to have appreciated just how wonderful his father’s house really was.
The father anchors the whole parable, an infallibly wise and loving presence. If going off for an adventure, like Bilbo Baggins—if that were a sin in and of itself, then the father would never have allowed the younger son to go.
But he did let his son go. He gave his son the money. You are a free man, my son. Go as you wish. The world is yours.
This father, we see, knows the world. He knows that the world is, indeed, a place of adventure. Dangerous, yes. Hard to navigate all by yourself, yes. But fundamentally evil? No.
When the prodigal returned home, the father saw him a long way off. The father’s gaze extends into the world. The good father looks upon the world with appreciation and esteem.
How can we not like the adventuresome son? He starts out full of himself, to be sure. He’s insensitive to the feelings of his father and brother. He is tragically unrealistic about himself. But he has courage. He has energy. This world has something to offer, if only we go looking for it! Let’s have some fun! Let’s get off our duffs and rock and roll!
Likable. Fun. But what’s missing? The fundamental truth of who he is.
‘Hey, you’re a barrel of laughs, buddy. But aren’t you…aren’t you Lord Such-a-one’s son? Aren’t you the son of the most noble, gracious, and beneficent man in this country? Don’t you and your brother stand to inherit the great estate, the estate that supports the entire economy of this region?
‘Couldn’t you have champagne and music and everything you want—within reasonable limits of decency and religion—couldn’t you have it all right there at home? Gosh, I remember reading in the paper that you were supposed to marry Lady So-and-so—beautiful, virtuous, mysterious, and demure. Isn’t that who you are, buddy?’
Our rebellion: The heavenly Father erects a home for us, with faith for its beautiful floorboards. He builds this house for us, full of the light of day. We get to share the house with people who really are not so altogether annoying. This house has order and peace, because our heavenly Father governs it. When we follow His rules and trust Him, he feeds us and gives us heartwarming wine to drink. Above all, He gives us a certain hope: ‘Everything that you want, the desire that grips you in a way you can’t even understand: You will have it. You will be satisfied. Do not doubt it. Just salute the sun in My sky every morning, do your daily work, say your prayers, and love your neighbor—and all will be wonderfully well, forever.’
He gives us this safe mansion of faith to live in. But somewhere deep in the darkest basement of our souls, a sinister voice whispers: ‘You don’t deserve it. It’s too good for you. You aren’t really a prince of this realm. Take a walk, and find your own kind: in the gutter.’
Thus the Enemy drove the lovable son to the pathetic extremes of prodigality. “My father’s son? No, man. I’m just a loser.” Then he ran farther away, to find a place where no one would know him.
In the end, the money ran out. Hunger crept in. The sun rose and found the lovable young man in the sty with the unclean beasts.
No money. No clothes. No champagne. The music had long since stopped. What kind of adventure is this? The world runs its course, and its pleasures do not satisfy.
But the lovable young man still had one thing left: himself. He paused. He stopped. He found a moment of silence and truth. And he saw into the center of himself. As Pope-Emeritus Benedict put it: In his heart, the prodigal son found a compass pointing to his father.
Here’s a question. Where is the image of Christ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? We see Christ clearly enough in the Parable of the Lost Sheep: Christ is the shepherd. But where is Christ in the parable of the prodigal?
Again, I rely on Pope Benedict’s teaching. We see the lordly, generous father, who won’t even listen to his son’s entire confession of sin. Instead, the father starts the music and pours champagne—because his son has remembered who he is. The prince has come home to the castle.
How do we know that this infallibly gracious and loving father is our Father? How is the face of the infinitely merciful heavenly Father revealed? One way: Christ. Christ crucified for us. Christ crucified shows us that the prodigal son’s father is our Father, too.