The Prodigal Father

Lent 4C

Luke 15: 11 32


This reading is part of the Lenten preparation for Easter. The common call to us during this season is "repentance" and true sorrow for sin. There is every possibility that we may be inclined, these days, to react strongly to words like that. We may sense a certain discomfort with what we might call, "religiosity". This parable is not about religiosity. It is about stupidity, for that is what much sin is. But our Lord's purpose in telling it is to help us see beyond human limitations towards real solutions. Those who, in the words of this reading, "come to their senses" begin to see with an enhanced vision. When that happens, things can never be the same again. Let's see how Jesus presents his teaching on the matter.

Notes On Our Reading


In reflecting on this parable it may help to look on it as having three scenes:

1. Verses 11 19 The prodigal son

2. Verses 20 24 The ecstatic father

3. Verses 25 32 The estranged son

This division may also be useful in dealing with the long reading as three clusters rather than 21 verses.

Scene One

Verse 11

The reading opens with the words: "Jesus continued". This is a reference to verses 1— 10 in which he demonstrated how God not only waits for his own to return, but searches out and rejoices at finding them.

Note how our parable begins with the person who the parable is really about: "a man who had two sons."

Verse 12

The story immediately then focuses attention on to the younger of the two sons. The young man asks for, and receives in advance, his share of what would soon become his inheritance.

Verse 13

Not surprisingly, having never had so much purchasing power in his control before, he decides to pack up what he owned, and get as far away as he could from all the old restrictions on his life. In his new found freedom, as he called it, he squandered the whole lot in "wild living."

Verse 14

All was well until a severe famine suddenly swallowed up the little he had left. Then he started to feel the pinch.

Verse 15

With no choice, he had to look for any work he could find, and this turned out to be, of all things, feeding pigs.

Verse 16

Sadly, this did not earn him enough to eat anywhere near as well as the pigs. In fact, given the chance, he would have been pleased to eat what they were getting. No one gave him anything, and matters went from bad to worse. In fact, they could not have been any worse.

Verse 17

Eventually, in his own time (since no one was pushing him), "he came to his senses." Something happened. His eyes were opened to see his real situation. He remembered how it was: "All my father's workers have more to eat than they need and here I am, his son, starving to death."

Verses 18 and 19

He goes straight to the heart of the matter, and prepares to return home and confess all to his father. If his father will forgive him he would be happy to be taken back as the lowest, most junior employed worker and do whatever he is told. He chooses his words carefully and rehearses his little speech ready for the moment he reaches his father's hearing.

Scene Two

Verse 20

Meanwhile, his father has been missing him deeply, and constantly visiting a favourite lookout point hoping for the day his son would return home. Then:

"…while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him".

Five or six words and phrases denote the complete attention devoted to his son.

Verse 21

The son has been waiting for the first opportunity to speak. He goes straight into reciting his carefully prepared confession, which has been well rehearsed by now. But he can't "get a word in edge-ways!"

Verses 22 24

His father interrupts:

"Quick,  quick  — the best robe, bring it

— the ring, put it on him;

— the sandals, put them on him;

— the prize calf, prepare it for eating;

— the feast, make it happen.

We must celebrate — but quick, quick!

My son was dead and is now alive.

He was lost, and is now found.

This we must celebrate! But hurry, hurry!"

And so the young son is confronted with an overwhelming and unimaginable display of love and forgiveness before a word is spoken to him. He is immersed in the joy of his father: "What matters is, you've come home."

Scene Three 

Verses 25 27

Suddenly our attention is shifted from this excitement with a thud. "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field." He knows of no cause for celebration. Nothing has been mentioned to him about a party. So when he finally heads back to the house, he hears all the excitement and enquires from a servant: "What's going on?" The servant gives him the good news that his younger brother has come to his senses and returned home, and that his father is so excited he has ordered the very best of everything in his honour.

Verse 28

The response from the older brother is sheer anger, and a complete refusal to participate in any such celebration. He stays outside and refuses to budge. His father, true to his nature, gives this son exactly the same treatment as the other - he goes out to meet him and empties his heart out pleading for him to come and be part of the family gathering.

Verse 29

The older son cannot hold back the things he has long been waiting to say to his father, with all the bitterness he can convey.

"All these years I have slaved for you and never disobeyed your orders. When did you ever give me even a small young goat for me to have a celebration with my friends?

But the moment this son of yours who squandered everything you gave him on prostitutes — the moment he shows up you drop everything and treat him like a king. The family brat was forced to grow up because he had no choice and you go over the top!" 

What a sad spectacle! It is now the older son who has distanced himself from his father — even more than did his younger brother. He has, in fact, been living all these years in separation from his father. He may have obeyed to the letter, but not out of love: rather for expected rewards, which he claims he has never received. He now shows his true colours. This is certainly a moment of tragedy. What is there to say to such a bitter person? Should he get what he deserves — a thorough dressing down?

Verses 31 and 32

Just as the younger son did not receive a lecture when he came home, so now the older son's shortcomings are also overlooked. The father responds to his son's insulting remarks with the two most beautiful words he could say to him on this occasion: "My son". There follows an acknowledgement of what the older son has done, though with a hint of quietly rejecting the self-righteousness and sulking he used to try and send his father on a guilt trip.

The old man closes with a glimpse of what was going on inside him. "We couldn't think even for a single moment of not celebrating this momentous occasion. Your little brother, without any regard to our feelings, with no thought of the future or really of anyone but himself, wanted to get away from all restraint and expectation. He took everything he could put his name to, disappeared off the face of the earth, and squandered it like a mindless fool. I know that as well as you. But he has learnt his lesson. Your little brother has grown up. Can't you see he is a new person. Why do you have to stay stuck where he was at then? Unless you can let go those feelings, you will remain as shackled as he was. Come on. It is not too late to join in the celebration: "…this brother of yours was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found."


If the prodigal son in this story was extremely extravagant in handing out what he owned, his father was even more so in his joy at the return of his son.

Is this not a picture of a father who is lavish and extravagant in forgiveness almost to the extreme? Jesus closes his lesson, leaving the story open ended. He has been talking about his Father who yearns and pines for his own to come back to him, so that he can say to them and to us, "What matters is, you've come home." When we do that, He will excercise no restraint in the blessings he heaps on us. In that sense, He is indeed, a Prodigal Father!

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