The parable of the Prodigal Son, unique to St. Luke’s Gospel account, would be better called the parable of the Merciful Father. St. Luke wisely includes this renowned tale in a single chapter with the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin, which likewise would be better labeled the parable of the Dedicated Shepherd and the parable of the Zealous Homemaker.
In all three Gospel parables, the central thrust is neither the wayward son nor the stayed sheep nor the lost coin. The prime emphasis of each parable, as is the prime emphasis of all revelation, is the unexpected and enigmatic mercy of God.
Over the centuries Christian believers have read and heard these brief, focused tales from Jesus and, characteristically, have made themselves central to the story. Believers see themselves in the wayward son, the wandering sheep, the misplaced coin. And rightly so. But Jesus’ foremost purpose in relating these stories was not to underscore man’s sinfulness, but rather to accentuate God’s benevolence.
These three tales are parables of mercy, much more intended to bring consolation than condemnation. Alas, perverse mankind succeeds in making himself the center of attention even if it be negative attention. Hence believers remember these parables more as a lesson about man rather than an instruction about God.
If God is restored to his rightful dominance in the telling of these three tales, then the street preaching of Jesus about his Father becomes most curious. The God revealed in these three stories appears foolhardy, reckless, even silly. The father who would shower more attention on his delinquent son than he has given to his dutiful offspring appears quite impulsive, even irresponsible. A shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to search out one lost animal would quickly discover that all ninety-nine had become lost on his return. The widow who could live very comfortably on her nine gold coins would be thought mad by her neighbors had she wasted a whole day looking for her extra money.
Of course, God’s excessive folly is Jesus’ very point in telling these three parables to his eager audience. Jesus’ message is that the mercy of God is without rhyme or reason. To seal his argument, Jesus insists that God is happier when one sinner repents than when ninety-nine righteous persons have no need of repentance. That Fidel Castro’s deathbed conversion would make God happier than Mother Teresa’s lifetime of service seems rather unlikely but that is precisely Jesus’ point. The mercy of God does defy rational analysis and human comprehension.
During this Lenten season, Christian people everyday and everywhere should recall that Jesus did not only convey the unfathomable mercy of God through folksy words and colorful stories. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus – the Paschal Mystery – are history’s greatest demonstration of how merciful God the Father truly is. St. Luke’s fellow evangelist, St. John, famously expressed God’s mercy in verse 16 of his Gospel’s third chapter: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God the Father not only gave his Son to man in the Incarnation, although that would be admirable enough. God the Father more compassionately gave Jesus over to death for mankind’s sins, a truly astounding act of generosity. As St. Paul wrote pointedly: “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”
The teachings of Jesus and the testimonies of Scripture concur that God is above all a merciful father. He is first to run down the road in welcome. He is, as it were, a dutiful shepherd and a diligent homemaker as well. He risks losing no sheep; he leaves no corner of his house untended. No similes, no metaphors can exhaust the height and breadth and depth of God’s mercy. The sinner should be well consoled that, as Dom Aelred Graham OSB, once prior of Portsmouth, wrote years ago, “God’s mercy outweighs his justice.” Certainly this is a fortifying Lenten thought for all believers.