The innate, self-centeredness of mankind is evident even in the naming of Christ’s celebrated parable of The Prodigal Son. Consider that there are three substantial roles acted out in this famous parable of mercy unique to St. Luke.
The eponymous wayward son, the indignant older brother, and the indulgent head of the family form the cast of characters in the Master’s lengthy narrative. The reader’s attention is fairly distributed among all three. Yet, when it came time for the Christian community to affix a label to this tale of clemency, selfish mankind focused not on the father figure who images God but rather on the delinquent young man in whom believers saw themselves.
The so-called prodigal son does indeed represent sinful mankind. The family of man has certainly squandered its spiritual inheritance on “dissolute living,” whether that phrase implies loose morals, wanton materialism or callous faithlessness. Man is a family of sinners and it does not hurt to have our collective noses rubbed in our moral messes on occasion, or even more frequently. Yet mankind’s sinful state is not the primary lesson of this parable. Man’s moral weakness is the background before which the most prominent actor deigns to enter the drama. The true star of the production is not man, no matter how depraved his offenses are portrayed. Top billing definitely belongs to God the Father since the parable is primarily about divine mercy rather than human wickedness. Ideally this parable should have been handed down through the generations as the Parable of the Merciful Father rather than the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God, not man, should be the focus of the believer’s attention.
If Scripture students were insistent on naming this parable after its human rather than its divine element, then the tale should properly recall both sons. Perhaps the Parable of the Prodigal and Righteous Sons might be more respectful of Jesus’ intention in addressing this teaching to the crowds. Because the true personality of the Father, the true nature of his mercy is clear only when the believer considers the Father’s dialogue with both the younger and the older son.
The exchange of the Father with his younger, wayward son obviously equates divine mercy with understanding, forgiveness and healing. The father running down the road to throw his arms around his errant son and the father conferring the robe, ring, shoes and fatted calf on the naughty boy are obviously gestures of paternal compassion. But true mercy is more than compassion, and this is where the elder son enters the theatre.
The older son definitely has a point. There is an evident foolishness, an undeniable senselessness, a distinct irrationality, about the Father’s handling of the younger son’s return. Let’s be honest. The kid deserved a good slap. And yet the father welcomed him with literally opened arms, with no questions asked. The dutiful older son also had a legitimate gripe about being neglected in spite of his obvious fidelity. There was no music and dancing for him.
But it is precisely this reckless aspect to mercy that describes and defines this most God-like of qualities. Mercy infinitely surpasses justice and even exceeds compassion. Mercy is bestowed even when not deserved; perhaps especially when not deserved. Does the one lost sheep deserve the attention of the shepherd at the risk of losing the other 99? Rationally: no. Mercifully: yes. Is the housewife justified is turning her house upside down for one coin when she already has nine silver pieces? Practically: no. Foolishly: yes. Is there really more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 saints who have no need to repent? Logically: no. But apparently: yes!
This Sunday’s parable is neither a lesson on mankind’s depravity (the younger son) nor on humanity’s self-righteousness (the older son). The parable is an instruction on the inestimable mercy of God, a goodness and a kindness that defy all rational analysis.