The Prodigal Son: the 18th Day of Lent

Pompeo Batoni's The Return of the Prodigal Son
Few stories in Scripture contain more power or poignancy than the parable found in today's Gospel. The story, variously rendered as 'The Prodigal Son' or 'The Prodigal Father', is yet another of Jesus' parables that mark the Great Reversal expected in God's Kingdom. The older brother, angry and resentful at the party thrown for his sibling, represents the way many of us think about the economy of righteousness. If I do good things, if I follow all of the rules, if I do what is asked of me...then I shall be the favored one.

Pity that God's grace doesn't work quite like that...a pity, of course, if the prodigality of grace is ever to be lamented.

I like to describe Jesus' parables as 'atomic bomb' stories. By this I mean simply to say that the parables do more than blow holes in the way we think about the world or how we think of God. After creating or widening the cracks in our heart that allow bits of God's light to stream into our darkness, the true power of a parable stems from its ability to irradiate and mutate our spiritual lives. The stories, long after they have been heard and buried deep within our hearts, continue to irradiate our imaginations, mutating it for the Kingdom. The DNA of our imagination, when exposed to the radioactive message of the Kingdom, is slowly transformed.

James Tissot's The Return of the Prodigal Son
I love teaching today's parable to sophomores because it makes them angry. They think it unfair, insane, and wholly inappropriate for the younger son to be welcomed back with open arms. The story scandalizes them; quite literally, it functions as a skandalon or stumbling block. The older brother did everything expected of him, yet he gets the shaft!

Archbishop Bruno Forte provides a marvelous insight into this story. "Which of the sons," he asks, "stands closest to the heart of the father?" It is the son who realizes, when in a far-off land, where his true home is. The irony of the story, Forte points out, rests on the older son who, though he has never left the side of the father, stands furthest from the father's heart. The father's way of love and forgiveness are foreign to the older son.

Put another way, the younger son had to alienate himself in order to find his home. The older son, although he has never left home, is the alien to the father's ways.

A great part of Lent involves allowing ourselves to experience a feeling of alienation. How many of us have wandered very far away and now, in the midst of Lent, wonder if we can wander back home. For some of our sisters and brothers, their lives are a protracted Lent, a long period of alienation and struggle, and they wonder if they are even able to come home. Let our prayer today be that this parable embed itself in the marrow of our bones and seep into the DNA of our imaginations. Let it be the case that our imaginations are mutated and transformed, being re-created into imaginations imbued with the style of the Father with hearts transformed by love, forgiveness, and on fire for the ways of the Father who awaits all of us on our return home.

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