Faith Matters

Fr Desmond O'Donnell: The most misunderstood New Testament parable is the prodigal son

The parable widely described as being about the prodigal son is less about an errant son and more about a merciful father. It is, says Fr Desmond O'Donnell, God's self-description

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son - regarded by some critics as the finest picture ever painted - depicts the son's return to the father after years of absence. But the story is often misunderstood, says Fr Desmond O'Donnell
Fr Desmond O'Donnell

THE most misunderstood story in the New Testament is the parable in which God describes himself.

Found in Luke 15, it is mistakenly called the parable of the prodigal son - which it is not. It is the parable of the merciful father.

If we focus on the wayward son we miss the message of Jesus' story.

We spend our lives worrying about not loving and serving God and we never meet the God who loves and serves us.

Their home was comfortable, on a large farm with many servants.

A Jewish father would already have signed over the farm to his two sons with the understanding that they would care for him until his death.

The younger boy was selfish and thoughtless and his elder brother was scrupulously dutiful.

One did not believe that his father's love could make him happy and the other believed that he had to earn his father's love by hard work. Neither son knew his father nor believed in his unconditional love.

To the deep hurt and great embarrassment of his father, the young man selfishly sold his share of the property and left home.

He lived recklessly until - probably in his middle years - he found his money gone and in a country of famine.

Unless you can enter into the throbbing heart of that old man embracing his son, you will never understand what God is like nor the reality of his love for us 

Not because he was sorry for what he had done, but for the same selfish reasons as he had left home, he decided to return.

He had neither perfect nor imperfect contrition. He came home because he felt hunger from self-made distress - 'here I am dying with hunger.

His loving old father, while enduring the pain of personal loss, for many years awaited him day after day, hoping his still-loved son would someday return.

One day, he saw his son at the end of the avenue. He "ran to meet him" and embraced him.

Unless you can enter into the throbbing heart of that old man embracing his son, you will never understand what God is like nor the reality of his love for us.

Try to imagine how that old man felt and then you know how God feels about you every time you say, "Father, I have sinned."

The father never had to forgive the boy because he never condemned him. It was the son who needed to recognise the hurt he caused his father, who threw a party on his return.

His brother also had a great deal to learn about his father.

He thought that he had to 'slave' for his father in order to be loved. He missed the great reality about which the father reminded him - "All that I have is yours," that all which the father possessed was also his.

When the selfish son returned, there were no questions, no list of sins, no remonstrations, no penance and no conditions for his return, only a celebration - "music and dancing".

Again, enter into the feeling of the father as he sat watching his son enjoying his welcome home at the party as his wayward son sang and danced before him.

When you can feel like the father, you will begin to understand how God always feels about you, even when you have to say, "Father, I have sinned."

When Pope Francis comes among us in August, we can be sure that his central theme of God's unconditional merciful love will permeate his message to all believers and unbelievers in Ireland.

  • Fr Desmond O'Donnell OMI is an Oblate priest and registered psychologist. He is the author of To Love and to be Loved, published by Dominican Publications

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