The parable of the prodigal son must be among the best-known Bible stories. The title rolls off the tongue easily, and even many people who don't read the Bible or go to church regularly have heard of it. But is it in fact a parable about a prodigal son? We could be in for some surprises.
To put the younger son at the centre of the parable is already to start to misunderstand it. What is at the centre is the father's great attachment and concern, his willingness to welcome back. God does not let go of us even though we might let go of him.
And what kind of person is this younger son? We might be tempted to view him and his escapades in a flattering, even glamorous, light. He seems to be a kind of young, modern hero who wants independence and autonomy and whose failings are almost a desirable part of growing up. Sin can start to look like the necessary road to freedom and self-knowledge. 'How can I know something if I haven't tried it?' is not the most complete guide to life.
The father's estimate of what had happened to his younger son is more accurate. This son was lost and is now found, he was dead and has now come back to life. No glamour here, no worthwhile spirit of adventure. This way of looking at the son is also made clear by the position of the parable in the Gospel of St Luke. In the longer version of today's gospel we have all three parables. First there is the parable of the lost sheep, then that of the lost coin, and finally that of the lost son.
All three of these parables stress the great joy that comes when what is lost is found. We have to take in the full force of what it meant for the son to be lost, before we can appreciate just how much joy his father felt when the son returned. In one sense, the loss is that of the person who had the sheep or coin or son and no longer has them. But in the deepest sense, and especially in this parable where a human being is involved and not an animal or a coin, to be lost is worse than to lose. The father does not celebrate the ending of his own loss of a son as much as the ending of the lost condition of his son. The younger son was lost, was dead.
What of the other, the older son? He too is part of the parable and he risks becoming lost in a different way from that of his brother. Elizabeth Jennings opens one of her poems with the haunting lines, 'When you are lost/ Even near home…'. The younger son is lost, and this is reflected in the geographical distance he travels away from home; he ends up in a distant country. The older brother stays put, but he risks getting lost by cutting himself off from his brother and his father. The older brother risks no longer 'being at home', although he is not far away from his father and brother. There are separations that need no great physical gap.
The father does not give up on either of his sons, wanting both of them to be at home with him and with each other. Such is the love of God for us. It is a persistent, tenacious kind of love. By looking at just how lavish in the parable is the father's welcome for his lost son, we might well say that it is the father who is 'the prodigal', that he is prodigal of his mercy. The father heaps presents on the younger son. Throughout the Bible we are shown just how much care God lavishes on us, despite a catalogue of infidelities and betrayals and failings on our part.
Justice gives us what we deserve, love can give us more than we deserve. This is no glib truth, and the reaction of the older brother shows that it can be hard to accept and be glad about.