Prodigal sons, fathers, and brothers


The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps the most beautiful reading that we have for Lent prior to Holy Week. Jesus tells the story of a prodigal son and a no-less prodigal father, who is generous in mercy and understanding.

In Henry Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen offers meditations on the figure of the son, the father, and also the older brother in the story. Nouwen suggests that all three of these figures are aspects of ourselves. We are all the prodigal son, in need of mercy for our sins and needing to be received back home after our wandering. We are all the elder brother, sometimes merciless in our judgment and our self-righteousness. We are all the prodigal father, capable of extending mercy and compassion to others and allowing God’s mercy to flow through us.

I like Nouwen’s reading because, to me, it suggests that in any process of serious mutual reconciliation, we need to work through all three of these “parts.” Before we can truly reconcile with God or with another person, each one of us needs to look honestly and perhaps painfully at our own sins, weaknesses, or simply human shortcomings. God makes this possible for us, because God is the prodigal father who runs to his son before his son has ever apologized.For all the father knows in the story, the son might be back to ask for more money; he might not be sorry at all. But the father doesn’t care, because his love and desire for relationship are so great that his love is not conditioned. The son can express all his sorrow to his father in part because he has already been embraced. For us, too, we are more easily able to reflect on our sins and shortcomings when we recall that God’s love for us precedes our recognition of our failings, and already embraces them.

Nouwen also helpfully attends to the older brother in his reflections. He recalls times in his own life when he had been the older brother, as a person who felt himself not to be the rebel of the family, but the dutiful, obedient, “good” son. But Nouwen notes that the older brother is just as far from the father as the prodigal son, and had wandered far from home in a way, too, because he doubts the father’s love: there is no party for me, he says, no warm welcome. His father’s loving response is to reassure him that he, too, is loved ,and all that the Father has is his. He urges him to participate in the Father’s mood of celebration and rejoicing that the younger brother has come home. We, too, must attend to places in ourselves where we are judgmental, critical, lack mercy, or otherwise fail to engage with compassion for others. We can learn to let go of self-righteous judgments in remembering that to do so is also to be “far from home.”

Last, there is the prodigal father, who extends mercy, love and restored relationship to his son (to both of his sons, really). He is joy in response to his son’s sorrow, celebration in response to his son’s return. One year when I discussed this book with a group of incarcerated men whom I visit, one of them observed that the prodigal father must have at one time been the prodigal son, and known mercy. We, too, can grow into being the prodigal father or mother, when we recognize our own experiences of needing and receiving mercy, and allow those spaces to open us up to being the source of mercy to others. The father, no doubt, remains in touch with his own need for mercy whenever and wherever he extends it. We, too, are invited to be the source of mercy to others in their need, and in our own.