11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The world in front of the text has two dimensions: the response of the reader who encounters the text, and the Church’s history of interpretations and use of the text.

Questions for the teacher

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

Meaning for today/challenges

The parable is about the extravagance of God’s love and forgiveness. John McKinnon comments that it gives wonderful insights into the heart of God:

Effectively Jesus was teaching that God’s forgiveness was wild and beyond reason, shameless and irresponsible, unconditional and uncaused, spontaneous but profound, motherlike and fatherlike, life-giving and freeing, irrepressible and celebratory.

In the parable Jesus is addressing the religious elites. He wants them to understand that including the downcast in no way reduces God’s love for them. The parable also addresses us. It is not just about God’s forgiveness of sinners but about our treatment of ‘sinners’ and the marginalised. Which feast are you refusing to join? The parable invites us to finish the unfinished story by drawing close to those we may be tempted to exclude in our family, our workplace or in wider society.

Parables reverse expectations. The younger son does not deserve reinstatement. Many people sympathise with the older brother and resent how the younger brother is let off lightly. There is some part of each person in each of the three characters. With which one do you most identify?

The parable also reminds us of a profound truth in Catholic teaching. We need God’s grace to turn to God. We cannot do it entirely by ourselves. The younger son had a self-serving plan as we do so often, but God ‘runs’ to us, embracing us with the grace to enable our repentance.

Absence of the mother
Today’s reader feels very uncomfortable with the absence of the mother. Some wonder if she had died. The more likely reason is the highly patriarchal world behind the text. Inheritance and property were the domain of the males in the family; females were excluded; and so, there would be no role for the mother to play. Our world is different, and this draws us to ponder the extent of any barriers for women in contemporary economic exchange.

A lesson from Rembrandt

Of the many representations of the parable in the history of art, the 17th century ‘The Return of the Prodigal’ by Rembrandt has a tender depiction of the father. The focal point is his hands. The left is larger and masculine, and the right is softer and feminine. The spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen commented:

The father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is indeed God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present

The Return of the Prodigal (1992) London: DLT, p.94

A brief explanation of other features of the painting (which suffers from an erroneous reference to the Gospel of Mark) is HERE.

Church interpretation & usage

The name of the parable
Giving a parable a name pre-empts the meaning a reader may find in it. Traditionally, this parable has been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal means recklessly wasteful or extravagant. This has resulted in the longstanding tendency to concentrate on the younger son. However, the father is really the central figure and there are two sons, so ‘the prodigal son’ is an incomplete title. Traditionally, the two preceding parables are called ‘the Lost Sheep’ and the ‘Lost Coin’, so that implies the ‘Lost Son’; or it could be the ‘Lost Sons’. Surely any title should acknowledge the Father, for example, the ‘Forgiving Father’ or ‘the Extravagant Father’. Perhaps the simplest name that does not prescribe a meaning is simply ‘the Father and Two Sons’. What do you think?

Significance in the Christian tradition
This is one of most well known and loved of the parables. Brendan Byrne calls it one of the Gospel passages “that have truly shaped Christian identity”. Without this parable – as also perhaps without that of the Good Samaritan – Christianity would be something different.” (p.142)

The parable has been used through the centuries as an exposition on repentance and forgiveness. It has a long catechetical association with Sacrament of Penance. The father is identified with God and the younger son with the penitent sinner. Recent years have seen proper consideration of the elder son whose characteristics are in each of us. Some earlier interpretations identifying him with Jews misrepresent the text.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1439 uses it to explain conversion and repentance:

The process of conversion and repentance was described by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son, the centre of which is the merciful father: The fascination of illusory freedom, the abandonment of the father’s house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father’s generous welcome; the father’s joy – all these are characteristic of the process of conversion. the beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet are symbols of that new life – pure worthy, and joyful – of anyone who returns to God and to the bosom of his family, which is the Church. Only the heart of Christ Who knows the depths of his Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.

Pope St John Paul II used it to explain God’s mercy in his encyclical Rich in Mercy (1980) n.5-6. The merciful father concentrates on the humanity and dignity of his lost son and “the genuine face of mercy has been revealed anew”. In Reconciliation and Penance (1984) n.5-6, he states that the prodigal son is every human being, bewitched by the temptation to be separated from God. The father’s festive and loving welcome is a sign of God’s mercy. Every human being is also the elder son, in our jealousy, hardened hearts, and separation from others and God. This expresses the selfishness of the human family and the need for profound transformation of hearts through the discovery of God’s mercy.

Liturgical use
The text is the Sunday Gospel on two occasions in Year C. They are the Fourth Sunday of Lent for its penitential significance, and the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, as part of the progressive movement through the Gospel of Luke in Year C. The text also is one of a wide range of options for the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance.