The return of the prodigal son is one of the best known gospel stories. People who profess no faith, who have no idea of what it means to be a Christian, who might not even believe in God, know this story. We are always asked which character we identify with – the prodigal son, whose dreams of a happy and wealthy life disappeared in a pigsty in a foreign land? He has returned in abject shame to his father, kneeling before him in full knowledge that he has dishonored his father and himself. He must throw himself on his father’s mercy. Or do we see ourselves in the older son – the one who remained loyal and dutiful to his father, but is resentful of his father’s forgiveness of the younger brother. His anger is so deep he cannot join in the celebration to welcome his lost brother home. He finds it impossible to understand the love of his father. Do we identify with the father? We see him running down the road to meet his long lost son, welcoming him home, full of forgiveness. His generosity is unprecedented from the beginning. It would be difficult to find a father in first century Israel who would have given his son his share of the inheritance in the first place. The son would have been forced to leave and find his own way without his father’s money to squander.
Many of us often identify with the older son. We spend our lives trying to do the right thing: working, taking care of our responsibilities, and sometimes feeling resentful because we haven’t gotten as far ahead as we anticipated. When this story comes up we are forced to struggle with our resentment, to stretch ourselves to understand the love of the father, a love that extends to both sons but seems somehow unfair. This is not about inheritance, because the older son will still inherit the larger portion of his father’s estate. We want the older son to let go of his jealousy and resentment and welcome his brother home, yet we understand how he feels.
Fewer people seem to identify with the younger son, unless they themselves have had such a wild youth and perhaps had to return home, seeking the forgiveness and blessing of their parent. Yet in her commentary on this story in Christian Century magazine, Pastor Emily C. Heath from the Congregational Church in Essex, New Hampshire reminds us that at one time or another, “We have all disappointed the people who have loved us.” She tells her own story of being a disappointment to someone who was very special to her. She says that during her twenties she was blessed to have a mentor. From college, through seminary, to ordination and even beyond, this mentor balanced encouragement with, as Heath puts it, “the not-so-gentle directness of someone who can see through excuses with X-ray vision.” As a result, she was an excellent mentor.
Heath says she struggled with academics in her first years of college, but her mentor helped her to focus enough that she graduated and was accepted into seminary. While in seminary her mentor encouraged her to apply for advanced graduate work. So after she graduated with her Master of Divinity, Heath set off to get her PhD in the same field as her mentor, who told her how proud she was of her. But it turned out that Heath was not really drawn to be an academic. As she put it, “every day in graduate school made me feel like a square peg being pounded into a round hole.’ The result was that not long before she would have completed her degree, she left graduate school. She felt incredibly free, but also extremely worried that she had disappointed her mentor. She was so embarrassed at what she thought was a failure that she did not write or call her for eight years.
As she puts it, she isn’t sure how the prodigal son feels as he walks up the road to his father’s house, but she does know what it felt like when she finally typed an e-mail to her mentor after such a long time. She knows how it felt to wait for a response that she wasn’t even sure would come, and how it felt to be prepared for the worst. But because she finally sent that message she also knows what it is like to be offered forgiveness and grace by the one you have disappointed. In her response her mentor seemed like the father in our story, running down the road to embrace Heath and welcome her home. She told her she wasn’t disappointed in the least that she quit the PhD program because she wanted her to be true to the person she was meant to be. However, she was disappointed because Heath had not given her the chance to tell her that much sooner.
We have all disappointed people who have loved us, we have all disappointed God. But we cannot let those moments of our disappointing behavior define us; unless we choose to remain so frightened that we never reach out and ask for forgiveness. Whenever we turn away from the person we are truly meant to be, and that God has created us to be, we have to recognize that we have failed, but also know that God’s love is much bigger and better than we could ever imagine. If we allow ourselves to believe that we have messed up so much that God will never love us again, then we are refusing to acknowledge God’s promise of compassion, forgiveness, mercy and love.
Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, writer, professor and theologian. His primary interests were in community, social ministry, spirituality, pastoral care and psychology. He taught for almost twenty years at the University of Notre Dame, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School, after which he worked with mentally and physically handicapped adults at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill, Ontario. He once saw a poster copy of Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” He was so taken with it that he went to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia to see the original. He asked for and received permission to spend time alone in prayerful contemplation of the painting. The result of that contemplation was his book, also called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”
He saw in the painting that God, the forgiving and merciful parent, is there, always present, always welcoming each and every one of us. No matter what we experience in life, no matter our disgraces, our disappointments, our successes and our triumphs, God is always there, a constant in our lives, offering forgiveness, encouragement, compassion, mercy and grace. No matter how far we stray, we can always return to God, who is waiting for us with outstretched arms, waiting for us to come home.
We may identify with any of three characters in this story, but the heart of it is the mercy and forgiveness of the father. This parable should lead us to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the true nature of God. Perhaps we have been frightened to return to God after a failure, or more likely, we have been self-righteous and found ourselves resentful of God’s forgiveness and love towards others. But in this story Jesus invites us to understand and appreciate God so much that we want to emulate God’s love and mercy for us in our relationships with others. Amen.