God the Father Revealed in “The Prodigal Son”

Traditionally the parable of The Prodigal Son has been one of the greatest sources of hope for mankind, as Jesus provides us with a metaphor for His Father that stresses His forgiveness and mercy. We stray as the prodigal son strays, but the Father welcomes us back no matter what we do. All that is required of us is to “wake up” and realize the truth of his mercy and love and to ask forgiveness. To introduce the concept of gift which is so important for our understanding of God and our relationship to him, I wish to offer a somewhat different interpretation of this parable.

A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.”

The father in the parable is, of course, God the Father. At the start of the parable the younger son comes to the father and demands his inheritance. The word “give” in the first sentence of the parable is taken to be an imperative. It is to be understood not in the same way as in the Our Father — “Give us this day our daily bread” — in the prayer it is understood as a petition, really: “Please provide us with our needs this day.” This is a demand for what the younger son believes is owed to him. However, an inheritance is really a gift, from the father to his sons. It is something to be passed on when he dies. It is something stored up by the effort of the father precisely as a gift to be used when he can no longer provide for his sons, as he did when he was alive. It is a final “gift of self” from the father to his heirs. Ironically, the son says “give me the share of your estate that should come to me,” which of course is a command for something owed, not a request for a gift. It indicates that the younger son wants what belongs to the father — “your estate” — and wants it before the father dies, when ownership is normally transferred. The estate would normally come to the sons but does not have to. While we can see the inheritance of the estate has having a filial justice too it, we can apply the word gift as the best categorization of what takes place. It has all the qualities of a gift. The purpose of this gift, like all others, is to delight and provide for a loved one. It is unilateral and no recompense is wished for or even possible, as the father would have passed away before the estate was distributed. It is a pure gift.

The son’s demand for what is a gift, forces the gift-act of the father into one of justice: “that should come to me,” that is, “what is owed to me.” Debt can only arise out of justice; gift can only arise from gratuity. The younger son in this case demands what is a gift as something owed, as something that belongs to him by right, placing the inheritance in the arena of justice, in effect denying the gratuitous nature of the inheritance and so, in a real sense, denying the love that impels the gift. It is supremely rude to act in this way toward the father. This is certainly one way we can deny the gifts of our Father God, by assuming that we are owed, by our very existence, what He wishes to give us as gifts — our life, the universe, his salvation, and the cornucopia of benefits we receive from him every day. We take all the gifts from God, including existence itself, as a given. We forget and deny by our indifference the intention behind the gifts, which is his love for us. We also deny our dependence upon those gifts. Most of us, most of the time, take all of creation in all its beauty and majesty for granted. Modern man also assumes he is saved by a God who has no choice but to forgive. But gifts are not given out of justice; they are not owed, but an act of love without desire for return. We can easily imagine the father constantly reflecting over his lifetime, with joy, that he will be able to provide his sons with a fine inheritance. We can imagine that this intention is his purpose.

So, the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.

This is the second way in which the son sins against the father. He squanders the property “on a life of dissipation.” It is akin to throwing the money in the gutter, but with the added negative outcome of using it for sinful purposes. Also, while a pure gift is given with no desire to control the use of the gift by the receiver, nevertheless, no one wants the value of the gift to be made null. This would indicate a total lack of gratitude, as one does not value the gift appropriately. In all these ways the son sins against the father.

When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So, he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.

The son separates himself from the father and uses the inheritance badly. Since the gift was made, he felt that the ownership of his new wealth was to be used as he saw fit, with no consideration of either the father’s wishes or propriety. The son, after squandering the inheritance, finds himself in desperate straits and hires himself out to a local farmer who does not care about him. He finds himself feeding swine, forbidden to Jews, and longs to eat what he is feeding them. What the younger son comes to learn is that, cutting himself off from his father’s love, he has also cut himself off from his acts of love. He soon runs out of what he needs and finds himself in a land where no one really cares about him, no one will give him anything. This is due to the fact that he has no relationship with those he works for. Without relationship, gifts do not flow. We give spontaneously to those we love and care for. We can imagine the father’s intentions during this time. He longs to continue showing his love to his son by giving him the gifts of his presence, his time, his affection, and his material benefits, but is frustrated from doing so. We can imagine the sense of longing in the father for his son’s return so that he can spend himself on the young man. In this way we the parable elucidates the nature of God the Father. He is the good God who is the perfect giver. This is not an extrapolation, as we see “gifting” is the first act of the father when the son returns. He divided the inheritance because he would not circumscribe the son’s freedom, though he could have. He knows his son must learn a hard but necessary lesson, but will not force his hand. As the son has no relationship with the farmer other than that of hireling to master, he is not cared for. Now he is ready to learn the lesson. His father’s care was a gift.

Coming to his senses he thought, “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’” So, he got up and went back to his father.

We can easily doubt the conversion of the son and his intention to make amends with the father as an “imperfect contrition” based on the situation he finds himself in, more perhaps than a full realization of what sins he has committed. His “conversion” seems more of a calculation. The words, though, coming from his mind certainly indicate he realizes he has failed in piety — “I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.

The longing of the father to be united with the younger son, to be in relationship with him and to give of himself to him, is realized when he sees him. His compassion can mean “mercy”; it seems here to be really a combination of pity and concern. He is “moved with compassion” even while the son is at a distance. The father never asks for an apology and is never seen to be hurt or angry. All that is important is that his son is restored to him. His expressed affection is proof of this. The father is consumed not with anger but love toward his son. In the same way, our Father God never stops loving us. The terrible slight, as in the story, does not “hurt” God the Father any more than the accidental breaking of a favorite lamp by a young child would cease a parent’s love. The parent catches the child and gives him a hug to reassure him of his love and to dissipate the guilt and dismay that would naturally occur in the son’s mind. The first act of the father is to give him the gift of affection.

God’s greatest desire is to return to relationship so that He can return to showering us with gifts, the materialization of his perfect love for us. People are different. We are hurt by the injustices of others and need an apology, and perhaps more, to return to relationship. We project our nature onto God’s and assume that He needs to be “moved” to mercy and forgiveness by our apology. God is not less for our sins. He does not hide and pout until we have apologized, as we would. He is not moved nor suffers loss. He is “moved” by his constant love for us, toward his sons and daughters to whom he desires to give. In the same way, we confess our sins not for the benefit of God or to turn away his disgust of us, or to earn his forgiveness.

His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.”

The son feels it necessary to confess to the father even though the father has not asked him for such an apology. It is important for the son to do this. He knows he can only heal the relationship, in any real sense, if he returns to a shared reality with the father. This shared reality is an acknowledgement of the fact of his sin toward the father when he left. The son must return to a shared reality that is not based on a lie. The original lie was that he was “owed” his inheritance, an inheritance that he was “free” to squander badly.

But his father ordered his servants, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

The father is overjoyed with the son’s return who was lost to him. He was “dead” to him in his absence. He cannot wait any longer but showers him with gifts. While the parable will always be understood to be about forgiveness and mercy, neither of these words is used. The language of the parable is really gift. The father’s greatest desire is not justice and, perhaps, not even mercy. He is primarily moved to restore the relationship that allows his gifts to flow again. This is certainly a metaphor for our Father God. We can easily and mistakenly believe that his forgiveness is dependent primarily on our confession. This is an anthropomorphizing of how we understand Our Father. His love is directed to our good. He does not love us less when we sin. This can help us to understand the true nature of confession. It is not so much an escaping of the gallows of justice as much as a returning to the shared reality with God of our misdeeds, primarily for our sake, not his.

Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, “Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.” He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” He said to him, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

It is illuminating that the servant remarks that the celebration is due to the fact that the son returns “safe and sound,” not due to his confession. We see some echo of the jealousy here of Cain and Abel. The older son, who has always obeyed the father’s orders and served him, sees the father’s acceptance and gifts toward the prodigal son as an act of injustice since the father has not treated him in like manner, with a party. He catalogs the other son’s sins in an effort to compare himself to his brother. But the father responds, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” That is to say, he has, in the same way as with the younger son, stored up an inheritance as a gift to him. The son makes the other error toward the inheritance of the father; that he has earned it. The older son represents the second way in which we can misunderstand the gifts we are given by God, that they are earned — “Everything I have is yours,” that is, everything I have is a gift to you.

Instead of the older son working with and for the father as a gift to him, he interiorly believes he is storing up a debt that the father owes back to him, out of justice. We act in like manner thinking we can earn heaven or act in such a way as to deserve creation and redemption, rather than seeing them as gifts. In the same way, Jesus stores up the gifts of grace and salvation individually for each of us upon his sacrificial death. We inherit the most gratuitous gift of all even though we are all wayward sons and daughters.

These two errors are in a way similar to the two ways we can be guilty of presumption: that everything depends on God or that everything depends on me. The younger son believes erroneously that he is owed the gifts of his father and the older son thinks he has to earn them. If we see the constant gifting of God towards ourselves, we can avoid both these errors. We can avoid thinking that either his love or forgiveness are owed or for sale.

My intention in analyzing this parable is not to supersede the teaching that the parable points to the mercy of God, but to add to it with a “gift analysis” from the point of view of God as the perfect lover who gives not only gifts, but his very self.

Thomas Hardy About Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy as been a teacher and administrator in Catholic high schools for the majority of his working life. He is also the proud father of nine children and lives in Hyattsville, MD.

Comments

  1. Avatar Theodore Wills says:

    Mr. Hardy provides us with a prescient analysis of God as the perfect giver of everything imaginable and unimaginable to his most limited yet lovable children.

  2. Avatar Matthew Dolan says:

    Great article Tom.

  3. Avatar Jim Rourke says:

    No need for DR. Phil here.
    Mr. Hardy gives us a lesson in one of the hardest things about being a parent, loving your child unconditionally.
    In spite of the boy’s poor choices, God does not see son number two as an embarrassment. He’s his little boy and prays that he has an epiphany and returns home. The good and wise parent keeps the door open. Kudos to the author for helping us to understand and for giving us a glimpse inside the heart of a Great and wise father.

  4. Avatar Mary Jo B Klein says:

    Thank you for the reminder to not only stop and contemplate all that God gives us, but also to “look up” and notice the Person who gave the gift, to see the love behind the gift. Gratitude and joy cannot fail to be ours when we keep this truth present in our lives, no matter what situation in which we find ourselves.

  5. Avatar Margaret says:

    Thank you for the article. I believe that both these errors are on the side on one coin. I believe I am guilty of both as I believed I was cheated of certain things in life which i felt was owed and like the older son I felt I needed to earn God’s love. What spoke to be loudly that all is gift and I need to see and treat life and all people as so.. The original lie is exposed and this should with His grace allow me to see the Heavenly Father through eyes of Faith.

    God Bless

  6. Avatar flavia favali says:

    Dear Tom: excellent timing after serving my kids on mother’s day…yes God has given and gives us so many gifts we just need to stand in awe to accept them….thanks flavia

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