A reader writes:
I wanted to, as a former Catholic priest, offer a few comments on this lovely parable, which is usually interpreted according to the heart of the reader rather than the Gospel writer.
The parable, as I see it, is all about the father.
He has two sons, neither of which understands who he is. The younger treats his father as though he were already dead, asking for his inheritance in advance; leaves, and squanders it till he longs to eat with pigs to fill his empty belly. At that moment, he comes up with an idea, one that just may rescue him from the abysmal shame in which he dwells. The son appears a long way off, the father sights him, and, in a detail designed to evoke astonishment, perhaps even ridicule in his first audience, the father runs to throw his arms around him (no dads in Nikes in the ancient world…profoundly undignified, shamelessly self-forgetful, foolish).
The son's stratagem, honest or not, is unnecessary. Again, the father reveals himself as pure, unbound love – "he was dead, and now is alive….he was lost, and now is found." He asks for no words or gestures, no apology, humiliation, propitiation, or sacrifice. The younger son just appears, that is all that's necessary. Does this son really change? We do not know; the parable has no interest in that. What is important is that the father has not.
The elder son, for all his faithful service at home, does not understand his father either. To us, of course, he is the less sympathetic character; dutiful yet calculatingly resentful. Does this son ever change? Again, we do not know, the parable is uninterested in that…and again, what is important is that the father has not changed – "everything I have is yours."
If anything, the parable shows Jesus' understanding of his God. The father in the story is his image of the Father. There is no requirement, no measure. And we are, if anything, at different times, both of these sons.
After 2000 years, have we even begun to understand this Father?
And do we have the humility or self-esteem to accept this love? That has always been my problem. I think and have long believed that I am deeply unworthy of God's love. But at various points in my life, God has grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and held me close and told me, in a voice that pierces all the way through, that it doesn't matter if I am unworthy or worthy. God loves me because I am.
Those experiences – of total, overwhelming calm and peace – are what make me a believer. Still. For ever.