Perhaps one of the most famous parables people would know and remember is that of the “Prodigal Son” or the “Lost Son.” This parable is one that shows the rich and boundless mercy God has for each and every one of us. The rich and boundless mercy that cannot be separated from love. It is in His great love for us that God shows mercy.
When we hear or think of this parable, we immediately think of the younger son who asks his father for his share of the inheritance that should come to him when his father dies, and how that younger son used up all that money on things that brought him only temporary happiness and mundane pleasures. We may also think of the elder son who stays home and works on the family property, following the rules and stay close by the father. Oftentimes we may even put ourselves in the story, seeing ourselves as the younger son who goes on his way, living a life of “dissipation” and not using his time and gifts well, and when all is used up, finding himself in a place of desolation and shame. Similarly, we may see ourselves as the elder son who seemingly does everything by the books, does his chores faithfully, works efficiently, and follows the rules, and gets upset, angry, or jealous when we it seems like his hard work goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Have you ever resonated with one of the sons? How did it make you feel? Did it prompt you to take action?
The younger son remembers his father and decides to get up and go home. The elder son gets angry and upset when he sees his father throwing a party for his son who took his share of the inheritance, wasted it, and now comes crawling back home. What were some of the actions we have taken when we felt we were in similar places of desolation or when we feel treated unjustly or unfairly?
This parable challenges us to reflect on our life and encourages to see how God is speaking to us. Like the younger son, we are called to repentance and conversion. And, like the older son we are called to conversion and reconciliation. Yes, we may be the younger son at times, and we may be the older son at times. But, we are called to something else. We are called to be the father. In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Fr. Henri Nouwen writes, “Though I am both the younger son and the elder son, I am not to remain them but to become the Father.” Nouwen says that every son and daughter need to make a conscious decision “to step beyond their childhood and become fathers and mothers for others.” This is especially important for seminarians, who are actively discerning the priesthood. Whether we are called to be priests or not, we are most certainly called to be fathers. Like Nouwen says we cannot remain in childhood forever. We must choose to step beyond that realm and strive to become fathers because we are told to “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” and “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We are called to be fathers, brothers. Being a father is not easy. To be a father means to first and foremost allow ourselves to be loved. Then, we are called to love all peoples, to reveal the goodness of others, to affirm the gifts and talents of others, to teach both the docile and the rebellious, to counsel both the likeable and the unlikeable, to persevere with the good and the bad, to be firm but loving, to give and to bless, to forgive and to reconcile, to assure and to comfort, to listen to and to speak with, to sit beside and to stand behind, to walk with and to let go, and to be Christ to all peoples. All this the father must do while expecting none of it returned.
When the father in the parable gave the younger son his share of the inheritance, he was risking losing both son and property, yet he did so because he loved his son. In loving his son, he allowed him to exercise his freedom in wanting to leave yet reminding him that he was still son. He waited on his son day in and day out, not knowing if he will ever return. This is what it means to be a father: to love knowing that you will never be loved back in the way that you loved, and to give knowing that you will likely not have anything given back to you. To be a father is to embrace sacrifice. To be a father is to leave the place of comfort (of the 99) and to go to the place of despair (of the one lost). To be a father is to love but to be detached. To be a father is to know that all is gift. To be a father is to know whose son you are. To be a father is to live in the freedom of the beloved son of the Father. To be a father is to live a life that is not for yourself. To be a father is to know that the Father is enough for you.
One of the hardest parts of being a father I feel, especially the priest, is to become a part of many families, but knowing that you never really belong to any of them. We belong only to the Father, for the Father is from whom we received our sonship, from whom we have learned to become fathers, and to whom we will return. You have been called to be a father, are you ready?