The familiar story we call ‘The Prodigal Son’ is so rich that we can always find new insights into it and in this Year of Mercy it has fresh meaning for us. Jesus tells this parable to two groups of people: the sinners who have been seeking him out and the scribes and Pharisees who are scandalised because he welcomes the sinners.
It is a story of two sons who are both lost. Instead of living in love and harmony with their Father, who loves them both, one demands his inheritance early and goes off to squander it, while the other stays at home resentfully, losing himself in his work. We see the younger son slide down the slippery path of sin, from shallow pleasures and superficial relationships into a sorry state of humiliation and self-loathing. He becomes a slave in a far country, while his brother sees himself as a slave at home.
Then the younger son experiences a moment of grace: he comes to his senses. He realises that he is worse off now than he ever was at home. He faces up to his sin and he prepares to confess it and throw himself on his Father’s mercy.
All this is familiar human behaviour, but what happens next is not: instead of gravely listening to his son’s plea and considering whether to let him back into the family, the Father runs down the road to greet him, embracing and kissing him, ignoring his prepared speech and shouting orders to throw the biggest party ever.
The elder son’s reaction is also predictable: his self-righteous mindset is outraged by the Father’s generosity and, when the Father comes out to plead with him, all his pent-up resentment bursts out in an angry torrent. Again the Father’s reaction is not what we expect: we might have said ‘Well please yourself then’ but the Father desperately wants to have both of his sons back. Typically, Jesus doesn’t tell us how the story ends but we know the ending the Father would want.
This message is not just for the tax collectors and sinners amongst us: it is also for the self-righteous ones. God is longing to be merciful to all of us. We have to turn back to him, but we don’t have to crawl back. God’s amazing love will always meet us more than halfway.