The Joyful Father

Return of the Prodigal Son by Leonello Spada (1576 – 1622)

Today is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, and (though it’s not the scheduled Gospel reading for today) when I think of Luke’s Gospel I think of my favorite of his many beautiful parables: The Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11 – 32).

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.” 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.

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.

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. 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.

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

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.” 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.”

I love this parable in part because it’s a beautifully told story, but also because it relates to my own path so well. I walked away from the church—and from the active practice of my faith—for many years. I squandered my “inheritance” as surely as the younger  son did and I was left wallowing in a pigsty of my own making. Yet when I returned, I was welcomed with celebration and without question. I was the Prodigal: once dead, now alive; once lost, now found.

But I see this parable differently now. Though I still identify with the younger son in the moments I find my faith slipping, I now see the story more from the father’s perspective. My view changed (or broadened, perhaps) when I became a father myself.

From that point on the words “this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” had a new significance, because I could see the father’s joy. I have a child myself, a daughter whom I love more than my own life. I can’t imagine losing her—I don’t know how any parent copes with that most horrible tragedy—but to get her back after thinking she was lost would merit a celebration to end all others.

This story reminds me how much God truly loves us all, because I know how much I love my daughter. And I understand why the metaphor (and title) of Father applies to him so well. He is the Joyful Father, as joyful as the father of the parable, when we return to him.

And I need to remember that same love most of all in those times when I fall into the trap of the older brother. It’s easy for those of us now back in the embrace of the Church to judge others still outside. It’s easier still to judge our fellow Christians we see as “less Christian” than us. But we need to remember that God loves them as much as us, even though we’re all screw-ups in our own way. He loves us like a loving parent should—totally, unconditionally—and he always will.

Amen.

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