There are three primary characters in the parable—the father, the prodigal son, and the elder son. Each is a somewhat complicated character for such a short story. If this story is a description of God’s family, we must conclude that his is a very dysfunctional family. As we look around the world that we live in, and as we look deeply within ourselves, the idea that God’s family is pretty dysfunctional is hardly a stretch.
It is hard to understand the complete and absolute selfishness and narcissism of the younger son, the Prodigal. How could a boy who has been raised by a father who is so loving, so generous, so forgiving, and so compassionate have so little regard for his father and for his feelings? Could none of his father’s goodness have rubbed off on him? He is so harsh and selfish, treating his father as if he is dead, and asking for his inheritance.
Even after he has fallen upon hard times and is starving to death, he is still thinking only of himself. There seems to have not been a thought about how he has wounded his father and that he must let him know he is sorry. His “repentance” is completely selfish. Maybe Dad will take me in, and I will not starve.
The elder son is also selfish and self-centered, although in a different way. He is very conscious of all that he has done for his father and feels his father has not been generous enough in rewarding him for being such a wonderful son. He keeps close tabs on what he has done and on what his father has done. This boy has no appreciation for how broken his father’s heart is over his prodigal son or how filled with joy he is when that boy returns. He does not understand a father’s heart and sees this situation only through his own eyes. He has no love for his brother and would have been absolutely okay if his brother had died of starvation. He deserved it, after all. He refuses to enter the father’s house because his brother is there.
The father represents God and his incredibly strange way of loving. His love makes no sense to us. He pours out his blessings on his prodigal son, even knowing how completely irresponsible and selfish he is. This son insults him and treats him with absolute contempt, and yet he withholds nothing from him. He accepts this mistreatment with the hope and desire that there is goodness in the boy and that goodness will finally win out.
When the prodigal returns, with his radically imperfect act of contrition, he rejoices to have his son back even if he is back for all the wrong reasons. What does he care about right or wrong motivations? His son is home. He continues to bless this ridiculously horrible child, putting a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet, and killing the fatted calf to celebrate his return.
The father also loves the elder son. “You are with me always, and everything I have is yours.” He leaves his house to reach out to this boy and beg him to come in and rejoice with him over the return of his brother. He wants this elder son to know the joy of love and forgiveness.
There is a fourth character in this story, and it is the father’s house. The house represents the father’s heart and ultimately, Heaven. The prodigal leaves the father’s house, the father’s heart—he rejects Heaven—to live his life of profligacy. He returns to the father’s house, the father’s heart—he opens himself to Heaven. The elder son refuses to enter the father’s house. He rejects the father’s absurd and reckless love, his heart, and he refuses to live in the community of love which is Heaven. We know that the prodigal came home, but we have no idea about what happened to the elder son. Did he see the error of his ways? Did he re-enter his father’s house?
Who are you in this story? With whom do you most identify? With the prodigal who squandered his life, but who came to his senses? Or with the elder son, who has tried to do the right things and feels cheated because those who have been lazy and selfish and sinful seem to be more blessed than you? Or perhaps with the father? Do you have one you love who has broken your heart, taken advantage of your goodness and love, betrayed your trust, and whose return you anxiously await?
This great parable is about us. It is about you and me.
— Fr. Mike Comer