by Father Mike Stubbs
There is no sorrow like the sorrow of a parent who has lost a child. As a priest who has presided at too many funerals of children, I can testify to that.
This theme of a parent who has lost a child appears several times in the Scriptures. For example, King David mourns his son Absalom, who has been killed in the prime of his life during a rebellion against his father: “My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sm 19:1). The powerful sight of their king grieving over his son turns a day of victory into a day of mourning for the troops.
The story of Joseph and his brothers also includes the theme of a parent losing a child. At a pivotal point in the story, Joseph is sold into slavery in the land of Egypt. Later on, another brother, Simeon, is held as hostage in Egypt. In response to these losses, their father Jacob complains to the remaining brothers: “Must you make me childless? Joseph is gone, and Simeon is gone, and now you would take away Benjamin! Why must such things always happen to me?” (Gn 42:36).
It is against the background of these stories of parental loss that the story in Sunday’s Gospel reading appears, Lk 15: 1-32. The prodigal son leaves his father and takes his inheritance, squandering it on dissolute living. In the eyes of his father, the wayward son was as good as dead. For all he knew, that is the fate his son had met with. That is why, when the son returns, the father exclaims, “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”
The figure of the compassionate and merciful father, who rejoices so when his wayward son returns home, certainly stands out in this story. Some scholars consider the figure of the father to be the key to understanding the story. In fact, they would like to re-name the story, “The Parable of the Father’s Love,” instead of “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” In this view, the story focuses upon God’s mercy, as exemplified by the father in the story. God’s mercy asks no questions, just as the father welcomed back his son without any conditions. Instead, he only calls for a celebration.
This interpretation fits in well with Luke’s Gospel, which emphasizes God’s mercy. At the same time, a close reading of the parable introduces a problem. Within the story, a clear distinction is made between God and the father. The son admits to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” The word “heaven” stands for God. In his confession, the son is admitting a sin against God and against his father. So the two cannot be the same. In that case, the father would not stand for God.
This may be the proof that every metaphor has its limits. We can take a metaphor only so far, and then it falters. We think we understand a parable, and then it trips us up. We can never exhaust its meaning. It always has something new to say. That is certainly true for this wonderful parable.