Today’s Gospel is the one where a son asks his father for his share of the estate so he can leave the family ranch and strike out on his own.
And boy, did he ever strike out.
But, as the story continues, he “comes to his senses” after taking a job feeding the pigs, and decides to return to his father to be treated as one of the hired hands.
There are a number of teachings offered by this passage, and some are especially important.
First, the son “came to his senses.” That’s something that all of us need to do today, especially in light of our divisive political atmosphere, the clergy abuse issues, and the mercy that our God constantly offers us. Several years ago, Pope Francis called for a Year of Mercy…which is something we need, especially as we prepare for the new life we’ll hopefully attain at the end of our days.
Second, the son “came to his senses” after doing the lowest job there is – tending the swine. It was against Jewish tradition to have anything to do with the pigs. Why? Perhaps because they eat anything that’s organic, and that includes human waste products. (Sorry…didn’t mean to gross you out, there. Think about that the next time you order bacon.)
Third, it could be the story of the Prodigal Father, since “prodigal” means “extravagant, lavish or generous.” If you’re a parent, would you liquidate some of your assets to give some of your property to one of your two children before your death? Many would have trouble with that. It’s also the Prodigal Father that holds a celebration for the son that has returned. He was also characterized as “looking for his son.” Therefore, he was a wise father, knowing that his son would one day return. Again, if you’re a parent, and a child leaves home, you look forward to the time when they come back home…even if it’s only for a little while
Fourth, the father’s comment to the jealous son is a powerful one: “Son, everything I have is yours.” This acknowledges that the father has already given his share of his property to the first son, and therefore, there is nothing left for the younger son to get. The jealous son simply did not recognize that everything the father had was his, and everything that was his is also the father’s. That’s a great lesson for us to learn when we’re jealous of what others have, and are also called to be generous with what we have been blessed with.
Fifth, the “rest of the story” is never told. Many assume that the Prodigal Son was welcomed back as a son. But because the father told the jealous son that all his property is his, that means that the Prodigal Son would certainly be a hired hand after the party was over. Remember, the Gospel also says, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” He didn’t ask to be his son again. Indeed, when the father gave him his share of the property, it was as if the son considered his father to be dead…since splitting the estate is what would have happened if the father had indeed died. When the son came back home, he asked to be a hired hand, and the father was overjoyed that his son, who was lost, is now found. It’s like the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd will search for the sheep, but we never hear the rest of the story. In the practice of shepherding, if a wandering sheep is found, the shepherd gently breaks one of the legs of the sheep so that it learns to remain a part of the flock while it heals. More about that on another day.
That’s probably why reconciliation has a penance that goes with it…not to punish us, but for us to be disciplined to remain close to the Father, or the shepherd, or that voice inside us that says, “Come back home.”