or/and: Part 1 of 2

Subtitle: A Lenten Reflection on the Love of God Who is Love

The Parable of the Prodigal Son[1] is one of Jesus’ best-known stories. As is true, I think, of reading, rereading anything familiar, there are two inherent and complementary risks. Because we know it well, perhaps long ago having formed our opinions about its meaning, we can miss, one, something new and, two, something old we might need to see anew.

As I see this parable as veritable thematic embarrassment of riches, a treasure trove of life-lessons, a smorgasbord for the soul, I share a number of ways to interpret it.

With its simple entrée, “There was a man who had two sons,” the subject is parent-child relationships; this story bearing existential lessons about familial life.

Or, focusing on the younger son, considered prodigal, reckless and wasteful – who asks for his “share of the property that will belong to me,” requesting his inheritance, in effect, wishing his father was dead, then “squandering his property in dissolute living” – this is a moral about the dangers of greed and ingratitude.

Or, staying with the younger son who, destitute and, during a country-wide famine, “dying with hunger,” finally “comes to himself,” the lesson is about that sometimes necessity for some of us to hit rock bottom, the nadir of our existence, below which, striking rock, we can dig no further, before we can climb up and out of the hole we have made of our lives to stand again on terra firma.

Or, looking at the elder son who, unhappy with his brother’s return, angrily answers his father’s plea to join the celebration, “Listen! I have worked like a slave for you, never disobeying you, yet you have given me nothing,” the message is life’s unfairness. Life is capricious and without conscience. Hence, the rules we think are (or would want) in play and by which we have structured our lives may not be honored in the end.

Or, continuing with the elder son who, rebukes his father, referring to his brother as “this son of yours,” the issue is sibling rivalry. The dysfunction and discord, the envy and enmity that destroy the capacity for mercy. A proverbial biblical subject as ancient as Cain and Abel,[2] Esau and Jacob,[3] Joseph and his brothers,[4] and the legend of Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome.

Or, putting this parable in its context of religious leaders complaining about Jesus’ association with “tax collectors and sinners,”[5] – and reflecting on the preceding parables of the lost sheep[6] and the lost coin[7] – the focus is on the lost son who resolves to “go to my father, and say, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you.’” This theme of repentance, turning around from the error of one’s ways to walk aright is especially appropriate for Lent.

Or, focusing on the sons and the father, each is prodigal. Reckless. Wasteful.

The younger son in his impudence and imprudence…

The elder son in blindly, foolishly seeking to do the impossible; that is, trying to earn, deserve the freely given favor of his father’s illimitable love…

The father – and this, I believe, is the point – in his unconditional love that hungers to include, thirsts to forgive, even and especially when there is no reason worthy of common sense to do so.

More to come…

© 2021 PRA

Illustration: Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1669), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)


[1] Luke 15.11-32

[2] Genesis 4.1-8

[3] Genesis 25.19-34f

[4] Genesis 37f

[5] Luke 15.1-2

[6] Luke 15.3-7. Jesus asks, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost one until finding it?”

[7] Luke 15.8-10. Jesus asks, “Who, having ten silver coins and losing one does not search the house until finding it?”

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