Be Prodigal in Your Love

On one of the walls of St. Dominic’s priory, here in St. Louis, hangs a replica of Rembrandt’s famous painting of the return of the prodigal son. Proudly, I was one of the brothers who played a part in getting the print matted and framed. It’s the kind of painting that begs you to stop a while and spend time with the characters—including the mysterious maternal figure in the shadows. The story is well-known and beloved for good reason: it’s the Messiah’s happily-ever-after story to us; a story that gives us the hope that no matter how much we mess up, God will take us back. The father figure in the story is the epitome of grace: prodigally pouring out his forgiveness and love on his wayward son. He has become one of my favorite images for God.

The story is so good precisely because of its wonderful details, its tight plot, and because of its strong characterization. However, if we’re not careful, these good things might distract us from the fact that the story is a preaching. Luke’s introduction makes it clear that Jesus is trying to get something straight with the religious professionals, these holy people who have come to him, but who are upset that he hangs around with unholy people. Keeping his audience in mind, we realize Jesus’ story isn’t really about the wayward son, at all—it’s about his brother. Unlike the father, the brother seems to care less about his brother’s return—would probably have been just as happy to have received word that something bad had happened to him while he was away. “Well, that served him right for being such a sinner.” Although, the older brother is obedient to his father, he tragically has not learned really anything from the father about how to love. He is a selfish person—really as selfish as the younger brother, with only outward obedience disguising the fact.

On closer examination, therefore, the two brothers are equally at fault, but in very different ways. This is Jesus’ message to his crowd of listeners: the obvious sinners (tax collectors who extort too much from the poor for their own gain, and prostitutes) and the not-so-obvious sinners (the religious professionals who are obedient to God, but unlike God in their detachment to their neighbors). The story condemns all for their trespasses against such a loving Father, and calls all of its hearers to not just be obedient to God, not just to love him for his kindness and mercy, but to become like him. After all, this is the greatest honor that you can show a parent.