The Beginning of the Return
This coming weekend is the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we started our look into the the longer, more detailed parable of the Prodigal Son.
17 Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. The conversion begins in the muck and mud of the pigpen. It is there that he “came to himself.” While there is ambiguity in the moment, the trajectory of the story points to the moment of coming to point of desire to return home – the place where he has a place to be whom God calls him to be. The moment shows the human capacity to renounce foolishness, to begin anew to reclaim one’s heritage and potential. Calamity finally brings him to his senses. He understands that he has no claim on his father and no right to be called son. But if not a son, then he will return to his home as a hired servant. He carefully rehearses his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”
He is not seeking to reclaim what he has renounced. Yet he knows that he, in any condition or circumstance, returns to the Father and his father. It is a classic penitential moment: address, confession, contrition, and a petition of healing. After “coming to himself,” he rises and returns to his father. At this point in the narrative the focus shifts to his father
The Homecoming of the Son and Welcome by His Father. Tashjian notes “As Westerners we cannot really understand what the father has done unless we put ourselves in the context of Eastern culture and way of thinking. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-footed and semi-starved, he would have to get to the family residence by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eyebrows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the town people. So when the son is still far off, before he has entered the outskirts of the village, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him.”
As the earlier parables had asked, “What father would do such a thing? Already being shamed by the actions of his impudent son, again shaming himself by running through the town making a spectacle of himself.” But this father has been keeping vigil and sees his son coming “a long way off.” Anything but coolly reserved, he runs to meet his son, hugging and kissing him. What father would do this? Human? Likely, none. But no other image comes closer to describing the character of God.
The son has “addressed, confessed and expressed contrition” but does not get to the petition. He cannot get through his rehearsed speech. Ironically he does complete the “confessional” part of the speech, but the reconciliatory part is not the son’s role, but rather that of the Father, who makes his intentions immediately known: “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” These show that the young man’s father fully accepted him as his son. The robes and the ring were signs of high position in the family. Sandals showed that he was a son instead of a slave, since slaves did not usually wear sandals. There is no thought of recrimination, no policy of making the young man prove himself worthy. The only important thing is that he is alive. The son himself is more important than anything he has done: “because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”
One curious element of this portion of the parable is this: did the father interrupt the son before the young man reached the “hired worker” portion of the prepared speech? Or did the young man simply stop, already seeing the action of his father to run to him, perhaps the joy on his face, and come to know that he was already forgiven and restored as a member of the family?