Jesus and the Prodigal Son

The parable that reveals God’s radical mercy

By Brian J. Pierce

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables — the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son — in response to criticism regarding his spontaneous practice of eating with a rather disreputable group of friends. In light of this, it is quite symbolic that his first bed as a newborn baby was a feeding trough for animals. It seems that from the very beginning Jesus associates with a pretty unusual group of “friends.” The imagery found in Luke’s infancy narrative already announces to us that Jesus has come to be bread and sustenance for the world. He has come to feed the lowly, the poor, the sinners, even the four-legged friends of God. Luke’s imagery also tells us that this child, who has come to nourish the poor and the outcast, will end his life wrapped in a shroud (swaddling clothes), put to death for daring to let his life — his very own body — become the bread of life, the bread of hope for sinners and for the poorest of the poor.

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country. (Luke 15:11-13)

Jesus, the beloved Son of God, flows out from the eternal Source, from the house of his Abba, setting into motion a faith-filled journey of salvation, a story of light and darkness, of life and death — the latest segment of Israel’s long journey of faith. Traveling from one land to another, often in desperate situations, Israel has tried to respond in obedience to God. The good news behind this long story, of course, is that beneath every step of Israel’s pilgrim journey one finds God’s footprint and God’s promise: “I am with you.” This is what we call “grace.”

The prodigal Christ, moved by love, leaves home and plunges into our complex world. We cannot remain closed in our small, comfortable nest and call ourselves followers of Christ. When I was in college, I met a contemplative Dominican nun who had spent many years confined to a wheelchair. Other than her occasional visit to the doctor, she never left her monastery. I was shocked when I discovered that Sr. Mary Michael had dedicated her whole life to corresponding with prisoners, especially those on death row. Her wheelchair and her life of prayer were not impediments at all to her missionary spirit. Her quiet life of prayer was the pulpit from which she proclaimed Jesus’ unconditional love to those whom the world easily forgets. She was a fountain of love that flowed out into the world.

“You are the salt of the earth ... the light of the world,” says Jesus to each of us (Matt 5:13-14). Our proper place is right in the heart of this wonderful and complicated world, living out the drama of the Incarnation. Worldly realities are good and important for us precisely because the world has been created by love, in the image of God. We are not afraid to embrace the world. In fact, we are anointed to be salt and light precisely because God is passionately in love with the world. This is what it means to be church: to stand in the middle of our beautiful and broken world, with our baptismal candle held high, and be God’s presence and God’s light right here and now in the midst of it all. As Pope Francis reminds us, we are sent as bearers of God’s healing love and mercy:

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful … it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he or she has high cholesterol. ... You have to heal [the] wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.1

“Nearness, proximity” — these are powerful, beautiful words that lead us right into the heart of Jesus’ incarnation. Pope Francis challenges us to make these words part of the vocabulary of our daily lives. To really be disciples of Jesus, we must be prepared to draw near to those who live on the periphery of human existence, those who have been excluded for one reason or another from a full life. In this way we practice proximity, releasing Christ’s healing love into the universe. Pope Francis continues, “We Christians remain steadfast in our intention to ... heal wounds, to build bridges … to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2).”2

In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son does not trip and fall into the distant land of sin and suffering (like most of us). Not at all. The fact is, he chooses to set off down this road. Before leaving on his journey he asks his abba to give him his inheritance, and his abba’s response is to share his very being with his son. From the very beginning of the parable, then, we are given a powerful hint: This abba is different from the others; he does not play by the established rules. His actions in the parable are clearly unconventional, even a bit dangerous. He breaks with deeply ingrained cultural rules here, and it does not seem that he does so haphazardly. If we miss this detail, we may miss the parable’s power to surprise us into conversion. We will see this unusual behavior again at the end of the parable, when we stumble upon the abba as he waits anxiously, even lovingly, for his wayward son’s return (Luke 15:20).

Kenneth Bailey, a Protestant scripture scholar who has lived for 60 years in the Middle East, suggests, “The image of father [in this parable] is transformed from that of a tribal chief into a metaphor that can be used for God.”3 It is a portrait of a father who acts with the tender compassion of a mother. Theologian Sandra Schneiders agrees wholeheartedly:

Jesus’ parable about the father actually constitutes a radical challenge to patriarchy. The divine father who has been understood as the ultimate justification of human patriarchy is revealed as the one who refuses to own us, demand our submission or punish our rebellion. Rather, God is the one who respects our freedom, mourns our alienation, waits patiently for our return and accepts our love as pure gift.4

The beloved Son knows — and has known from all eternity — that he is loved. He knows that everything that his Abba has is his, for he and his Abba are one (John 10:30). This knowing is the greatest inheritance of all. The Son has no need to search for his freedom, because his Abba’s love is freedom. The beloved Son knows that he is free to leave the protection and safety of his Abba’s home and travel into the distant country, a country of suffering and sin. He longs to seek out and find those who have lost their way, like sheep that stray from the shepherd’s watch.

The Son does not break his relationship with his Abba. In fact he wants nothing more than to follow the example of his Abba, to go out of himself, to live for others, to empty himself through love. He sets off with a piece of his Abba’s heart so that he can help build a world free of fear and small-mindedness, where people trust life and live it rather than measuring it. He wants to share his Abba’s inheritance with the friends he hopes to meet in the distant country. He wants to get to know the tax collectors and the prostitutes, the gentiles and the lepers, listen to their stories, understand their worldviews, and share their experiences. He wants to engage with the rabbis and the philosophers and learn from the simple faith of the poor and the outcast. He wants to find those who are lost, to heal those who are broken, to feed those who are starving.

The journey of Jesus is the church’s journey. Says Pope Francis:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. ... If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).5

Jesus’ downward movement into the world, into the midst of the people of God, is the movement of the Incarnation, the movement of love. By taking on human flesh, the eternal and creative Word of God freely enters into the human condition, into the human heart — the heart of sinner and saint alike. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes reference to this dynamic movement by referring to himself as “the bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Pope Francis refers to the need for the church to follow Jesus in this self-giving movement of love: “The ministers of the Gospel must be people ... who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night…”6

This downward movement of God toward humanity is made real and tangible for us in the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus’ journey sets the example for the rest of us, for as he comes “down the mountain” and into the heart of humanity, bringing God’s healing love to our broken, sinful and suffering world, he looks back at us and says, “Come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). In the words of Pope Francis:

The Son of God “went out” of his divine condition and came to encounter us. ... No one is excluded from the hope of life, from the love of God. The Church is sent to reawaken this hope everywhere, especially where it is suffocated by difficult existential conditions, at times inhuman, where hope does not breathe but is suffocated. There is need of the oxygen of the Gospel, of the breath of the Spirit of the Risen Christ, to rekindle it in hearts. The Church is the house whose doors are always open not only so that everyone can find welcome and breathe love and hope, but also because ... the Holy Spirit drives us to go out ... to the fringes of humanity.7

Where do we, who call ourselves followers of Jesus, find ourselves on this path? Do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and risk journeying with him into the distant country — without counting the cost? Does our heart burn with passion for the poor, the lost, the disenfranchised, so much that we want nothing more than to break bread with those who hunger for the mercy and peace of God?

What or who awaits us at the end of this journey of faith? Like the prodigal son, we are likely to be wounded along this path, wounded because we want nothing more than to love our neighbor the way Christ loves us. Is he not, after all, the beloved Son who was lost and has been found, who was dead and has come back to life? “Oh happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”8

Brian J. Pierce, O.P., is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Martin de Porres. He has spent the past 20 years preaching worldwide, especially in Latin America. His latest book is Jesus and the Prodigal Son: The God of Radical Mercy (Orbis Press). This feature article is a summary of the central theme of the book. This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Celebration.

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1. “A Big Heart Open to God,” An interview with Pope Francis, America, Sept. 30, 2013, p. 24.
2. Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, November 24, 2013), n. 67.
3. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 146.
4. Sandra Schneiders, Women and the Word (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 47.
5. Ibid., Pope Francis– Evangelii Gaudium, n. 40.
6. Pope Francis, Ibid., “A Big Heart Open to God,” p. 24.
7. Pope Francis, Address to the Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization (Vatican City: October 14, 2013).
8. A segment from the “Paschal Proclamation” (Exsultet).