His Father Loved Him: A Reflection on the Prodigal Son

This Sunday, the son sees the Father – He had no idea that his father loved him.

The awful moment came: The Prodigal Son went and told his father that he had decided to leave. The reason that he wanted to leave his father’s household, and his father’s arms, was to fill the hole in his heart that would not receive a father’s embrace. As a result of his choice, the son would be cut off from his father’s love and, finding himself in the midst of a “great emptiness,” he would almost die. Like ancient Israel before him—and like us, the Church, after him—he was blind to his father’s eyes and deaf to his father’s voice. He needed, immediately, to run to his father for the love he was looking for, the love that would bring him back to life. 

When we leave our heavenly Father, he reacts in the same way as the father in the parable: He gives us a memory of his kindness and awaits our return.

When the Prodigal Son left, the father was not angry. Had the father chosen shouting and violence instead of a gift, the son would not have wanted to return. As it happened, the son still came to believe the lie that his father would not take him back—that their relationship would never again be what it once was. At that moment, the father wanted his son to remember how he had blessed him with an enormous inheritance rather than becoming angry when he left. Even if his son did not realize the full import of that gift, the father was hoping that his son’s heart would stir up the memory of the love and mercy that the father showed him at the moment of his apparently final rejection. The father hoped the son would recognize, in his gut, My old man loves me. All this time, I had him wrong. And the beautiful part of the story is, the son’s old man was right.

What prompted the son’s rejection? Why wasn’t he able to receive his father’s love for him? The answer is that Prodigal Son had a disease that ran in his family. Like his older brother, he felt that he was responsible for making himself lovable. The parable of the Prodigal Son shocks us into rejecting that age-old lie, which John corrected in the first century: “It is not that we have loved God, brothers, but that he loved us.” (1 John 4:10) Clearly, the father’s love was never a question of what his son deserved: The father threw a banquet for his son immediately after hearing that he had squandered half his property! The father ignores the remark about “not deserving” to be called a son and just goes back to showering love on his son, restoring the sonship he had always had by putting a robe on his shoulders, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. The son had abused others and then abused himself by needlessly thinking he was unwanted. Now he comes home. The father races to meet his son and throws his arms around him, heedless entirely of what the young man has done. You are here with me always, and I’m so glad you came back, I imagine the father whispers as he kisses him. I remembered you with such love, my son, and I always knew you would come home.

The problem is that we just don’t realize that we are always with our generous Father, and we can always come home to his embrace. Some of us, like the younger son, might be stuck in a cycle of self-indulgence, shame, and self-pity from time to time. At these times, our guilt is evident and our problem is solvable. We can give up feeding filthy pigs in a foreign land, swallow our pride and come back home. 

When pride takes root in an externally righteous person like the prodigal son’s brother, however, it is more dangerous and much harder to get rid of. This person sees others’ abuses—“He swallowed up your property with prostitutes!”—but cannot see that he is abusing himself. Whereas his brother fell into a life of obvious sin and then was trapped by shame, the righteous elder son had always feared that he was not good enough in his father’s eyes. He thought that instead of seeing him as a son, his father saw him as a “slave” (doulos). The fear of displeasing his “slave-master” father swept through the elder son’s life like a river current, compelling him onward to one good activity after another, at a pace that almost choked him.

This frenzied pace allowed the elder son to avoid the fact that his cause was hopeless: No slave would think of being made a son just for doing as he was told! At most, a slave could only hope to escape severe punishment.

But like a fish in water, the elder son never stopped to think about this great and overwhelming fear. He had never lived outside it.

Until the hurly-burly stopped and rage took over. The lull in activity produced by the father’s party let loose a wave of anger and a deep mistrust that the elder son never knew was within him. While he was busy with good works, the son would have pointed to those works as evidence that he loved his father.

Now he began to see the works as they really were: proof of his disbelief that the father loved him. 

The son turns on his father now and vents his anger: “All these years I slaved for you and not once did I disobey your orders, yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends!” Fear creeps in alongside the son’s anger, now that he has voiced this thought. The father may have the chance to rewrite the son’s mental story, revealing that he is not an unworthy son slaving for a mean, ungenerous father. The son’s beliefs and his identity may very well have to change. If he were to befriend anyone at his father’s party, he might catch himself starting to laugh, saying he’d never believed his father would throw this party for his family and friends in the first place. But in hanging back from the feast, the elder son is taking himself much too seriously, comparing himself to his brother and telling off his father for welcoming him back.

This son, too, needs to swallow his pride and come back home.

If the story of the elder son is stirring something inside you, and your life is one of activity and good works but little peace, get help. The Father desires much more for you: He wants you to come to a knowledge of himself.

This knowledge of himself the Father wants for you is the knowledge that the Book of Genesis lovingly tells of: “Adam knew his wife Eve.” I imagine our first parents standing just transfixed, one with the other—each recognizing the other’s immense goodness, each unable to breathe because of the enormity of the gift.

Because of our brokenness and our almost desperate need to be taught to pray, we often have a long way to go before our relationship to the Father looks remotely like it did for Adam and Eve before the Fall. Counselors and spiritual directors have provided indispensable help to me in making my own journey, as have spiritual mentors and discipleship groups. The Father prepares a way—always!—for Jesus to come into our lives and reveal the Father’s heart.

You are a son or daughter after the Father’s heart. I hope that reading this reflection has helped you discover at least one way that the Father, seeing you, might be wanting to reveal himself more fully to you, through the ministry or presence of another person. Through this ministry and through prayer, may you be released from any resentments or missed expectations that might be keeping you from the Father’s heart. May the Father, instead, give you to know who he really is: the one who looks on you with loving amazement and offers you everything he has in Christ.

May you hear the healing words, “My son or daughter, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours!”

Image credit: de:Otto Mengelberg (1817-1890), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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