A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. 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. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, '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.'
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.' But his father ordered his servants, 'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began.
Luke 15: 11-24
My dictionary defines a parable as "an ordinary story which illustrates a moral or religious lesson." We usually focus on the spiritual aspect of the parables, the religious lessons. Perhaps this is as it should be. Certainly, the parable of the prodigal son is a lesson on the love and mercy of God: repentance, redemption and all the rest.
But it is also an ordinary story, a human story. Isn't it?
It's a parable that I lived, not in every particular, but closely enough: in spirit, of course, but also in reality. I turned my back on my father and lived a dissipated life: a life of selfishness and base ingratitude. Yet when I came to my senses and wanted to make things right between us, he was there for me. And I realized that the love he had for me then had been there all along. And I understood a little more of the parable.
I have two sons of my own now. Usually, we think of love as something that grows between two people, but our love for our children is not like that. The day I held my firstborn, he was already more precious to me than anyone else; it was sacramental love. And I understood a little more of the parable.
And perhaps someday I will have to learn the parable again, and be the father instead of the son. There would be a certain justice in that. If I must, I hope I will do it with love: true love, heroic love, love that does not consider worthiness or return, but loves for its own sake. Fortunately, my father helped me understand that part of the parable.
One day, my high school English teacher asked us about our heroes. We all made our answers, mostly celebrities or other public figures. He seemed disappointed in us. We asked him who he would have chosen. He said his father. I didn't understand that then.
I understand now.