Summary: I believe Jesus is drawing our attention to the father and his compassion and joy in order to give us a a deeper understanding of the nature of God and His Kingdom; of our calling to be instruments of His life-giving compassion, and to share in His joy.
We heard in today’s Gospel reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and I am sure most of us have read and heard it numerous times. And we all perhaps have lost count of the sermons we have heard on this parable. You may be wondering what on earth I can say on this that is new or unique. I cannot answer that question, however. But I can trust - we all can trust - the Holy Spirit to teach us all things (as promised in Holy Scripture). So, even if this may seem to be “covering old ground,” let us listen together to see what God has in store for us this time in our brief sojourn through these sacred verses.
Now, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of three parables in the 15th Chapter of Luke, spoken by Jesus, one after the other, to a crowd of publicans and sinners, in the presence of Pharisees and scribes. In effect, a trilogy of parables, each dealing with the same theme, but each also revealing different, yet complementary aspects of God’s Truth and Wisdom. The purpose of these three parables, this trilogy, if you will, was to illustrate particular traits of the Kingdom of God, namely God's mercy, God's desire through Christ for the salvation of sinners, and the joy in Heaven, and in God Himself, over the salvation of just one soul. Now, the Pharisees could not understand how Jesus could be a righteous teacher and have fellowship with sinners, and they did not know, nor did they likely want to know, the true nature of God's mercy and His love for mankind. (After all, once you have built a system, and have mastered it to reside at its top - like the Pharisees - it is difficult to hear and accept that, despite your assiduous application of every imaginable element of scripture, at least in your own mind, you somehow got it all wrong; they did get it all wrong, and in each age since, the “Pharisees” within the Church, and the “pharisee” hiding in the secret counsels of our hearts still get it wrong).
So, Jesus gave them (and us) three consecutive parables - one on the lost sheep, another on the lost coin, and this one on the lost son. Notice how Jesus in these three parables covers the several ways of being lost - wandering off like a sheep, being lost by happenstance of conditions as in the lost coin, and willfully abandoning wisdom and prudence as did the Prodigal son. In the first two, Jesus draws particular attention to the commitment and diligence of the search for the lost, and in all three He describes the joy of finding with the concomitant desire to share that joy with others. These are things we can understand from our own experience.
In the first two parables Jesus explains that likewise in heaven there is such joy over the repentance of a sinner. In the Prodigal son parable, we see the joy of God represented in the joy of the father over his son's return; and in the exchange between the father and the obedient son, we see that we are called to share in God's joy over the repentance of each sinner (which God knows is not easy for us to do). Truly, all three parables are needed to see the full illustration Jesus is presenting. And we get all three in the course of the Trinity season.
So, what do we tend to do with this parable of the Prodigal son? Hardly are the traits of God's mercy, and the joy in heaven revealed for our understanding, than we proceed to seek other understandings. Like Pharisees we begin to analyze how the Prodigal son came to his senses in repentance (or whether he was merely acting in self interest), or we ponder whether the son who remained faithful and obedient was a despicable Pharisee, a self-righteous priggish and dull young man, or a hardhearted hypocrite. We look for all sorts of symbolism and analogies, and we try to stretch the metaphors of this parable to cover all that we wish to know about the kingdom of God, or to bolster what we already believe about it. But in trying to see more in this story, we end up seeing less, and we miss what is truly remarkable about it. That the Prodigal son in being so unwise and reckless would suffer and be driven to humiliation is no surprise. That the older son would have difficulty understanding such heavenly joy over the Prodigal son's return is hardly remarkable - we are so apt to be just like that, but - and here is the remarkable part of this - God is patient with us, and explains the cause for gladness: "for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; was lost, and is found." That is truly remarkable... you see, this is about the restoration of humanity to God!!!