The Parable of the Prodigal Son: An Image of the Family

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The Lord’s Parable of the Prodigal Son has many familiar lessons related to repentance and Great Lent.

There is an obvious lesson about the person who wastes his/her life in sin and then for whatever reason comes to realize that life was good back at home, and so decides to humbly seeks to return to live with the father, but no longer in the exalted role of child but only as a servant.

It is family/home that gives sense to the parable.

The family in Judaism is a religious unit where holy days are kept (like Passover), where Torah is learned, where the stories of God’s salvation are read and absorbed into one’s own identity.   The Jewish family anywhere in the world could practice the faith at home.   God was never far from them no matter how far away from Jerusalem they lived.   The temple was the place for animal sacrifice, but in the family one lived the faith.  Family is a religious community preserving traditions and passing them on from one generation to the next by home worship and instruction.  Children learned the faith first and foremost at home, not by going to temple.

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One need only think about how much of the history of Israel involves and is centered on family, and family members who are even named.   It was in family that the people learned how to obey Go, how to keep the Law, developed a sense of sin, realized the power of God’s holiness and how to approach God in prayer. Noah is saved with his family.  Abraham is called in and through his family and descendants.  Even when the nation of Israel was in apostasy, families were able to remain faithful to God.

Jewish failure in their mission is often traced to failure in the family to be the holy unity of God.

All of this salvation history is the background for the parable of the Prodigal Son and his family.

Our families/homes are to become the center of our own spiritual lives.  In the home, in family, we are to learn repentance and forgiveness, humility and love, faithfulness and the fear of God.  We learn how to pray, we learn about God’s own love for us and our people, and we learn what God expects from us.

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It is not by accident that the parish is also framed in terms of family including the priest being viewed as “father.”  Chrysostom said that the family is a small church.    And we call God “Father” to show that we all are part of God’s family.  On all levels the imagery of family is present and works to help us understand our relationships with one another and with God.

As family and as parish we learn acceptance and forgiveness, repentance and prayer.  We experience joy, and we experience the pain of belonging to others.  We learn how to love as family members.  We learn to welcome new people into the family and we learn our own role and place in the family of our origin, of our parish and of the people of God.

We learn to see one another with the same eyes that the Parable’s Father views his two sons.  The Father’s eyes are ever hopeful for the return of the lost, for the healing of all divisions, for reuniting the separated, for even overcoming the hurt of sin.

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Finally, we see in this Parable how we are affected by our world around us.  Our society encourages consumption, exploring our every desire, increasing our appetites, affirming ourselves as individuals above and against every social unit.  Our 21st Century American view promotes all that the Prodigal was that led him to set off as an individual freed from the constraints of family and society.  We have so much but always are looking for more for ourselves, not willing to share with our families and parishes and neighbors.

The Prodigal turned his insatiable appetite for independence and self-indulgence into  a hunger for his father’s welcoming love.  Better to be a servant in a house of love than to be a slave to one’s own desires.

Of course, today some only see the negative side of families – that they are dysfunctional or broken.  All of the imagery of family works only if the family is working as a safe haven for growing up, making mistakes and seeking reconciliation.  It is something we have to work on making our families and homes to be the ideal.

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2 thoughts on “The Parable of the Prodigal Son: An Image of the Family

  1. “Better to be a servant in a house of love than to be a slave to one’s own desires.” What an aphorism for Lent, Fr Ted ! Thank you for this. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked ” (Ps 84).
    Nice photo of the church as well :-)

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