The three stories that Jesus tells in the gospel reading this morning have the experience of loss at their centre. A shepherd loses one of his sheep; a woman loses one of her coins; a father loses one of his sons. The experience of loss generated great energy in each of these three people. They became earnest searchers. The shepherd went out into the hills after his lost sheep; the woman swept her little house diligently for her lost coin; the father scanned the horizon daily for his lost son. Many people could identify with that energetic response to the experience of loss. If a child goes missing, for example, parents will drop everything to search for their child. Those who are close to the family will do the same. The search becomes all consuming. Everything else is put aside.

The son who went missing in today’s gospel reading was not a child. He was a young adult who freely decided to get lost. Yet, the father searched for this adult son as energetically, as passionately, as if he was a child who had gone missing against his will. The fact that the father spotted the son while he was still a long way off suggests that the father had been scanning the horizon in hope on a regular basis. While respecting his son’s freedom to leave home, his father never left his son. He continued to carry his son in his mind and heart. The father’s love for the son did not grow cold, even in the face of his son’s self-centred decision to leave home.

This whole story gives us an inkling about the nature of our God. Just listen to what he says – “Everything I have is yours,” the father insists. What a marvellous response, and what an amazing image of God! According to Jesus, God is like a Prodigal Father who welcomes home his son without explanation. No questions are asked about why the son is returning home and no apology is even asked for. He throws his arms around him, and invites everyone to celebrate because his son who “was dead has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

This is not just a son. He’s a returned son. It is when we come back that we know how important union is, what strength and joy relationship gives. It is one of the most consistent messages of the Bible: It is in losing that we discover what we have. Alienation isn’t the end of the world; it’s the way we commonly come to God. Almost all biblical figures are transformed “sinners,” not people who walk a straight line to God. That is not the path.

This parable of the Prodigal Son/Father has the power to change us because it names human relationships so perfectly. We see ourselves in both sons: We try to live our life apart and autonomously, and yet that leads to an eventual alienation and unhappiness. Slowly we gather our truth and our identity. But we are also capable of being the older son who prides himself on his orthodoxy but who is unable to celebrate and enjoy a free gift. So, we end with an amazing story of one son who does it all right and is wrong, and another son who does it all wrong and is right!

At the end of the parable, we never learn whether the older son comes to the banquet, but we do know that the Father continues hoping that his son will come and not live in resentment or superiority toward the brother who has done it all wrong. It is an invitation to all of us who have perhaps been good Catholics, “older sons,” but can also lack compassion and forgiveness.

Fr. Charles Chidiebere Mmaduekwe