Young children will occasionally wander off, casting their parents into a temporary state of anxiety and frantic searching until the youngster is sighted stumbling after a stray dog on the far side of the church parking lot or in a neighbor’s backyard, fast asleep on the cushions of a lawn chair.
Today’s passage about the prodigal son can elicit memories of moments flush with joy, relief and gratitude to God upon locating a child who has wandered off.
Yet, beneath the outward exuberance of the father in today’s scripture passage, lies deep strata of more frightful and conflicted emotions. This son was no toddler who, for a moment, innocently slipped from a parent’s diligent supervision. The context of this reading is more like that of a parent retrieving an adult son or daughter from the lobby of a rehab center or holding cell at the county jail.
Consider, for a moment, the father’s desire that a robe be placed on the shoulders of his son. Clearly, the biblical text refers to a hastily arranged welcome home celebration, but why the need for a fine robe at this location some distance from the house? Was it to spare his son the embarrassment of hard stares and expressions of shock by covering the sight of his son’s sunken chest and protruding ribs?
And what were the father’s private thoughts as his held son’s hand as he slipped a ring on his finger? Was the hand thick and swollen from a fight in some bar? Were the fingers bent and crooked from some accident related to his manual labor or a tumble off a narrow trail along a mountainside on the journey home?
How thick were the callous on the soles of the young man’s feet as his father bent to slide on the sandals brought by the servants? Did he feel an urge to kiss the soiled feet of the boy he once took fishing alongside a creek? Did he smell the hog manure that stained the tattered tunic that his son wore. When he rose to his feet, did he note the haze of shame in his son’s eyes as the boy struggled to meet his father’s gaze?
Today’s parable of forgiveness and joy does not include—much less dwell upon—the physical details imagined above. It does not linger on memories of anguish and anger experienced by parents whose children turn away from them. It avoids this emphasis so that we ourselves—callus and rebellious children we are—might find the strength to meet the compassionate gaze of our loving Father whose name is mercy.
Yet, to mention the pain that the son’s sins undoubtedly engendered within the heart of his father, is to widen the scope of this story the Lord’s own willingness to accept the lash of the whip, the sting of the thorns and the welts on his face out love for every soul that has ever shivered in the dark cell of sin’s suffocating and solitary confinement.
We’ve all had a taste of that dark space.
In today’s gospel, beneath the father’s joy at his son’s return, lies the eternal parental impulse of wishing he could have ease the boy’s suffering by taking his place.