The story of the Prodigal Son is Jesus’ most famous parable. Many people who know the Gospels are familiar with the story.
There’s one detail at the end of the story that people often forget and that’s the reaction of the older son. The older son in the story isn’t too happy about the younger son’s return. He finds himself outside of the party in protest as he questions his father about why the younger son was accepted and restored. The father lets the older son know that all that the father has is his. Then, the parable ends.
A close reading of the account reveals something peculiar – we don’t get to hear a response from the son. We don’t know the end of the story. Does he agree with the father? Does he continue in protest? We are left with a cliff hanger.
Jesus, and the writer Luke, have a reason for this cliff hanger and it has to do with the beginning of the story. Let’s read from Luke’s Gospel: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable… (Luke 15:1-3).
The Pharisees and scribes accuse Jesus of hanging out with sinners. Their philosophy was that they not only followed the law to the letter, but they also believed in not hanging out with anyone else who broke the law. This boycott so to speak helped to pressure others to follow the law and to keep the faithful from being corrupted by others.
In response to their accusation, Jesus tells three parables (Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, and Prodigal Son) to challenge the worldview of the Pharisees and the scribes. He wanted to help them understand his mission, the love of the father, and how wrong their worldview really was.
To do this, Jesus tells a familiar story with a new ending. The beginning of the prodigal son was a well-known tale – the younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a foreign land. The normal punishment for such an action was also very well-known – upon the son’s return the village would conduct a ceremony in which they would banish the son from the community.
But, Jesus changes the narrative half way through, and the star of his story is the father. So much so that Pope Francis calls this story “the Parable of the Merciful Father.” As the son approaches his hometown, the father sees him from a distance. Many commentators have noted that the father sees him from a distance because he is actively waiting for the son to return. They also note that it was undignified for an older person (especially one as prosperous as this father) to run. But, when we realize the background of the story, we realize that the father ultimately watches for his son and runs towards him because he wants to save him from being banished.
Now that we have understood the role of the father, we can turn back to our original question – why does the story end in a cliff hanger? Ultimately, Jesus wants for the Pharisees and scribes to realize that the story is about the accusation that they made towards him. Jesus tells them a story that places the sinners as the younger son, Jesus as the Merciful Father, and the Pharisees and scribes as the older son.
As Jesus shows that his story is playing out in real time, he wants the Pharisees and scribes to make a decision – will they stand outside of the father’s house in protest of Jesus’ mission or will they join Jesus in welcoming back sinners into the father’s house. The choice is theirs.
As Jesus places his audience in the story and allows them to make a decision in real-time, I would suggest that you do the same. Who in the story of the Merciful Father do you relate to?
I encourage you to take this story to prayer. During this year of mercy, God wants you to experience His mercy and learn how to give his mercy to others as well. Don’t wait. Start today.