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By Virginia Smith

The Bible: Light to My Path

St. Anthony Messenger has invited several biblical experts to contribute to this column in 2002. Each month, one author will choose a passage that comforts, challenges or seems neglected. He or she will explain how to apply this passage and connect it to everyday life. This month's guide:

Virginia Smith is coeditor of and a frequent contributor to Scripture From Scratch, a monthly four-page newsletter published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. God for Grownups, her first book, has just been released by Thomas More Publishing and also addresses scriptural topics.



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Scene Six: Camera Shifts
Biblical Background

While [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

Luke 15:20b


Do you know the story of the Prodigal Son? What a question! Of course you do. You’ve been hearing it all your life. And that just may be the problem.

Most of us are victims of overfamiliarity when it comes to certain biblical passages. We think we know them so well that when the Sunday Gospel begins, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father...,” it registers in our subconscious as, “Oh, right, that one.” Our busy little brain moves on to more pressing matters, such as where we’ll go for brunch after church. On some level, we may follow the words of the well-known tale, but do we really hear it?

Sometimes (probably not often enough), when I find myself drifting into that kind of complacent apathy, I try to jar myself back to the moment by pretending I’ve never heard the reading before, hanging on its every word. The results can be startling as I often hear something I’m almost sure wasn’t there in previous readings. With the Prodigal Son parable, I was stopped in my tracks, not by something that was said, but rather by something that wasn’t.

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I wish we’d never hung the Prodigal Son label on this story. I doubt that Luke would have titled it so because it places the emphasis on the wrong word.

Neither son is the centerpiece of the story. That distinction belongs to the father. So, if we must have a title, I’d be much more comfortable with the Forgiving Father.

Now we can proceed to the gist of the story. I won’t retell the tale here. We know it almost too well: Scene One, Show Me the Money; Scene Two, Son Takes Off; Scene Three, Son Strikes Out; Scene Four, Son Prepares to Eat Humble Pie.

Now comes Scene Five. As the capricious younger son plods along the dusty road, rehearsing his speech of repentance, he is probably attempting to anticipate his father’s reaction, which might range from disappointment to rage. He’s not looking forward to any of these.

Scene Six: Camera Shifts

Now the scene shifts to the father himself. As you read above, “His father caught sight of [the son] and was filled with compassion.” I’m struck forcefully by what is left unsaid. If the father spied the boy on the road from afar, it can only mean that he’d been standing there day after day, perhaps year after year—peering into the distance, hoping to see a familiar figure come into view.

When it finally happens, the father doesn’t stand there tapping his foot, waiting to let fly the words of anger and rejection he’s been saving up all that time. On the contrary, he runs down the road, nearly bowls the boy over with embraces and kisses, absolutely refusing to listen to his son’s carefully composed confession.

As children who are often in the position of returning to our Father God after running off in all sorts of unproductive directions, what solace we find in this old parable! Once we’ve figured out that we’ve blown it yet again and set our weary feet on the road home, we might deserve ranting, raving and rejection, but our God will run to meet us as we top the distant hill.

Our Father will enfold us in a loving embrace and drown our chagrin in calls for celebration. Ours is a forgiving Father. Thank God for God!


Biblical Background

Parables by their very nature emerge from everyday life and demand little or no explanation. We modern Americans may need to do some reconstruction since the time period and culture are not our own. The Parable of the Lost Son/Forgiving Father, however, resonates well in most times and places. Originally addressed to scribes and Pharisees who found Jesus’ association with sinners objectionable, the story dramatically describes a God of mercy who sees tremendous value in those frequently written off by the self-righteous.


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