XLII. Pope Benedict next takes us through Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son. So familiar is this story that the mere title calls to mind its key outlines: the son who leaves home to squander his inheritance and returns in poverty and shame, only to find his father’s joyous welcome and the full restoration of his place in the family. Read this way, it speaks to anyone who repents of sin and finds healing and joy in God’s mercy.
However common this title of the story is, as the Pope notes, the “Prodigal Son” does not capture the whole of the drama here. More accurately, it is the Parable of the Two Brothers, and Jesus is completing a thread that runs all through the Old Testament with this focus. In the background are many pairs of brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and (collectively) his brothers. A similar motif is found in Matthew: the two brothers, one of whom protests but does his father’s will, and the other who verbally agrees but fails to act. In this story, then, Jesus is contrasting all those who will follow Him as the Christ and accept mercy, and those who refuse.
At the same time, the father in the story is an essential figure, desiring nothing greater than harmony restored in his family. He is generous to a fault, but there is a wisdom behind his apparent indulgence of both of his rebellious children. The younger son squanders not just money, but his heritage … in the Greek word used, his “essence,” his very self. His bid for perfect freedom from all obligations and ties has utterly failed him, and he is totally destitute. To become a swineherd, of course, is an ultimate degradation for a Jewish son, and his freedom has become wretched slavery.