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The Prodigal Sons

March 23, 2022

“When he came to his senses, he said ‘ . . . I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you’ . . . [T]he father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let us have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was was lost and is found.’” (Excerpts Luke 15: 17, 22-24).

 Speaking of their teenage daughter, Henry McCord, a religious studies and ethics professor, remarked to his wife in an episode of Madame Secretary: “She’s a flawed mortal stumbling toward enlightenment.” That statement reminded me of the lost son in this week’s gospel lesson. The fifteenth chapter of Luke is called the “Lost Chapter,” because Jesus tells three parables of lost things and people: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.[1] I know first-hand the terror of losing a son. It happened to me twice.

The first time, I was in a large fabric store with our son, Michael, who was about 3 years of age at the time. I let go of his hand to touch a fabric, and when I turned around a minute later, he had vanished. When I couldn’t locate him within two minutes, I asked the manager to lock the doors and post employees at all exits so that we could search for him. About ten minutes later (two hours in “mom time”), after listening to me call his name repeatedly, he emerged from an upright bolt of fabric that he had wrapped around himself.

The second time occurred in 1997. Five year old Peter spent the morning amassing quarters by selling lemonade and cookies in front of our house. One of his older brothers was with him at all times. By noon, they had put away his stand, and all of the kids were in the house. Bob was working in the garage when I went upstairs to take a shower. When I came downstairs 20 minutes later I didn’t see Peter.  Everyone thought he was with someone else. We searched the entire house, including all of the known hiding places. No Peter. Bobby got on his bike to look for him, and I got in the car, asking Bob and the others to stay at home in case he came home. Bobby and I both arrived at the local video store a few minutes later, and found him stuffing quarters into a video game machine in the back of the store. He had snuck his bicycle (with training wheels) out of the garage behind Bob’s back and rode it to our village a mile away, crossing several residential streets and two major boulevards, with the quarters jangling in his pocket.  

Both times, while looking for my sons, I prayed “the mother’s prayer” silently and out loud, “Please, please, Lord return him to us safe and sound.”

In my thirty-eight plus years as a mother I have had many heart-stopping moments of concern for our four children, causing me to fall to my knees to plead with God keep his hand on them, to send his angels to rescue them, and to bring them home safely.

Monica was another mother who prayed for many years for her son. He led a dissolute life, frittering away his immense intellect and abilities.  A stalwart prayer warrior, Monica never gave up on him. She prayed constantly for him, and spoke to godly people who would have a positive influence on him.  At the age of 32, her son was struck by the truths of Christianity during a personal crisis, and was converted.  He was Augustine of Hippo—and according to R. C. Sproul, he was “Without a doubt . . . the most significant extrabiblical theologian of the first millennium.” In one of his best-known works, Confessions, Augustine recounted his path to the cross. In the psalm assigned to this week, David confirms that God forgives our sins when we confess: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ and you forgave my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

During a visit to St. Petersburg in 1986 Henri Nouwen had the rare opportunity to study Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, for a total of four hours over several days. His book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, explores our own “lostness” in the context of the painting.  Nouwen suggests that a more fitting name for the parable would be “The Parable of the Lost Sons.”[2] While we normally think of the son who left home as the “lost son,” clearly, the elder brother, lost in his anger and resentment toward his younger brother, was profoundly lost as well.

The story of the prodigal is our story. We have all been lost at some point in our lives, and we all have a lost child, spouse, parent, sibling, or friend. We have reason to give thanks to God for his mercy, forgiveness, and comfort (Isaiah 12: 1). The pain and angst a prodigal brings to a family or friendship is great, but we must never give up. The father in the parable is a wonderful illustration of God our Father’s forgiveness of us, and is an example of the importance of letting go of resentments.  God will always take us back. Paul reminds us that God reconciled himself to us through Christ “and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).  We should follow the father’s example of reconciling with the prodigals in our lives as God reconciled with us through Jesus.

If you are lost, remember that God, your Father, will always welcome you home with open arms. You are still a member of the family of God. He will never give up on you.

If you are the friend or relative of a prodigal, remember to follow Monica’s example by praying for that person and offering assistance when possible. When he or she comes home, remember that he or she is a flawed mortal, stumbling, hopefully, toward enlightenment. Open your arms and reconcile. Reconciliation doesn’t mean giving in to the prodigal’s demands, but instead, offering assistance to help the person work toward self-sufficiency. And remember that it is the prodigal’s job to come “to his senses” with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer: Father, we follow Monica’s example in praying for the prodigals in our lives.  Send your Spirit to help them “come to their senses” and reconcile with you and with those who care for them.  Envelope them and us in your love, and strengthen and comfort us as we wait for them.  Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scriptures for the Fourth Sunday in Lent are Psalm 32; Isaiah 12:1-6; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32. A similar version of this blog was published on this website in March 2019.

[2] Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday, 1994, p. 69.

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