The Prodigal Son and The Merciful Father – Lent 2020


In this talk, Dr. Scott Powell gives a different take on the story of the Prodigal Son. He shares his insights and also reminds us of how we are truly the beloved children of God, which is something worth reflecting on this season of Lent.

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Reflective Study Guide Questions

“And the father said to his servants: Bring forth quickly the first robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet”

Luke 15:22

  • In the ancient world, your value as a teacher (as Jesus was, a Rabbi) was based upon your ability to quote and share the wisdom of the past with your students. Stories of a father disciplining and casting out his misbehaving sons were commonplace—just like the understanding that there were rules God as a father expected his people to follow. Jesus turned the expectation of a father’s role as condemning on its head, however, and shared a loving and forgiving version of fatherhood, just as Our Father in heaven is merciful to us! When you go to confession or do penance, do you feel ashamed to ask God for forgiveness like the prodigal son? Find peace in the knowledge that God loves us fully—He loves and will forgive us gladly even when we have fallen into sin.

  • God has been, is, and always will be. There was not a time when God was an angry man with a beard who did not love us and then changed His mind when Jesus came. The Incarnation of Jesus was a change: God became 100% human and 100% God. But that was always part of the plan. God has always loved us. Have you ever been tempted to compare God’s actions in the Old Testament and in the New Testament as proof that His temperament changed? “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”

  • In Jesus’s teaching of this story, the father was watching for his son to return to him and he runs to him—in all his robed, bearded glory! The father picks up his son, embraces him, and gives him a ring, shoes, and his robe to illustrate to everybody that he accepts the son back into his household. When we return to God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, He accepts us warmly and immediately back into His grace. Have you ever done something for which you thought God could never forgive you? The truth is, the only person who can keep God from forgiving your sins is you. “Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you.”—Matthew 7:7

  • The world often tells you that you are an outcast, that you’re not good enough. That is, after all, how the story of the prodigal son would have traditionally ended (with the father not forgiving and casting out his son). Jesus does not leave us to drown in the voices of the world telling us we are worthless and that our life has no point. He reminds us time and time again through the prophets and through his sacrifice on the Cross and in the Eucharist that He will always be waiting for us to return to Him with His arms outstretched. Do you know who you are?  Do you trust that God loves you as His own child, His own creation, and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven? There is great hope in the mercy of Our Lord, thanks be to God!

Text: The Prodigal Son and The Merciful Father

Hey everybody, it’s Scott Powell, and welcome back to the Pray More Lenten Retreat. Today, I want to have story time. But before we do that, let’s open it in prayer.

Opening Prayer

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen. Jesus, thank You so much for the grace of this Lent. We thank You for the season and all that You have to teach us. We pray that we can be good stewards and faithful pilgrims as we travel through this season. Please be with all of the retreatants, be with all the speakers and the organizers, and please use this conference to do whatever You will. We pray all these things through Christ our Lord, amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

A Father and Son Story

All right, so I want to tell you a story. And this might be a story that you’ve heard before or maybe it’ll sound like a story that you’ve heard before, but it goes like this: It says there was a man who had two sons once. And one day the older of the two sons, I’m sorry, the younger of the two sons came to his father and said, “Father, I want you to give me the share of the inheritance that’s supposed to come to me.” And so the father gave the younger son his share of the inheritance even though he was still alive, which is weird. But he gave him the inheritance and the younger son took the inheritance and we went off to a faraway country and he squandered the inheritance and all the money on loose living and really lousy things. And eventually he had lost everything, he spent all of it and he found himself in want. And so he tied himself, he attached himself to a person of that faraway country and he got a job feeding the swine, the pigs, which for any Jewish man that was the worst thing you could possibly do. And as he was watching what the pigs were eating and as he was longing to have some himself, he realized, “How many of my father’s servants back home have food enough to spare? And yet here I am longing after what the swine are eating”. And so he said, Well I’m going to get myself together, I will go back to my father and I will fall on my face and I will say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m not worthy to be called your son. Please take me back as one of your hired servants.” And so the son got himself together and he started back for home. And while he was still a long way off his father spotted him. And as his father spotted him he went out of the gates of the city to meet his son. And as the son approached, he saw his father at the gates and fell down before his father and he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am not worthy to be called your son. Please take me back as a hired servant.” And the father looked at his son and he took a giant pot of rotted vegetables and he dumped the rotted vegetables in front of his son and he said, “That is what you are to me. You are dead to me, you have shamed us. You’ve brought embarrassment to our whole house. You are no longer my son. Leave here and never come back.” The end, thanks for coming everybody, this has been great. I’m just kidding.

Have you heard that story before? You may have not heard that story but maybe you’ve heard a story that’s like it. The story that I just told you would’ve been a story, or at least a scenario, that would have been familiar to people living in Palestine and the world of Jesus in the first century. Because there was a practice known as a kezazah, and that’s what the story I just told you describes. It’s essentially an ex-communication for someone who has wronged their family, a cutting off ceremony.

Now some of you have heard the story that it sounds like, which sounds like the Prodigal Son story, right, and a lot of us have heard the story of the Prodigal Son a million times, which Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke, it shows up in chapter 15 of Luke. But the thing that’s interesting about the Prodigal Son is that Jesus was known at the time He gives that story as a rabbi, people are calling Him that. And rabbi, of course, in Hebrew just means teacher, rabboni. And in the ancient world, what made you a good rabbi was not necessarily your ability to think of new, creative ideas like we sort of value in our society. But in the ancient world your value as a teacher and as a rabbi was your ability to quote and recycle things that came before you so that you could take the wisdom of the past, ancient things, and be able to tell them in a new way. But it was your ability to know the things that came before you.

Jesus’ Version of the Prodigal Son Story

And I’ve heard that stories like the one I told you were actually pretty well known in the time of Jesus. Because the story that I just told you, for a lot of people in the time of Jesus, and maybe now too, represented what a good father was. A good father was just, a good father was strict, a good father did not let himself be walked on or embarrassed or put to shame. And what does a good father do when he has bad kids? Well, he punishes and he casts them out and he has hard, strict rules because that’s what a good father’s supposed to do, that’s how a lot of people thought about fatherhood. And by extension, that’s how a lot of people in Jesus’s time thought about God.

And I think we’re probably not that far off from it. How many times or how many of you have thought about God as the big angry old man with the beard who’s sitting on the throne in heaven just waiting for us to mess up so He can punish us, so He can shame us, so He can make us never want to do that thing again? ‘Cause that’s the image I had of God for a long time. And I think a lot of us either grew up or just have sort of carried that image.

Now Jesus knew this, and so as a good rabbi He’s going to take the ideas that people have and He’s going to turn ’em on their heads, that’s what Jesus loved to do. And so when Jesus showed up in Luke 15 and started giving this story He said, “There was a man who had two sons.” I wonder if people around were like, “Ah, yeah, I’ve heard this one before”. “I’ve heard stories like this”, “I know where this is going”. “You’re going to give the fatherhood talk again, right?”, just like some of you actually might have done when you heard me say “There was a man who had two sons.” You were like, “Ah he’s going to give the Prodigal Son thing again.” But that’s the thing about what Jesus does. In Jesus’s version of the story, there’s a twist at the end, right? And in Jesus’s story a couple things happen that are different than the version I told you which probably would have been more well known in His time.

But in Jesus’s version, when the son makes his decision to come back for home and to give himself over to his father, in his mind as a slave, something in Jesus’s story is different. Now in Jesus’ story Jesus says, while the son was a long way off the father spotted him. But in Jesus’s version of the story, when the father spots the son he does something different. In Jesus’s version the father runs, which probably doesn’t sound like that big of a deal but it’s incredibly significant.

Kezazah Ceremony of Shame

There are two things here. One, if the father spotted his son while he was a long way off, it means, number one, the father had to have been looking for him, watching, waiting. We don’t know how long the son is gone; the story doesn’t tell us. Maybe it was weeks, maybe it was months, maybe it was years, and we have no idea. But we do know that the father, however long it was, was watching, was waiting, was looking, “Maybe today will be the day my son comes back.” And then when he sees him, in Jesus’s story, he runs. Now in the ancient world, in Jesus’s culture, for an older, dignified land-owning man, which this guy was, it would’ve been totally dishonorable to run.

Why? Well to run, I mean you know, older men in that time would’ve had long robes and, you know, kind of similar to what you might see Father wearing at mass. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen your priest at Mass do a dead sprint. It’s actually pretty hard to do, I think. But you’d kind of have to hike up the robes and pull ’em up and, you know, your kneecaps would be showing, maybe your beard would be flapping in the breeze, and he’s, like, cruising through town, and I guarantee you everyone’s, like, looking out their window, they’re like, “What is that idiot doing”? Some guy is running through the village. Children run, little kids run around. Dignified men walk, but that guy’s running. “What is up?”

So he’s willing to bring that shame, that embarrassment on himself so that he can get to the gates of the city. And when the son throws himself down and says, “I’m not worthy to be called your son”, the father picks him back up. He says, “No, no, no get off the ground.” And in Jesus’s version of the story, do you remember what the father does when he picks him up? He does three things.

Number one, he embraces him, of course. And then he puts a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet, and he puts on his robe. Why did he put on his robe? Because it’s the Middle East, it’s the desert, and it’s super cold. No, it’s probably not because it’s chilly, but he’s trying to say something. Now I don’t know where they live in town, but they probably had a long, very awkward walk home ahead of them. Because the thing about that society, the thing about that culture, is that the father was not the only one who had the legal right and really the responsibility in a lot of people’s eyes to do that kezazah, rotted vegetable, cutting off, excommunication ceremony.

Now I think the reason that the father runs in the story, now, I think the father’s excited, he wants to see his son. I think there is that level to his running, but I don’t think that’s entirely why the father runs. I think the father in Jesus’s story runs, not just out of excitement, but because he knows he has to get to his son first. Because he knows there’s other people in town, there’s other people in the village, maybe other family members, who want to get there first. And if they get there first, then they’re going to dump the rotted vegetables, they’re going to perform the excommunication, and they are going to shame his son and make him leave and never come back. And the father knows that he has to get there first, he has to cut through all of the false identities, the false words from these different people that are going to tell the son he is worthless.

Robe and Ring

So he runs and he gets there first. And as soon as he does, he picks the son up, he puts the robe on him, the shoes on his feet, and the ring on his finger, not because it’s cold and he wants some bling, but to show everybody else in the village “This is my son and if you touch him, you need to get through me first”. That’s what the robe represents, that’s what the ring means. It means “He is mine, this is my child, and this is my son. He is not cut off, he is not cast out. And if you have a problem, you need to go through me.”

I love imagining what that walk through town must have been, -how many people, you know, were peering out their windows like, “Ugh, the son is back, that kid is back, that embarrassment, that ‘shamer’. What a pushover of a father. What a wuss, what a doormat to let himself be walked over that way”.

The Merciful Father

And we know, even at the end of the story, in Jesus’s version, right, there is an older brother who’s not too happy about this. And he says, “How can you accept him back? Don’t you know he wasted everything? He squandered your wealth. Me! Me! I’ve been here the whole time, right? I’ve done everything you’ve asked for”. It’s funny, in the story; the younger son wants to be taken back as a slave. But the older son already seems to see himself as slave, which is funny because neither of these two sons, it’s really not a story about sons; it’s really a story about the father. And it really shouldn’t necessarily be called The Story of the Prodigal Son; it should be called The Story of the Merciful Father, because that’s who the hero of the story is, that’s who the story’s about. And neither son understands that.

Now why do I share that with you today? I think it’s a neat story but when I think of the father in Jesus’s story running, now I know that Jesus, or I assume, that the audience who was listening to Jesus had a very particular vision of what a father was supposed to be and presumably of who their God was, that he is, and not that it was right, not that the Bible taught it, not that everybody had it, but it was probably there, that, you know, God’s waiting for us to mess up. He’s ready to punish, He’s ready to cast out. He’s ready to shame.

For a long time, I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but for a long time, I thought that’s what the sacrament of confession was all about. And I didn’t go to the sacrament of confession for a long time because I was convinced that it was just this way of shaming me into feeling so bad about myself I’d be too embarrassed to do those sins again ’cause I had to say it to somebody and the priest was probably going to be mean and maybe they were going to smack me over the head or make me feel terrible about myself.

And what I didn’t see in the sacrament of confession, which was the whole sacrament is God’s way of reaching down into time and picking us back up, putting His robe on us and His ring on our finger, and saying, “No this is My beloved son, “this is My beloved daughter. “Don’t mess with them.” And I imagine in the story where the father runs to his son, I think he runs, again, because he needs to get there first.

And imagine how many voices we have in our world. How many voices are there on social media or in your friend circles or people at work or other moms or whatever it is who have very specific ideas of who you are supposed to be, of what you’re supposed to look like, of how you’re supposed to dress, of how your kids are supposed to act, if you’re a kid, how you’re supposed to act, what you’re supposed to present yourself as on social media, how you’re supposed to have it all together, all of these things that the world is throwing at us constantly to try to tell you you’re not good enough, you’ve failed, you don’t look good enough, your kids aren’t cool enough, you’re not what you’re supposed to be. You’re worthless, you’re cast out, and you’re not good enough.

God Wants to be with Us

And what Jesus is telling us is that we have a Father who is running, He’s throwing elbows desperately trying to get to us first before all those voices permeate us so that He can lift us up off the ground, so that He can embrace us, wrap us in His arms and in His robes and say, “No you are not who they say you are.” “Let me remind you.” There’s a line from St. John Paul II, one of my favorite quotes from him after he became pope when he went back to his home country of Poland, which was suffering under the weight originally of Nazism, but now by this time Communism, which was trying to lie to people about their true identities. And he stood on a stage in front of a massive crowd, mainly of young people, and he said, “You are not who they say you are. Let me remind you of who you are.”

So often, brothers and sisters, it’s so easy to forget who we are. And this Lent, may it be a time to slow down, to turn to God, to look up at our Father, to let Him pick us up, to let Him clothe us in His glory and be reminded who we are, to block out those voices, to block out all those rotten vegetables that are flying at us from all sorts of different places, from the media and TV and your neighbors and social media and co- workers and classmates and whatever else, but to let God remind us of our true identity, to let God remind us, “No, you will never be my slave. You will never be cast out. You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter”. “Never forget”.

Thanks everybody.

About Dr. Scott Powell

Scott Powell

Dr. Scott Powell is a teacher, theologian and author. He is the director of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, an outreach to the University of Colorado Boulder, and is also an affiliate of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado. He has taught at the Augustine Institute and the Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary’s Catholic Biblical School. He and his wife, Annie, founded Camp Wojtyla, a Catholic outdoor adventure program for youth based in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Scott also co-hosts and produces the popular podcast “The Word on the Hill with the Lanky Guys” and has appeared in numerous Catholic productions, including “Symbolon,” “Beloved,” “Reborn,” “YDisciple” and the “Opening the Word” series.

He has been featured on EWTN, “Catholic Answers Live” and several other Catholic outlets. He holds a doctorate in Catholic Studies from Maryvale Institute/Liverpool Hope University in England. Scott is also the author of “An Environmental Ethic for the End of the World: An Ecological Midrash on Romans 8:19 – 22,” recently published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Scott and his wife live near Boulder, Colorado with their three children: Lily Avila, Samuel Isaac and Evelyn Luca.