The Crisis of Identity in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

One of my favorite passages from the Bible is the parable of the Prodigal Son. This might only come second to the scene with St. Dismas (the “good thief”) asking Jesus to remember him. Either way, my affinity for these two stories hinges on the merciful love of the Divine. Call it what it is, but in a certain tollo legare moment, I picked up my Bible and re-read this parable from Luke 15.

Only recently have I come to fully understand the crucial theme of identity in this story. Before, when I was first drawn to this parable, I was focused solely on the mercy of the father. Now, however, I have a keener understanding of where that mercy comes from, and where its target is.

Before getting into the meat of the parable, it’s important to see the impetus for Jesus delivering this parable in the first place. We find in Luke 15:2 that the Pharisees and scribes are appalled at the sinners coming to listen to him: “Here is a man … that entertains sinners, and eats with them.” This observation sparks three subsequent parables by Jesus, all centered around this theme of one lost, and then found. It was easy for me to not only neglect his statement made by the Pharisees and scribes, but to also ignore what kind of an accusation this is.

At first glance, this accusation appears like a simple dig at the company Jesus keeps. Interestingly enough, this exclamation tells more about what the Pharisees lack (and are struggling with and searching for) than what appears. These three parables are rooted in the identity of one revealed through relationship, culminating in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

For the longest time, I focused only on the lesson of mercy in this parable. While this is an invaluable treasure in the spiritual life, I’ve come to discover that there is so much more to this parable. Most of us are familiar with this parable. A man has two sons, the younger asks for his inheritance from the father, he wastes it and comes back only to be welcomed with a feast and joyous homecoming. I’ve always focused on the progression of the younger son. There is some great insight into our own spiritual lives when we identify with the younger son’s journey in sin. One aspect of this journey that I would like to focus on is the hungering that the younger son has. Once he had spent all the inheritance, the younger son hires himself out to a farmer to feed swine. In the NABRE translation, we find that his hunger causes him to “come to his senses” (Lk 15:17). While this might appear simply to mean that the son had an idea, there is much more contained in a closer reading of the original text. A better translation might be when “he came to himself.” When the son hungers, he remembers who he is, remembers his very being. Not only that, he immediately thinks of the one who gave him his being, his father. His identity as son comes from this understanding of his relationship to his father.

The younger son, having come to realize his identity as his father’s beloved son, immediately sets out to return to his father (Lk 15:20). When the son is greeted by his father, the father orders a ring, robe, and shoes be brought to him - all symbols of the son’s identity as belonging to the father’s family. The younger son is reunited with his father, but more importantly, he has reconciled with himself as being his father’s beloved son. This welcoming and subsequent feast are enough to drive the older brother mad with jealousy. My longstanding thought on this was that the older brother was simply jealous of the affection the father felt for the younger son - and with good reason! The older son, who does all that he should, never gets a feast thrown for him. And his younger brother, who not only demanded his inheritance from his father (essentially wishing the father were dead), but also wasted it all returns to a celebration. I always thought the older son’s jealous was simply fueled by his perceived favoritism by the father. Now I have come to understand that the jealousy of the older son is not rooted this, but rather in his own crisis of not knowing who he is as a beloved son.

This crisis of identity is not unrelated to the words that cause Jesus to deliver this parable. It is the Pharisees lack of understanding as one who is a beloved child of the Father that causes them to cry out, “Here is a man … that entertains sinners, and eats with them.” (Lk 15:2). We see these same words echoed in the older son, “Think how many years I have lived as thy servant, never transgressing thy commands, and thou hast never made me a present of a kid, to make merry with my friends” (Lk 15: 29-30). In both cases, the accusatory words of the men appear plain, but are suffused with a longing to be at the table of the Father. There is a certain jealousy, a jealousy that is rooted in the felt-neglect on the part of the father. Although the two sons appear to be entirely different in their relationship to their father, both are searching for the same thing. Each son longs for an understanding of who he is as the father’s beloved son. The identity of both sons is the crucial element of the story that I had ignored for so long. I passed this insight off as too trivial. I wanted to read and pray more into the merciful love of the father, and see the older son simply as a representative of those who reject or scoff at the merciful love of the Father, much like the Pharisees and scribes did previously. What a stumbling block this was for me to not see clearly the identity crisis lived by both sons! Representing either extreme of squandering in the younger and obliged orthodoxy in the older, we have a parable that can show us that, regardless of our disposition toward our faith, regardless of the path we’ve journeyed, we are all called to be beloved sons of the Father.

Each and every one of us men is longing to understand what it means to be a beloved son of the Father. If you’re like me, it’s often hard to discover the Father’s love if our experience of our biological father has been a trying one. I don’t claim to have a perfect understanding of the Father’s love for me, nor do I yet identify myself as his beloved son, but I have come to realize that this simple understanding is the most important discovery I have to make in my spiritual life. It is my prayer and hope that God will give me the grace for understanding this and the ability to share it with others.


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