"Big Four" Highlights


The Prodigal Grandson

The parable’s Merciful Father may have had a good teacher

By Bill Dodds

The father of the prodigal son is one of the stars in this Year of Mercy, a time when Pope Francis has asked us to read, consider, and pray with the parable in the Gospel of Luke (cf. Lk 15:11-32). But as I get older, I find myself wondering about the prodigal son’s grandfather. As a novelist, I imagine what role he might have played if the story was expanded a bit.

I think I’m on pretty safe ground from a Scripture-meditation point of view. I’m not trying to change what the parable teaches, but considering — with a slight broadening of the plot —how the Merciful Father came to be so merciful. Chances are he grew up with a good example at home.

Imagine, for a moment, a distraught but somewhat peeved dad paying a visit to his own father.

“He’s taken his share of the inheritance, gone off, and I haven’t heard from him since…” the father complains about his prodigal son. “In fact, I never heard a single word of thanks when I handed him all that money. I’ve just plain had it. I’m tired of his attitude, of his lack of appreciation, his inconsideration, and not sending one single word to let me know he’s even still alive …”

And the grandfather of the wayward grandson gives an empathetic nod even as he manages to hide a little smile. He’s been through this scene before.

Flash back a couple of decades and it’s the parable’s Merciful Father — then a cocky, self-absorbed young man — who’s freely spending his own parent’s money.

And now?

Maybe it’s the kind look in the old man’s eyes, maybe it’s the gentle smile, but the distraught dad suddenly recognizes his younger self in that scene, too. Now it dawns on him that as a young man, he had caused his own dad more than a few anxious days and sleepless nights.

He thinks about that for a few moments and then quietly says, “Yet every day I find myself standing in front of the house staring down the road. Looking one way, and then the other.”

The grandfather nods.

I don’t even know which way he’s gone and I’m getting so tired of worrying. I think for the sake of my own health and sanity I should just assume… I don’t know. That he’s all right. Somewhere. Maybe he will return. Or maybe he’s not all right, and I’m never going to see him again.”

Then the grandfather steps forward and takes his beloved son in his arms. The older man doesn’t have all the answers. He doesn’t know how to put into words what he feels. But, he’s certain, first comes love. A merciful love. A forgiving love.

Love. Mercy. Forgiveness.

The father returns home and, day after day, he scans the road looking for the speck that will become a traveler, a traveler that will be his son. Wanting so much to give to his own son what his father has given him, he becomes the Merciful Father, full of love and a forgiveness that heals.

And then, look who’s coming along the road!

You know the rest of the story, and the difficult virtues it demands of each of us, no matter what role we find ourselves in: father, son, or even the jealous older brother.

Bill Dodds and his late wife, Monica, founded the Friends of St. John the Caregiver, an international Catholic organization that promotes care for family caregivers. His novels include Mildred Nudge: A Widower’s Tale and Pope Bob.