Seven Lessons from the Prodigal Son

What Fathers can Learn from the Parable of the Prodigal Son

by Dominican Father Peter John Cameron

We know the story well from Luke’s Gospel (cf.15:11-31).

A man had two sons. The younger asked his father for his share of the estate. The father divided the estate and gave the younger son his half. With his newfound wealth, the younger son went off to a distant land where he squandered his money on loose living.

After he had spent everything, a famine struck the land, forcing him to hire himself out as a lowly farmhand tending to the pigs. After much suffering, the young man decided to return home and beg his father for forgiveness.

As the younger son neared his father’s home, he was seen by the father who ran to embrace him. The father commanded the servants to prepare a grand welcome.

The older brother learned of his brother’s return and became angry with his father for celebrating so lavishly. “I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends,” he chided his father.

“My son,” replied the father, “you are with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.”

All of Jesus’ stories make a religious point about the kingdom of God. The parable of the prodigal son also presents a model for perfecting the father-son or father-daughter relationship.

Here are seven lessons fathers can learn from this well-known parable:

1. Fathers Need a Fervent Prayer Life

“Father, give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.”

Astoundingly, according to the custom of the day, a Jewish father before his death could transfer to his sons property intended otherwise only as an inheritance. The holdings, however, could only be legitimately invested, not spent on anything that might imperil the capital.

Legal or not, the son’s decision to depart from his father must have broken his father’s heart. In any event, the father couldn’t just say no. Refusing the son by keeping him at home would only have bred resentment and contempt.

Perhaps he trusted his son to do what was right, as a loving father would.

What would you do if your 15-year-old daughter told you she wanted to enter the convent? Outrageous! Preposterous! Yet, that is just what the little Thérèse of Lisieux proposed to her father Louis Martin. And how much poorer the Church would have been if Louis had stood in her way.

A father needs a spiritually astute soul to perceive the reasonableness of a child’s request that may seem extreme. This comes about only through regular and fervent prayer born of love of God and of children.

2. Fathers Must Let Children Make Mistakes

“He went off to a distant land where he squandered his money on dissolute living.”

Is there anything more anguishing for a parent than to see his child go astray?

Yet a child’s self-esteem requires both relationships that support his ability to solve problems as well as the lived experience of overcoming actual challenges.

St.Thomas Aquinas reminds us that “God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good.” We deplore the horror of sin, but we hope in the all-surpassing power of divine providence, even in the face of evil over which we have no control.

3. Fathers Must Make Home a Place Worth Retrning To

The attempt to find happiness apart from God the Father is the root of all the misery in human life.

Many times we transfer that alienation to our biological fathers.

“Coming to his senses at last,” the prodigal son concludes that his salvation lies in returning to his father. What caused the prodigal son to come to his senses? Memory of his father.

As he stood there feeding those pigs in his selfish disaffection, the prodigal son realized that only his father knew how precious he was. The memory of his father’s compassionate presence converts the prodigal son. The memory of the father’s goodness in the son’s mind sends him back to where he belongs.

Parents cannot predict or prevent turmoil that their children may encounter. Therefore, a Christian father must create in the present the memories that will sustain his child in conflicts of the future. Fathers have to trust with unwavering hope that their children will come to their senses and return to the right path.

4. Fathers Must Take the Initiative

The most shocking detail of this parable is the mode of the reconciliation:

“The father ran out to meet him.”

In the culture of the New Testament, a patriarch never would be caught running in public. Few things were more degrading. The father risks ruining his reputation so as not to lose the chance of reconciling with his lost son.

John Paul II in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) explains something essential about the father of the prodigal son:

“The father’s fidelity to himself is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity….The love for the son…[that] springs from the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be concerned about the son’s dignity. This concern is the measure of his love.”

A child must sense how much his own personal dignity is the focal point of his father’s loving concern. Thus, not only must a father be ever-approachable — he must actually make the approach and rush to initiate reconciliation with wayward children.

5. Fathers Must Give

What the father gives his reunited child – the robe, the ring, the shoes and the feast — are signs that the father wants to invest his son with his life – to generate him in a spiritual way. The father recognizes just how much his formerly dissolute son needs to be generated, or reborn.

When we are generated we know we belong to one whose constant love sustains us. When we are generated we are lifted up out of our fears, our self-assertion and our self-sufficiency.

Being generated means we possess parrhesia, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as straightforward simplicity, filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being loved (2778).

And when we are generated, we want to depend on the one who generates us. We want to respond, comply, devote ourselves to his direction, be obedient.

Being generated saves us from becoming degenerate. However, no one can generate unless he is being generated. By generating his son, the father prepares him to become a father himself.

6. Fathers Must  Show Love

The outraged older son thinks he has an irreproachable argument: “For years now I have slaved for you.”

But the father isn’t interested in slaves. He doesn’t allow his prodigal son to return home as one, and he doesn’t want the son who stays to think of himself in such a way.

John Paul II wrote that “original sin attempts to abolish fatherhood,… placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship.”

The older son doesn’t realize how much his self-righteous complaint threatens to abolish his father’s own fatherhood, which is a participation in God’s fatherhood. The older son suffers from servile fear. Servile fear is a primitive form of fear effective for binding us to our father — and God the Father — by making us dread the punishment that comes if we misbehave.

But servile fear is meant to be temporary, leading us to filial fear. With filial fear we no longer dread chastisement; rather, the only thing we fear is losing our relationship with one we love through neglect or offense. That crucial transition from servile to filial fear depends on the paternal love of the father.

For the child who knows he is loved and accepted is the very one who is most eager to change and conform himself more to the father (and mother) he loves.

A true father engenders filial fear in his child by loving him and believing in him simply because that child is his. He generates filial fear when he knows the worst about his child, yet in that knowledge opts to love the child all the more — precisely because that child needs the father’s love.

A holy father doesn’t get upset or fatalistic about his child’s failures. Instead, a virtuous father believes his child can do anything he wishes because the father wants only what the child can do.

7. Fathers Must Make a Perfect Gift

Bishop Emile Guerry wrote, “The perfection of God the Father lies in giving himself wholly.”
And what makes earthly fathers perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect is joining him in making a perfect gift of self to their children. Generosity is synonymous with fatherhood.

“Then the celebration began.”

To cultivate this kind of generosity means being creative. From time to time fathers must:

  • Offer lavish, extravagant displays of love.
  • Look for special moments to show tenderness.
  • Reinforce the reality of a father’s love when it is unexpected.
  • Make time just to be with your children.
  • Put fatherly sentiments in writing.
  • Rely on the element of surprise in giving signs of affection.

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R.Tolkien once wrote to his son Michael:

“Can’t you see why I care so much about you, and why all that you do concerns me so closely? Still, let us both take heart of hope and faith. The link between father and son is not only of the perishable flesh: it must have something of aeternitas (eternity) about it. There is a place called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued. We may laugh together yet…”

Dominican Father Peter John Cameron is editor-in-chief of the monthly prayer guide Magnificat.