Seven Lessons from Prodigal Son

What Fathers can Learn from the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Part 3)


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.


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.

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