Those most worthy of love sometimes seem to be the ones who have the greatest difficulty feeling it.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son according to St.Luke, from the New Testament, the younger son has ever reason to fear that his father will reject him since, having asked for his inheritance before his father’s death, he has spent it all in riotous living and is now starving. He wants to share the hogs’ food and perhaps to be hired as one of his father’s servants.
But his father runs out to the highway to meet him, kills a fatted calf and creates a celebration.
The older son objects; he has always stayed at home and worked for his father but has never received even a goat.
The father explains that since the older son has always been with him, he has always benefitted from the patriarch’s bounty and therefore it is only fitting that the runaway son should be given a compensatory feast.
Like so many of the parables, this one used to stick in my throat. It seemed to imply that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least removes the possibility of celebration.
I see the parable now in a different light. The return of the prodigal recreates my faith in returns, generally—that the lost are never truly lost, or at least rarely.
I had a chance, too, to offer the amends we all need to make to those who wander from us, because their wanderings are to some extent the result of our actions, the demands and criticisms that flay the skin from these sensitive ones and produce—of course!—no positive results.
Making amends depends, though, on the amends-maker’s ability to forgive herself, recognizing that all our mistakes in judgement and our failures of love, understanding and compassion are signal marks of our human weakness: “those ills that flesh are heir to,” as Hamlet says. Otherwise the weight of guilt smothers our words.
Perhaps this is why the prodigal’s mother does not appear in the parable. It is too likely that she would be sobbing in her tent, overwhelmed by the memory of all her failures, as I from time to time am overwhelmed by the memory of a little boy in a blue bathrobe.
The poet Stephen Levine, who died a few days ago, maintained a website with his wife that has space for anonymous apologies. It’s worth looking into.