Recently, on a visit to my daughter, Anna, I saw a painting in the entrance to the crypt of the Chapel of St. Mary’s University College in Twickenham. The painting was a tableau of many scenes taken from this well-known story of the mercy, love and forgiveness of this remarkable father, but since it represented scenes from modern times it took me by surprise, initially.

St. Luke’s account laid an emphasis on Jesus’ ministry to reconcile sinners to the Father and how he exercised the greatest compassion, especially to those who had given up trying to keep the law of Moses, which the Pharisees and religious leaders had imposed as a ‘great burden’ on the people.

In the story, there are two ‘lost’ sons – the younger one insultingly demands his inheritance before his father is dead, and then wastes this hard-earned wealth in a foreign country, living a life of debauchery. The older son has never done anything wrong, but has failed to recognise the distinguishing characteristic of his father and has also rejected his brother. The younger son becomes aware of the degrading state in which he finds himself; modern parallels can be found in the isolating addictive behaviours associated with alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex. Above all, he comes to the realisation that he exists in a loveless place, which he was able to compare and contrast with the security of home. He rehearses a negotiated reconciliation with his father, hoping that his act of contrition will restore a measure of security, if not the love of his father. The story concludes with the most joyous and demonstrative love of the father, restoring the son completely and without censure.

This parable tells of God’s infinite compassion and mercy – beyond human understanding in its depth and genuineness of love for humanity. It also tells us that God’s wrath may be seen in allowing us to exercise our own free will, to fall into the downward spiral of sin until we reach ‘our senses’ and freely seek forgiveness. Separating ourselves from the Father will deprive us of the peace that only He can give.

The older son’s self-indulgence, indifference to his brother’s fate and blindness to the father’s love serve to remind us that we are also called to be compassionate, especially to those who seem to be powerless.