Many modern scripture critics protest that the parable of the Prodigal Son is meaningless because the father in the story risked nothing by his actions. In his book 'The Cross and the Prodigal' Dr Kenneth Bailey counters this charge, stating that the humiliation of having a runaway and dissolute son would have been obvious to the parable's original audience, and that the father's spontaneous and undignified scramble to greet his arrival home would have been deemed most unbecoming to a man of his mature years and apparent social standing.
So what do we learn from this insight? That parental love overcomes all? Partly yes.....but more to the point that the father felt his family to be incomplete without the younger son. The older son, who had faithfully worked for his father for years without reward, did not compensate the old man for the absence of his other son. The relationship between the three, which should have been mutually supportive and beneficial was thrown out of kilter by the runaway, whose selfishness eventually led to his own abasement and despair. It was only when the prodigal realised his dependence on his father - love, interestingly enough is not mentioned - that he decided to return home and thus restore the status quo.
Families are fragile and inherently unstable things. When things go well, everything seems easy. When something unforeseen occurs, the whole structure is prone to collapse unless the parties involved make a concerted effort to pull together.
Many people today live in a family situation where some lack is felt - dissatisfaction with other members, work, education, leisure time, diet, emotional or psychological needs - and feel helpless to do anything to ameliorate the situation. This is because a lot of people refuse to do anything that does not let them experience immediate feelings of gratification and pleasure. They seem oblivious to the notion (recognised by earlier generations) that many things to not have an instant pay-off, that we may have to do something that isn't pleasant, or is indeed unpleasant, in order to achieve a distant goal. But the important thing is to keep this goal in sight, however far off it seems to be (see my earlier post 'The Season of Self-Loathing').
The father in the parable surely must have kept the hope that his younger son would eventually return to him, and meanwhile endured the uncomfortable feelings of society's pity and disapproval and his longing for the youth.
The older son selfishly did not seem to recognise his father's distress and yearning for the younger man, nor the instability of a home that was incomplete.
The younger son had to plumb the depths of depravity before he realised that he lacked what he once posessed.
Once reunited, the family unit was once again stable and, whether the less experienced of its members recognised it or not, were able to function again to survive life's storms.
We could, if we so desired, extrapolate this into a Trinitarian reflection....but that would be (and indeed might become) a different post.