"And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)
There are three featured characters in the parable: the younger brother, the older brother, and the father. Most of us identify with one or the other brother: either one who is breaking the rules or keeping them, one who is a "bad boy" or a "good boy." There have been many expositions and commentaries on this parable, so I won't repeat scriptural exegesis.
I will say that my own experience has always led me to identify with the younger son: leaving home for a foreign country, taking an early withdrawal on his inheritance, squandering it and losing everything, getting homesick in a pagan wasteland, and making the way back to where he started. I never really "got" the older brother because it wasn't my story, but I have known many "older brothers" who played by the rules and did things right the first time. Older brothers have their own struggles, though, so I don't want to canonize them, as that is not really the heart of the story.
No, at the heart of the story is the father's love. He loves both sons. When his younger leaves the nest, the father's heart is in search mode; his eyes eternally scan and rest on the horizon. When he does see the son making his way back, it is "from a long way off" (15:20). He is "filled with compassion", not pride or the desire to lord over his son's wrongs (which would be within his rights) or spurn his homecoming. He runs out. Runs. Completely undignified and unbecoming out of love for his son. "He was dead, and has come to life again." His joy knows no bounds. Slaughters the fattened calf, finest robe, throws a party.
Like I said, I was always a son, and a son to a father who really did personify and helped me understand God the Father's love for us. Not in catechesis or formal instruction, but as a living model of self-sacrifice, self-abasement for my sake, and overwhelming affection. While I can't begin to recount everything he has done for me, since there has been so much, the deepest memory I have was calling him from a payphone somewhere in New York state the summer after graduation, having walked there from Pennsylvania. "I think I want to come home," I said. Six hours later, he was there. Seeing him as I approached a general store in the middle of nowhere (where we had planned to meet), feeling shame myself for failing to complete what I had set out to do, I was overcome, and he was too. He came for me. He was there. He didn't even think twice about it.
While I was a exclusively a son for 32 years of my life--thought as a son, lived as as son--now I am also a father. I am called to be there for my son (and daughter) in a way that personifies the Father's love for him. Even though he is only five years old, I can see things now that I will probably see later in his life as he strikes out--the big emotions, the periods of shame, the stubborn resolve, the way he collapses in an embrace of a hug, as if he can finally rest in love. It is the kind of privilege that brings one to their knees, to be a father. I thank the Lord that I have a model in my own dad to emulate in this life, and a Father and Son relationship to meditate on and ponder in scripture that personifies a love that empties itself so completely that its depths can never be plumbed, never fathomed in entirety.
What does love look like? It means giving them freedom to leave, to reject your love. It means continuing to love when they take their inheritance and run, saying "I wish you were dead" as the door slams on the way out. It means scanning the horizon day after day, waiting for their call. It means dropping everything and hopping in the car and driving, night and day, day and night, when the call comes, and shelving "I told you so's" in exchange for embraces steeped in tears of gratitude for even the chance to embrace. That death has not in fact won over this case, that this soiled and stained son from the grave is real and alive, and that no party is too great, no calf too fat, no robe too fine, for a redeemed life and family reunited once again.