The Father’s Two Sons: What the Prodigal Son Tells us About Divine Sonship

In Exodus 32, Moses has gone up on Mount Sinai to talk to God.  Almost immediately after he left, the Israelites fall into idolatry, worshiping a golden calf (Ex. 32:1-6). God is displeased, and says to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Ex. 32:7). Moses responds by pointing the finger back at God: “O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” (Ex. 32:11).

Juan Fernández Navarrete, Baptism of Christ (1567)

On one level, this dialogue is almost comical, like two sleep-exhausted parents saying to one another: “your son is crying again, you’d better go take care of him.” But there’s an important message being conveyed. We belong to God, we belong to the Church, and we belong to one another. We are our brothers’ keepers (Gen. 4:9).

The Beauty of Divine Filiation

Sonship is an important theme within the New Testament, both Christ’s and ours.  For example, at His Baptism, the Father says of Jesus, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (Lk. 3:22). And immediately after this, Jesus goes into the desert, where the devil unsuccessfully attacks this filial identity, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Lk. 4:3).  As for us, St. Paul writes, in Romans 8:15-17,

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

It’s this sonship, this filial identity, that the devil seeks to undermine through sin.  We see this illustrated well in the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). A more accurate name for this parable is the Parable of the Two Sons, because it’s told in response to the Pharisees, who are represented by the prodigal’s older brother, and who were complaining that Jesus dined with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 15:1-3).

The Father’s Two Sons

The parable is well known, so I won’t summarize it. Instead, I want to focus on the ending of the parable, in which the older brother is so upset that his Father rejoices at the prodigal’s return that he refuses to go into his Father’s House (Lk. 15:28). This action, even in isolation, is a dramatic action of alienation from what should be his family, but the son doesn’t stop there. His Father rushes out to comfort him (Lk. 15:28), just as he had done to his younger brother (Lk. 15:20). The older brother, the rigorist, says to his Father (Lk. 15:29-30),

Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665)

The contrast between the two brothers is stark. The younger brother, even at his worst, always referred to his Father as Father (Lk. 15:12, 17, 18, 21). At his lowest, the prodigal decides to return to the Father, and to say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Lk. 15:18-19). He only makes it halfway through his prepared speech before his Father prepares a welcome home party for him (Lk 15:21-22).

The rigorist, on the other hand, doesn’t address his Father as Father. Instead, this son treats himself as if he’a hired servant. He says that “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command,” and it’s on this basis, rather than on the basis of sonship, that he expects the Father to give him nice things. The extreme of the rigorist brother’s alienation can be seen when he describes his brother as “this son of yours.” That phrase is packed with meaning.

It’s an implicit denial of the brotherhood between the two sons, and it’s also an implicit denial of the older son’s sonship. In this way, Christ shows an oft-overlooked truth of Christianity: you can’t have God as Father without Christians as your brothers. Or, as St. Cyprian of Carthage put it, back in the third century,  “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”  We want the King without His Kingdom, and Jesus always reminds us that this just isn’t possible. You can’t honor the first great commandment, love of God, while rejecting the second great commandment, love of neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).  Being a child of God means being having the rest of the Church for your brothers and sisters, period.

There are many beautiful scenes in this parable, but one of the best is the Father’s response to his older son (Lk. 15:31-32): “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” He simultaneously reminds his rigorist son both that (a) he’s His son, and (b) the prodigal is his brother.  In this way, the Father mends his son’s damaged relationship, both with Himself and with his brother.

And suddenly, the two brothers don’t look so different. Both, by their sins, alienate themselves from their Father’s House. The prodigal does it more dramatically, demanding his Father’s inheritance, and running off “into a far country” (Lk. 15:13), while the rigorist just stays a little outside the House, angrily (Lk. 15:25-28). The low point of the prodigal comes when a man sends the prodigal “into his fields to feed swine” (Lk. 15:15), and so it’s fitting that the “elder son was in the field,” also (Lk. 15:25). Both sons feel themselves reduced from sons to servants by their sins, and in both cases, the Father rushes out to restore them to their proper place as sons.

The Glamour of Evil

Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel (1637)

Both sons also show the sheer ugliness of sin. One brother chooses to indulge the sins of the flesh, the other chooses to indulge self-righteousness.  Both are left miserable and alone. Consider, once more, the older son’s reaction to his younger brother’s return. Remember that while the older brother was working (joylessly) for his Father, his son was engaged in what Scripture calls “loose living” (Lk. 15:13). The older brother is scandalized that his brother might go unpunished after all of this behavior, and it’s hard not to read a hint of jealousy in all of this. If this behavior is to go unpunished, perhaps the pharisaic brother would like to do some “loose living” of his own.

This reaction is one that I think a lot of Christians are guilty of: we’ll hear the conversion story of someone who’s lived a life of sex, drugs, partying, and the rest, and some part of us will think, “they got the best of both worlds! They indulged all of those vices, and they’re still going to end up in Heaven!”  But here’s what that reaction misses: the younger brother, while engaged in this sinful lifestyle, was miserable (Lk. 15:13-17):

Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!”

The younger brother had be reduced, in a way, to something sub-servile, and long after the veneer of the “glamour of evil” had worn off (which happens almost immediately, “not many days later”), the son is dying alone, in isolation from the Father. That’s what sin really looks like.

It’s a diabolical deception to imagine sin as something that’s lots of fun now, as long as we avoid the eternal consequences. The reality is that the hellishness of sin begins here on Earth. Gluttons, the promiscuous, addicts, thieves, bullies, and the like aren’t just punished hereafter. They’re almost invariably miserable here and now. If we miss this point, we miss something fundamental about sin: it can never satisfy us, because we’re made for God alone, and only He can satisfy us.

Guercino, Return of the Prodigal Son (1619)

We see this in the sinful rigorism of the older brother.  Once again, the older brother has less of a flare for the dramatic than his younger brother, but he arrives at the same place. He’s also out in the fields, and he’s also descended into misery. He claims to be upset that he hasn’t been given the opportunity to “make merry with my friends” (Lk. 15:29), but he says this while refusing to go into a merry party. He can even hear the music and dancing (Lk. 15:25), and yet he’d rather mope, clinging to an unsatisfying self-righteousness, envy, and anger. If a merry party is really what his heart desires, the Father has prepared one already in full-swing.

This parable shows us that, just as we belong to God, we belong to one another as brothers and sisters.  In that light, the older brother should have rejoiced to see his brother return, just as the Father did.  After all, this brother is part of the Father’s legacy, part of the “inheritance” the Father has bestowed upon his sons.  


  1. It is hard to understand why a disciplinary issue like the sexual abuse of children by clergy must be handled by the CDF. The resulting conflation of doctrine and discipline is a pastoral disgrace.

    Shouldn’t it be made clear that this is a matter of discipline and not a matter of doctrine? Or could this be another nefarious side effect of elevating to “doctrine” other matters which are also merely disciplinary, such as the exclusively male clergy of the church?

    Like the fire that persisted without burning the bush, the pedophilia crisis is cleansing the church from the inside out, darkening dead wood and opening new space for (1) the ordination of celibate and married women to the diaconate, and (2) the ordination of celibate women to the priesthood and the episcopate, as part of the church’s inner cleansing from patriarchy.

    This fire will not burn the church, but it will not be extinguished either. It may take centuries; but then it will bear much fruit because the Lord is cultivating and fertilizing the ground!


    1. Luis,

      First off, what does this have to do with the post? Or any recent post? It seems a little like you’re trolling, to argue about something that’s pretty old news (the transfer of sex abuse cases to the CDF). In any case, I’m baffled at how you can justify your first paragraph:

      It is hard to understand why a disciplinary issue like the sexual abuse of children by clergy must be handled by the CDF. The resulting conflation of doctrine and discipline is a pastoral disgrace.

      Are you claiming that the sexual abuse of children by clergy doesn’t violate any doctrines of the Catholic Faith? CCC 2389 says otherwise, viewing it both as a sexual sin and as an offense against the dignity of marriage.

      It’s absolutely false that the “sexual abuse of children by clergy” is a matter of “discipline,” in the sense that you’re using the word. If it were, the Church could declare tomorrow that sexual abuse is morally permissible. And obviously, She can never do that, because child sexual abuse gravely contrary to the Gospel (Mt. 18:5-6). She’s bound by the Gospel on this matter: hence, it’s doctrinal.

      Also, the CDF deals with offenses against the faith and morals, and the sexual abuse of children is certainly that.

      Transferring these cases to the CDF was, as far as I can tell, a very prudent move on the part of the Church, and showed that this was being taken seriously as a matter involving serious sin, rather than simply a “clergy issue.”

      As for your claims about women clergy, there’s no way that you’re right. I’ve addressed the merits and the impossibility of women’s ordination elsewhere on this blog (use the search bar on the right to find a number of posts on-point).

      But leaving the merits aside, there is an even more obvious reason that you are wrong. As Pope John Paul II said in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

      “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

      Given this, let me put this challenge to you: you rightly distinguish between Catholic doctrines and disciplines. The Church has declared that, as a matter of Catholic dogma, She cannot ordain women, ever. You think that this will change. Can you show me any point in history, ever, where the Church reversed Herself on a previously-declared dogma? And if you can (or more accurately, if you think you can), why trust such a Church at all, since it’s obviously a false one?



  2. “(1) the ordination of celibate and married women to the diaconate, and (2) the ordination of celibate women to the priesthood and the episcopate, as part of the church’s inner cleansing from patriarchy. “

    Will. Not. Happen.

    The Vatican will be burned to the ground, the priceless artifacts it contains will be carried off by an occupying Army as souvenirs to be sold on Craigslist, and the Pope will be dragged before international TV cameras in chains for a life of slavery before they let that happen.

    I once asked my local parish priest what he thought the chances were of the Bishops, or just one Bishop for that matter, opening up the priesthood to married men, who had wives and children and well-established careers. Those men could be sort of an “on-call priest”, that when a regular priest is sick, that man could step in to perform Mass when needed.

    My Parish priest laughed loud enough that his secretary could hear him and asked what was so funny.

  3. A) Doctrinally, at baptism and confirmation, all of the faithful are priests. CCC 1546

    B) Doctrinally, not as a matter of discipline, the ministerial priesthood is limited to males for bishops and priests. It would be pretty friggin weird to call a female priest “Father.” Bishops and priests are icons of the priesthood of Christ. It would be inappropriate to draw an icon of Jesus as a woman because Jesus wasn’t a woman. It would be like drawing an icon of Jesus with devil horns–it’s a token that doesn’t match its correspondent in reality. So too is a female “priest.”

    C) I didn’t say deacons on purpose. Romans 16:1-3 RSV-CE “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchre-ae, 2 that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.” διάκονον–diakonon–Noun: Accusative Feminine Singular

    D) Celibate priests are a discipline in the Latin rite, and there are exceptions.

    E) Celibrate bishops are a discipline in the Eastern and Western rites, and there are exceptions.

    1. A) Your objection via Nicea Canon 19 wasn’t received with full-throated support by the CDF in ‘From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles’ in 2002, in footnote 65.

      “…Can. 19 of the Council of Nicaea (325) could be interpreted not as refusing the imposition of hands to all deaconesses in general, but as the simple statement that the deaconesses from the party of Paul of Samosata did not receive the imposition of hands, and “were anyway counted among the laity”, and that it was also necessary to re-ordain them, after having re-baptised them, like the other ministers of this dissident group who returned to the Catholic Church. Cf. G. Alberigo, Les conciles oecumeniques, vol. 2 Les decrets, bk. 1 (Paris, 1994), 54.”

      B)Constitutiones Apostolorum Book 8

      “Concerning the Deaconess— The Constitution of Bartholomew.

      XIX. Concerning a deaconess, I Bartholomew make this constitution: O bishop, you shall lay your hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses, and shall say:—

      The Form of Prayer for the Ordination of a Deaconess.

      XX . O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who replenished with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah; who did not disdain that Your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, ordained women to be keepers of Your holy gates—do Thou now also look down upon this Your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Your Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, 2 Corinthians 7:1 that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to Your glory, and the praise of Your Christ, with whom glory and adoration be to You and the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.”

      C) Chalcedon Canon 15

      “A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized and the man united to her.”

      D) Trullo Canon 14:

      “Let the canon of our holy God-bearing Fathers be confirmed in this particular also; that a presbyter be not ordained before he is thirty years of age, even if he be a very worthy man, but let him be kept back. For our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and began to teach when he was thirty. In like manner let no deacon be ordained before he is twenty-five, nor a deaconess before she is forty.”

    2. Daniel,

      The document you linked to isn’t a CDF document at all, but a document of the (advisory but non-Magisterial) International Theological Commission. In any case, it provides the answer to your (B); namely:

      The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Church – as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.

      Yes, there were women in the early Church who assisted in the baptisms of female catechumens (for modesty reasons). But these women weren’t female deacons, despite the confusing nomenclature.

      Let me give you a modern example. Some dioceses have lay “pastoral associates,” both men and women. That sounds like the equivalent of being an “associate pastor,” but isn’t. In both the cases of “pastoral associates” and “deaconesses,” the problem is bad terminology, terminology often exploited by those pushing an agenda contrary to the Church.

      The ITC makes a generally strong case, but I’m unconvinced, and think that their explanation of footnote 65 is implausible, for reasons that I’ve addressed elsewhere. In my opinion, that explanation just doesn’t make compelling sense of the canon.



    3. A) It was my understanding that the ITC was the ‘advising’ commission of the CDF. Perhaps that’s not the case, so for the purposes of this discussion let’s strike “CDF” in my comment and replace it with “a commission of the Curia”

      B) I’m not saying that a deaconess is a female deacon, but that as a matter of discipline both a deacon and a deaconess were considered part of the diaconate.

      Consider the translation used by the ITC (mine above was from

      “look now upon your servant before you, proposed for the diaconate: grant her the Holy Spirit and purify her of all defilement of flesh and spirit so that she may acquit herself worthily of the office which has been entrusted to her…”

      And also:

      “…the bishop still imposed his hands (cheirotonia) on a deaconess, and conferred on her the orarion or stole (both ends of which were worn at the front, one over the other); he gave her the chalice, which she placed on the altar without giving communion to anyone. Deaconesses were ordained in the course of the Eucharistic liturgy, in the sanctuary, like deacons.”

      That’s CHEIROTONIA not Cheirothesia like for the minor orders as Jack on the other thread pointed out.

      If the role is for the same job as a nun or widow or virgin, why do nuns and widows and virgins not get “ordained” at all much less during the Divine Liturgy?

      C) Your analysis of Nicea canon 19 is all turned around I think.

      I think what they are trying to say is that the Paulist ‘deaconesses’ don’t have invalid ordinations because they haven’t had ordination at all (and should be numbered among the laity not numbered with the defectively ordained imposter clergy) . And that needs to be remedied.

      Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy [numbered BY THEM] should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the bishop of the catholic church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise [How do you “likewise” DEPOSE a deaconess if the deaconess doesn’t consider herself ‘numbered among the clergy’?] in the case of their deaconesses [mentioned separately because they HAVEN’T been “enrolled” though they are “numbered” by the Paulists], and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity [by us until they are ‘enrolled’].

      The corollary is that imposition of hands means that you DON’T number them among the laity.

    4. And I should also ask: what would you have to see in the historical record for you to change your mind about Eastern deaconesses being deaconesses with Holy Orders? That the words Holy Orders appear? I don’t even know what to look for in Greek.

      What would the ordination ordination even look like as opposed to the non-ordination ordination that is described above?

  4. Quite frankly, I’m a little tired of people constantly insinuating that the sex-abuse scandal would not have happened and/or could be prevented in the future by allowing priests to be married.

    If it were simply a matter of an “ordinary” sexual desire for a woman that was craved by the offending priest, then I’m sure they could have found a woman easily enough to satisfy it. The problem is that pedophilia is an abnormal sexual desire and can be proven easily enough by the fact that it occurs in EQUAL regularity in the non-religious, marital world as it does within the priesthood.

    Should we hold priests to a higher standard? Absolutely. But to suggest that married priests would cure the pedophilia problem is short-sighted, simplistic, and shows a total lack of understanding of the root cause of the problem.


    I was wondering if you’d give me permission to use part of your blog post for a Lenten reflection series we are doing for the Youth Group I work with. Would you reply back if that’s ok? (it’d just be a slightly modified paragraph and I would link back to your post)


    Will Rooney

  6. Brilliant … just brilliant. Thank you!

    Regarding married priests as a solution to pedophilia: I was celibate before I was married (for years and years) and not once did I have the urge or the thought of having sex with male adolescents, (let alone children of either sex or age). Suggesting celibacy is the underlying problem is extremely short-sighted and suggests blind ignorance. It’s akin to there being an elephant in the living room and then complaining about not being able to watch TV. Instead of acknowledging the elephant, these people ignore the elephant altogether and insist the problem is due to the small TV screen. They continually cry, “If only the screen were bigger; then we could all watch TV.”

  7. Joe, fantastic post, this parable never seems to dry up. I heard one interesting point about the inheritance of the two sons. After the younger son took his share while the father was still alive, the rest of the estate (majority due to seniority) was rightfully the older brothers. After the return of the younger son, the older, or rigorous brother, falls into the same sin as the younger brother, that is, he see the estate as his possession. He sees his father as taking from him and giving to his brother. Both sons fail to recognize that they only have a share in the estate because of the father, it’s only because of his generosity that they can have anything, even existence.

    Most people tend to see themselves as on of the sons and focus on that aspect, but how rich is the subject of the father in the story. The fact that he willingly gives the youngest his inheritance before the due time; what freedom! He looks to the horizon, awaiting that sons return; what compassion! He pleads with the oldest son to come join in the celebration despite that sons arrogance; what humility! Jesus truly is the father in this parable, he is not only teaching the Pharisees who they are, but also, who He is.

    1. Shane,

      That was beautiful. My former spiritual director, Fr. Arne, encouraged me to meditate on this parable, and ask specific questions in prayer like, “Why was the Father looking out over the road?” I’d never even thought to ask that question, and hearing him say it reminded me of his holiness, and revealed evermore his intimacy with Sacred Scripture.



  8. I am forever amazed with the depth of meaning of passages in the Bible. This has never been more apparent to me than in this parable. You did a superb job giving me yet another side. I was once struggling with a family issue. I was newly married and my brothers -in -law(RIP) was a nonfuntioning and angry alcoholic. My husband was thinking that we would have to care for him if his parents ever passed. Well this was the passage for the very next Sunday and my answer came in my pastor’s homliy (as well as a direct answer from a priest I called who is a specialist in these things!) My pastor said that we should note that the father let the son go knowing full well what he was going to do with the money. Just as God the Father knows full well what we will do with our “money “. God so wants us to be with him but like the father he will not force us. We must come to him with love humility penance…

  9. Dear Joe,

    This exposition, along with your exposition of the passage concerning God’s promise to Abram, are really wonderful. I just wanted to thank you for sharing these with us. It does my heart good to know that we Catholics can exhibit such love for and knowledge of God’s Word.



  10. A most excellent exposition Joe! Your writing and prose is an inspiration. As I strive to return to blogging on the Catholic faith I know that I can always find a role model in your own writings here.

    Blessings in Christ!

  11. I was really happy to finally find some comments that actually were pertinent to your post. It was beautiful. As someone else said, this story never disappoints – never is mined out. Jesus’ exploration in this story of how sin is sin, and the bane of both profligate and the prideful brothers, made me realize once more how many times I have been each brother, equally selfish and unloving, changing roles as it suits me. Thanks be to God that whichever brother we have chosen to appear as will be sought out and welcomed so sweetly, so grandly, in the words of the loving father, urging each brother into the banquet for the found.

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