The prodigal son has never been one of my favorites. To me, the son is ungrateful, runs away, gets into trouble, comes back and is rewarded. I've always identified more with the older brother who was there beside his father doing the "right" thing the whole time and wasn't celebrated. Even as a child the Gospel story left me wondering if Jesus was telling us that Life isn't Fair. After all, that's what my father told us all the time.
But something finally clicked with me reading The Prodigal Son in preparing to teach it to my 3rd grade faith formation class. I've been looking at the story wrong all these years. I've always seen it from the older son's perspective. This time my viewpoint of the story shifted and I saw it from the runaway son's point of view. When you do that, it's a story of unconditional love and forgiveness, not about fairness. That's what Jesus was trying to tell us! He wanted us to recognize God's unfailing and never ending love for each of us in a way we could understand.
Yes, I feel like an idiot for not truly understanding this story when suddenly it seems so apparent. Why couldn't I see it all these years? What blinded me? ... The fact that I didn't see myself as a sinner. ... That's the rub. Until I truly recognized my own shortcomings, my own faults, my own screwups, I saw myself as different from the son who ran away. I was the "good" son, not the "bad" one. But, we are all the "bad" one. We are all sinners. And while I would say, I'm a sinner and Christ died for me, evidently I didn't really see myself in that way. I knew I was a sinner, but didn't identify myself as a sinner. I could sit back and say, "well, I would never do that." It's really not about how we sin or why we sin, but that we do sin. We are sinners and God loves us anyway. No matter what.
I can't look at the Prodigal Son story the same ever again. It might be a new favorite. In fact, after this realization, I couldn't wait to teach it to my religious education class and my own kids. But kids are funny. When I asked them what was the moral of The Prodigal Son story, they said - "It's about how God always loves you, no matter what. Even when you mess up." Yep. They get it. They understand messing up, forgiveness and unconditional love. It might be just us adults that forget what that feels like.