The readings chosen for the Mass of this day invite us to enjoy a story and to reflect on it. Satisfactory promises, you might say.
When the Gospel passage contains the word "parable" as in today's verses from Luke, "So he told them a parable," we read that as a caution to the effect that the words which follow tell a tale and they bear looking at for the lesson they teach.
Those wise ones who study the ways we speak and write would put it this way: think that a parable works at two or more different levels.
At one level, in the Sunday Missal 2012-13, a line drawing, hardly larger than a thumbnail on the margin of today's Gospel, that of the Prodigal Son, illustrates the enjoyable level.
It depicts a man, arms outstretched, garments flying, evidently running to embrace an even more lightly sketched person in the distance, waiting – perhaps guardedly. Its liveliness matches the narrative in Luke's Gospel.
'He was lost and has been found.'
Both portrayals, one in lines and one in words capture the unabashed joy of the father at the sight of his long lost son returning from a dissolute past. Despite the protests of the son, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son," the grateful father calls for a celebration.
In our mind's eye we can see him, turning this way and that, with broad generous gestures, garments flowing, face aglow with pleasure, ordering his servants to ready a feast.
He may have forgotten or may simply ignore the graceless behaviour of that same son when he left so long ago. At that time, the young man, full of himself, disregarded any feelings his father might have had and laid immediate claim to his "share of the property that will belong to me."
But the father holds no grudge for this brashness; his joy shines in words of an artistic simplicity worthy of our attention on that basis alone and as a dividend added to the lesson they teach. We well remember this parable. A person could memorize its words and print them on greeting cards.
But what of the lesson, the thinking part? Despite the name by which we identify this parable, that of the Prodigal Son, the generous character of the father dominates. His happiness at the return of his wastrel captivates us.
In this way, Jesus tells of the divine love, mercy and the unlimited grace of God – characteristics we need to remember when examining our own failings. Like the son, conscious of our own foolish ways, we need humility enough to accept without presumption the freedom to grow in the blessings available to us in God's infinite forgiveness.
And the older son in the parable – peevish, envious and sulky: What about him? He too learns of the blessings of forgiveness: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."
(Ralph Himsl: firstname.lastname@example.org)