But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found. (Lk 15 1-32)
The Prodigal Son is one of the greatest short stories ever told. It is one of the best of Jesus’ parables. A good story creates characters that feel real because they allow us to identify with them and so learn about ourselves. After immersion in a great story – think of a Shakespeare play or even a good Netflix series – we feel we know more about our life and the world. We have recognised something new. The characters who make this possible seem ‘real’ to us even though we know they are imaginary. But they are imagined from life. A characteristic of real-life people is that they are variable and surprise us. They are not bound by the stereotypes we assign to them. Above all they have a life outside of us.
Think of the characters in the parable. The younger son (the let’s have it now ego) wants his inheritance and runs off and wastes it. In the pigsty he comes to his senses. But it’s not genuine repentance. He just realises he can go home looking sorrowful, make his soft-hearted father believe that he has changed and start living comfortably again. He must have been surprised when his father didn’t even listen to his pious words but ecstatically hugged and kissed him. The older brother (the I am better than you ego) realises what has happened and is furious. He feels jealous and resentful because he has not been shown the love showered on his prodigal brother. His first-cousin is probably called Martha.
And the Father. The story expands his immense reality in three stages. He respects his younger boy’s freedom without question and gives him his inheritance to do what he wants. He welcomes him home with overflowing relief and all the joy of love expressed in yet another feast – of which the gospels are full. He teaches his jealous older boy that he is not loved less than his brother and that he has no favourites (as St Paul says of God). With a few strokes Jesus compresses great theo-psychology as coal is compressed into diamonds. They go together because self-knowledge is the basis of our knowledge of God.
Why does God allow Putin to do what he wants? The Qua’ran says God made humans free so that we will perfect ourselves. I was fantasising the other day about Putin waking up with self-knowledge. Having given us his own free nature God nevertheless influences and saves us by transforming love which we only learn to recognise painfully slowly. And he pulls out the decaying tooth of egotism by showing that we are loved uniquely but, sorry, not exclusively. Nationalism makes wars, ridiculously, because they are not necessary. There is enough of everything to go around to satisfy everyone. Diversity and freedom feed the feast of existence, they do not threaten it.
When I come away from a great story I feel sad. The real world is not so simple or positive. But then it looks different when I feel that what absorbed my attention changed the way I see and am in the world because every character in the story was me and every situation was one I have been part of.

Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2022