An Australian Parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son

Palm Sunday and Holy Week are not my favorite liturgical season.  I endure them in anticipation of Easter. And so, this year I’ve frittered away the final days of Lent and Holy Week binge-watching The Heart Guy, an Australian television series.   I have a soft spot for Australia, and Australian television programs give me the sensation of being there, if only for the duration of the show.

368px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Heart Guy isn’t brilliant television, but it’s fun and harmless.  It chronicles the misadventures of an arrogant and infallible Sydney heart surgeon, Hugh Knight.  Dr. Knight has bad boy habits involving drugs and other misbehavior that result in his surgery license being temporarily suspended.  The medical board sentences Knight to a year’s probation at a country hospital in a town called Whyhope. The aptly named Whyhope also happens to be the town where Dr. Knight grew up and where his family still lives.

Knight returns to Whyhope with his tail between his legs and quickly begins the process of re-integrating into his family and community.  Complications ensue.

At a deeper level, however, The Heart Guy is a retelling of the parable of The Prodigal Son as found in Luke 15:11-32.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son recounts the story of a father and his two sons.  The younger son is given his inheritance and goes off and fritters away his fortune on the good life, losing everything.  He returns home and asks to be taken on as a servant in his father’s house. However, rather than chastising his youngest son, the father slaughters the fatted calf and welcomes him with open arms.

The elder son refuses to participate, believing that his younger brother’s return should not be celebrated.  After all, he, the elder son, has loyally stayed behind and looked after his father and the farm. Never has the father celebrated or recognized him and his loyalty.  The elder son is filled with anger and hate for both his father and his brother.

While I always understood at an intellectual level that the father’s love for the returning son was as God’s love is for all of us—given unconditionally and extravagantly, it has taken me a long time to get comfortable with this parable.  

I can fully understand the elder son’s unhappiness and sense of betrayal.  It wasn’t until I read Henri J.M. Nouwen’s brilliant book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, that I truly felt that I understood the parable at an emotional level.  

The father in the parable is not looking for perfection in his sons, just as God is not looking for perfection in us.  God wants us to come with our brokenness and failures. That invitation is open to all of us.

Indeed, Dr. Knight returns to his family and community broken and disgraced.  Yet, he is welcomed (mostly). Over the course of the series, Knight is healed, both literally and figuratively, by the embrace of his family and the community, which, like the father in the original parable, serve as proxies for God and God’s love.

It’s amazing what one can see on television these days.

As we enter Passover and Easter weekend, may each of you have a blessed and joyous time with friends and family.

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

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