The Prodigal Son is also about the Fourth Commandment

The Prodigal Son is also about the Fourth Commandment
If you think you owe your parents nothing, prepare to learn they were right all along, writes David Quinn


Recently I came across the following tweet from a Jewish academic in Israel by the name of Yoram Hazony: “Honour your father and mother or learn about life the hard way.” I’ve never read a more pithy explanation of the Fourth Commandment.

It says that your parents are your primary teachers and know much more about life than you do. There will be exceptions, of course. There are plenty of bad parents and maybe they had bad parents in their turn, or maybe they had good parents and didn’t honour (respect) them.

But as a rule, parents do know a lot more than their children. The Fourth Commandment says we must look up to them, listen to them, learn from them and thereby avoid many of the inevitable pitfalls of life. If we don’t listen to them, if we think we owe them nothing, then prepare to stumble and learn the hard way that they were right all along. Count yourself lucky if things don’t go too badly for you.


I thought of Hazony’s tweet at Mass on Sunday while listening again to the parable of the Prodigal Son. Today, he might simply be called a ‘waster’.

What kind of relationship did he have with his father? It’s unlikely to have been a good one. He probably drove his father to despair. Why did the father give him his inheritance so quickly? He probably knew that by staying at home, his son would only be disruptive, a source of conflict and division. He probably knew that his son was going to have to learn about life the hard way and so he let him have his inheritance and sent him off. Things were probably much more peaceful at home after that. It is very likely that the wasteful son and the dutiful older son fought constantly. That would happen in most families.

The father would have known the risk he was taking in giving his young son the money to strike out on his own. He knew his was likely to misspend it. Could it be argued that the father was facilitating or enabling his son’s debauched and sinful lifestyle? But he probably felt he had no choice and that his son had to learn about life for himself.

He could have simply kicked him out of the house with nothing and could then have told himself that at least his money wasn’t being spent on debauchery. It is also likely that word of his how younger son was spending the money reached his father and their neighbours and that they gossiped about him.

The father was probably considered by many to be a bad father. How else to explain the behaviour of his son? Other people would probably have kicked the son out with nothing, and others still might have kept him at home. Every one of these choices would have been gossiped about.

Eventually, as we know, the son returns. He has been reduced to feeding pigs. The area he was living in had been struck by famine. Only then, does he come to his senses. He realises how badly he has behaved and how he has wronged both his father and Heaven. He sets out for home, meets his father again and begs for forgiveness.

Today, the son might have become an addict and found himself sleeping on the streets. His reappearance delights his father, but it probably wasn’t the older brother alone who was unhappy. Was the younger brother back to cause trouble? Had he really changed?

The story indicates that he had. It indicates that he had fully repented, that is to say, he was going to mend his ways. To turn your life around is the proper meaning of repentance. Now the father can forgive him and take him back.

The older brother is often criticised when the story of the Prodigal Son is told and interpreted. Outwardly, he seems to have honoured his father, but maybe all he was seeking was his inheritance in due course. On the other hand, having seen how easily his younger brother was given his share, why did he need to keep working at all? Why didn’t he ask for his share now as well? Clearly some sense of real duty stopped him doing so.

The older brother was dutiful, the younger brother was wasteful. Who do we need more? Without dutiful people the world would grind to a halt. It’s understandable if they get a bit annoyed when they see ‘wasters’ being rewarded.

The dutiful brother would have every reason to feel aggrieved if the father had killed the fatted calf and put on a feast for a son who had not mended his ways and was not sorry for what he had done. This would change the whole dynamic of the story and make it one about injustice.

Obviously, the sorrow of the Prodigal Son and the forgiveness of the father is key to the whole thing. The older son complains, but his father tells him that he will inherit everything that is left. That is only just. The story is about repentance, forgiveness and justice. The younger brother has already received his share and will have to live with the fact that he has already wasted it.

But the story is also, in its way, about the Fourth Commandment. If you don’t honour your father and mother, if you are not prepared to listen to them, then life will have to be your teacher instead, and it is bound to be a much harder, less forgiving one than your parents.