The parable of the prodigal son – it’s a wonderful story isn’t it? Pope Benedict used to call it the parable of the two sons. And I know others who prefer to call it the parable of the merciful father. But I like Benedict’s title, because it seems to go right to the heart of what Jesus was telling His audience.
And to truly understand this parable, we need to look first at exactly who that audience was. Fortunately we don’t have far to look because Luke tells us at the very beginning of this Gospel passage:
“Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain…” [Lk 15:1-2]
In some respects this story of the brothers is nothing new, because it continues a theme that runs through the entire Old Testament. It begins with Cain and Abel, continues with Isaac and Ishmael, appears again a generation later with Esau and Jacob, and is even reflected in the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers. But as He often does, Jesus gives the familiar story a new twist and in doing so brings it to life for his listeners. He brings it to life by bringing it into our lives, for we can’t help but see ourselves in one or both of the brothers. And what is it that Jesus is telling us? Ultimately, I think it’s an appeal to all of us to say “Yes” once more to the God who calls us.
At the parable’s beginning we meet the prodigal, this impulsive, materialistic, lusty young man. And we also meet the father – the magnanimous father who complies with his son’s wishes and gives him his inheritance and his freedom. He knows full well what the son will do, but lets him go his way “into a distant country.”
In commenting on this passage, the Church Fathers explain this decision by the son as an interior rupture, an estrangement from the world of the father – the world of God – an abandonment of all that is truly his own. The son wants his idea of “life in abundance.” He wants no commandments, no authority, no rules, no claims on his actions. He wants radical freedom, complete autonomy. He wants to live only for himself. Today we’d call him a radical libertarian; he accepts no limits on his behavior. If you asked him, he’d probably say he just wants to enjoy himself. And so he does. He grabs all the gusto he can, until there’s no gusto left…and no inheritance.
|Prodigal Feeding the Swine|
Through this conversion the prodigal recognizes that he has wandered far, not just from his home, not just from his father, but from himself. He knows now that true freedom was what he left behind. And now, like all of us, he’s on a pilgrimage – one that involves suffering and inner purification.
Of course, conversion can’t happen, it can’t even begin, unless we expect forgiveness. And forgiveness awaited the younger son, didn’t it? The father, in his wisdom, expected his son to return. Why else would he wait and watch for him? Seeing his son in the distance, the father runs out to meet him with an embrace and a kiss. Through one loving gesture, the father forgives the son – and the son hasn't even made his confession yet!
When the confession comes, the father hardly listens, because the important thing isn’t the confession, but the repentance that brought it about and the fact that his son has returned. The son doesn’t need to beg for forgiveness, he’s already been forgiven. The Father is merciful. This, brothers and sisters, is the glorious Good News! God's forgiveness, His mercy, just like His love, doesn't stop. This is the loving God Jesus reveals to us: the loving God who can’t not forgive!
And remember, Jesus uses this parable to justify His actions, His goodness toward sinners. And in doing so He reinforces His claim that He and the Father are one; both welcome sinners. Of course His Passion and Resurrection reinforce this point still further. How did St. Paul put it?
“…while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” [Rom 5:8]
Ah, but there’s another son, isn’t there? – the elder son, who seems so perfect. He honors his father. He works hard. He doesn’t ask for favors. Yes, he’s the perfect young man, the kind we’d all like our daughters to marry. Yes, he certainly seems respectable, but beneath that veneer of perfection there’s a hardness, a simmering hatred, that bursts through the surface when his sinful brother receives the royal treatment.
|Son...all that is mine is yours|
Like the Pharisees and scribes he’s unable to let go of his own sense of justice – the justice of the world, of humanity – and accept the justice of his father. He’s also motivated by selfishness, but it’s a darker kind because it hides under the cover of respectability, the kind that says, “I’m better than you. I’m holier than you. I deserve more than you.”
Oh, the elder son was a sinner all right; he just didn’t think he was. He despises his father for being so forgiving, but it never crosses his mind that he needs that same forgiveness. He sees only injustice, and perhaps envy that his brother has gotten away with so much. And so his obedience to his father has left him inwardly bitter, lacking any awareness of the true freedom he enjoys as a son.
“Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” [Lk 15:31], the father explains, using almost the same words Jesus uses at the Last Supper when in His high-priestly prayer He describes His relationship with the Father:
“…everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine…” [Jn 17:10]The parable ends here, telling us nothing of the older brother’s reaction. It ends because it now crosses over into reality. It’s now up to His listeners – to the tax collectors, the sinners, the scribes, the Pharisees – to finish the story in their own hearts.
Yes, like the two brothers they too are sinners, just as you and I are sinners. But the question each of us must ask today is: Which kind of sinner am I? And once we answer that question, once we know who we are, only then can we come to realize not only that we need forgiveness, but also that we need to forgive. It’s this knowledge, or the lack of it, that determines where we go from here.
Brothers and sisters, forgiving is no big thing for God. On the contrary, He delights in it, because forgiveness completes God’s love. In forgiveness, love is at its strongest. In forgiveness, love, especially God’s love, generates new life. Yes, God’s delights in forgiveness; and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
But the other question is: Do we delight in it as well?