LUKE 15: 1-3, 11-32 USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
I almost feel guilty about sliding into “analytical mode” on the heels of reading one of the most compelling parables of Jesus. There is not much mystery here in terms of the hearts of the parties involved, or the essential message that Jesus conveys in such a marvelous way. What I can do, though, is set some context and point out various linguistic choices with which Luke makes this parable so compelling.
The Gospel text appears in Chapter 15, which opens with the multitude of tax collectors and sinners coming near to listen to him. Evidently the immoral sinners take Jesus more seriously than the Pharisees, who do not come to listen but to complain about Jesus’ welcoming and socializing with these undesirables. Conversing and eating with sinners carried two risks, of course. First, there was the legal matter of uncleanness in Jewish customs of the time. But second was what I would refer to as the “Mr. Carson” objection from Downton Abbey, “That sort of thing is never done.”
Luke then proceeds with two brief parables about recovering the lost: the first is the rejoicing over the discovery of the lost sheep who has somehow wandered away from the other 99. The second is the brief tale of a woman who loses one of her ten coins and rejoices when she finds it—to the point of inviting her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. (I have always wondered if the rejoicing cost more than the coin, but this blog is not The Wall Street Journal.) The common denominator is the rejoicing of finding the restoring what has been lost.
But then Jesus launches in the piece de resistance, a lengthy narrative of a family divided. Joel Green (578ff) comments that numerically the “losses” in this series of parables become more acute: 100 sheep to 10 coins to a little family triad. As long as I remember this narrative, it was called the tale of “The Prodigal Son.” In recent times it has become “The Story of the Loving Father.” It is also possible that one could speak of the alienation of the other brother. All three titles would be appropriate.
All three of these men are in need of redemption, they all “need to be found.” There is an old saying among family therapists that a disruptive child is “the symptoms carrier” of an entire family. His outlandish behavior eventually gets the whole family to the counselor’s office where the family’s systematic illness can be addressed and treated. In our story at hand, the younger son’s conduct is definitely egregious; Green points out that the liquid disposal of an estate before a father’s death was highly unusual and was in fact scorned. Younger sons in the Middle East were often regarded as “lazy and irresponsible,” and the custom of the time was to leave the greater share of the estate to the older, trustworthy brother(s). It is worth noting, though, that according to Luke the elder brother received his share of the estate at the time of the younger brother’s request.
Jesus describes the younger son’s sojourn to “a distant country,” that is, Gentile lands. Whether the young son fully understood the depth of his affront to his family, particularly his father, is hard to say. In fact, he had turned his back on his Jewish heritage and spent the wages of his father’s devout life on “a life of dissipation.” (It is the older son who will spell out his dissipation later, without any evident sources in the story.) The younger son learns two hard lessons: money goes quickly, and famines occur when you least expect them.
Jesus remarks that in the midst of his plight, “nobody gave him any [food].” It is dawning on the son that Rome was not Israel; The Roman writer Plautus spoke for his times and his culture when he observed, “He does the beggar a bad service who gives him meat and drink, for what he gives is lost and the life of the poor is prolonged to their own misery.” The conversion of this young man is gradual: he comes to see his own plight with clarity and that the servants of his father fare much better than he. He sets off for home rehearsing a speech that indeed includes a request for forgiveness but not for full restoration. He would be content to assume a servant’s life, as this is as much as he can dare expect.
The wondrous surprise in this parable is the father’s eagerness to wave off the son’s rehearsed speech; the young man can only get through half the text before the father’s joy at having him home consumes the scene. Green, for example, underscores a scene of a rich landowner running down the street to meet a son who in essence had publicly disowned him. The embrace, the kiss, the robe, the ring, and the sandals are public signs that the young son has been restored to full membership in his family.
I am reminded of Luther’s famous phrase, “Sin strongly, but believe more strongly.” The young son has certainly sinned strongly and, thanks to his father, come to believe more strongly. But what of the older brother? In truth, he has no personality in the story until now. The fact that he is in the field as a site-manager is an indication of his esteem in which he is held by his father. But the first he knows of anything is learned from a servant—who gives him quite a mouthful in a few phrases. It is interesting that the servant calls the younger sibling “your brother,” but the elder son will later refer to him as “this son of yours.”
What we come to see is that the father and the older son have lived in alienation for quite some time. The son’s immediate reaction of anger is not totally unreasonable. As Green writes, “Why is it that recklessness and shamelessness are rewarded with jubilation, when responsibility and obedience have received no recognition?” And yet the elder son’s behavior is inexcusable. He refuses to come into the house, refuses to call his father by his title, and complains—during the party—about his father’s mistreatment, an accusation involving a goat barbecue of all things. The true rage, however, is most intense in his words that “all these years I served you.” The older NAB (1970) translation reads, “All these years I slaved for you.…”
The father takes this abuse, but he does draw a line in the sand: if we are to remain a family, we (you and I together) must rejoice that your dead son has come back to life. The parable leaves us hanging; we will never know what the elder son decides to do. But this parable is very clear about us: if we cannot rejoice at the conversion of the sinner and the undeserved mercy of God, we have no place in God’s family.