by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep…because I have found the coin I lost…because your brother was lost and has been found.”   Luke 15:1-32

Once again, an appreciation of context is vital for finding a way into understanding the parables of today’s gospel-reading. In the time of Jesus, there was no such institution as a nursing home or a hostel for elderly people to live their final years in comfort and care. Care for elderly parents was the responsibility of their sons. The younger son, who demanded his share of the family inheritance, cashed it in and spent it on a fruitless search for personal pleasure. His behaviour demonstrated that he saw his father as undeserving of care and attention. In the society of the day there was no greater sin. The younger son neglected his filial duty and treated his father with utter contempt. So, it’s important that we don’t simply pass off that kind of behaviour as the thoughtlessness of youth.

We also have to remember that very few of Jesus’ parables come to a clear resolution. They are deliberately left unfinished, challenging those who hear them to wrestle with what they really mean. In this context, let’s not forget that Matthew, Mark and Luke made a point of stating that Jesus explained his parables to those close to him while he left the crowds who were unmoved by his teaching to wallow in their ignorance, their lack of faith and their refusal to entertain a need to repent. Note, for instance, Mark’s record of Jesus’ comment to those close to him about his reason for using parables: “Now when he was away from the crowd, those present with the Twelve questioned him about the parables. He told them: ‘To you the mystery of the reign of God has been confided. To the others outside it is all presented in parables, so that they will look intently and not see, listen carefully and not understand, lest perhaps they repent and be forgiven’. He said to them: ‘You do not understand this parable (the Sower)? How then are you going to understand other figures like it?’” (Mark 4: 10-13). If we stop to reflect on many of the parables with which we are familiar, we soon see that they are open to various interpretations, and that they are often enigmatic and, even, quite ambiguous.

Master of story-telling that he is, Luke sets us up to make judgements about the characters in his story of the “prodigal son”. He begins with: “A man had two sons…” inviting us immediately to conclude that one was good and the other bad. Aware of his ongoing conflict with the religious leaders of his day on the topic of the real purposes of God’s law, we are set up to misjudge the Pharisees and scribes who are presented as grumbling: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke’s way of narrating his story sets us up to adopt the view that, whenever Pharisees and scribes are critical of Jesus, they are wrong. But isn’t there some justification to their criticism of Jesus? Don’t teachers and prophets compromise themselves by sitting at table with public sinners?

If we don’t tread warily with this parable, we can be drawn into viewing it as little more than an illustration of how notorious sinners can come to their senses, repent of their sins and find their way to embrace God’s merciful love, and an insight into those who believe that they have not strayed from the path of right living. This latter group are simply unable to bring themselves to recognise that their arrogance and pride have distanced them from God and their broken sisters and brothers. Mind you, appreciating that is no small achievement for we know that both descriptions have applied to us at different times. But there is even more to this parable.
This gospel-reading has several parables about the lost being found and rejoiced over when they return or are returned to their proper place. The fact that we are told that Jesus welcomes outcasts and even eats with them is a statement of God’s magnanimous love expressed in and through Jesus. But being welcomed and forgiven calls for repentance on the part of all who accept Jesus’ invitation to be at home in his company. “Repentance” is an interesting word that has come into our language from Greek. It’s fundamental meaning is the price to be paid for destroying someone else’s property. While we would not think of engaging in vandalism of public or private property, we need to remember that God’s property includes every human being, and we know that we are all guilty of hurting or maligning or gossiping about others, even about those close to us. But Jesus does not call us to repentance for some kind of distorted satisfaction at seeing us squirm. God’s call to repentance presupposes that we are worthwhile, valuable, worthy of being treated with respect and dignity. God’s call to repentance is rather like a very dear friend shaking us to life and telling us to wake up to ourselves. God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. While we know that we have been created in God’s image, we often find it difficult to accept that, like God, we are good, creative, free and loving. So, too, is every other person we encounter. We have missed the point of all the parables in today’s gospel-reading if we fail to see that we are all worthwhile objects of God’s boundless love.

Still, let’s not rush to a resolution of the prodigal parable. The younger son does not get an A rating for self-knowledge. There is something lacking in his level of repentance. His reasoning to himself for returning is based on self-interest. He knows that he’ll be fed by a father who makes sure that even the servants are properly cared for. And he doesn’t get a chance to recite the speech he has rehearsed, so overwhelming is the welcome his father extends. And what to we make of the elder son? Luke has presented him in a way that forces us to see that this son is also lost. His initial reaction to the extravagant welcome his father has extended to his younger brother is entirely understandable. The way his younger brother had treated their father is nothing short of scandalous. Moreover, he knows that his brother’s conduct has destroyed the reputation of the whole family. He must have been wondering if his father had lost control of his mind. Part of Luke’s skill is that he tells his audience only how the elder son reacted in the shock of the moment. We, too, are left to ponder whether or not he was able to temper his inflexibility and live into a change of heart and attitude more in keeping with his father’s response. And the younger son’s half-hearted repentance would also have to grow into behaviours that would be more socially accepted. He would have to demonstrate the authenticity of his repentance by involving himself in the hard work needed to sustain the family farm.

While not fully resolved, this parable is a mirror into which we all might look with benefit. We might see that our efforts at repentance are sometimes shallow and that, at the same time, we can be quick to judge others. We might also see someone who is almost faultless at keeping all the rules but whose response to those around him is loaded with passive aggression. We may even see a man who just doesn’t know how to fall into the arms of a father that are outstretched to prodigals. Perhaps, too, we might see a father who has learned how to combine both justice and mercy and mete them out accordingly. What we see might give us cause to change and grow.