This morning’s Gospel reading is 15:1–32:
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 he addressed this parable. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Then he said,
“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.’”
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known of Jesus’ direct teachings. One might argue that only the Sermon on the Mount is better known. Put together, the two form a comprehensive core of the nature of faith and our relationship to the Lord. Jesus explained in the Sermon on the Mount what God expects from us, and how He expects us to treat each other and worship Him. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus explains how we all fall short — but how we come to redemption.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus instructs the crowd on the path of blessedness or happiness, depending on which translation one uses. Both words refer to fulfillment in the Lord and living within His love. In Matthew, the eight Beatitudes are:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
- Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4)
- Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5)
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (5:6)
- Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)
- Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (5:8)
- Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. (5:9)
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:10)
The story of the prodigal son reflects nearly all of these Beatitudes, in one way or another, and it also tells the story of mankind as well. The younger son bitterly rejects the father in the story as though the son preferred to see the father dead in order to gain his wealth and power. The father, despite having the power and authority to destroy the son, loves him instead and gives him a portion of his inheritance. The son squanders his wealth and power on material pleasures and ends up enslaved as a result. Only by coming back to the father seeking forgiveness and offering to serve at the lowest rank can the son be ransomed from slavery.
Sound familiar? This is basically the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Cain in slaying Abel, a story repeated in a thousand generations with God’s children.
Consider what happens when the son finally realizes how much his father loved him. He becomes poor in spirit after his haughtiness, realizing he’s not worthy to even be a trusted servant. The son mourns his own sinfulness, and in doing so becomes pure in heart — wishing only to reconcile with his father and serve him. The father puts aside his justifiable anger, becoming meek in love and merciful in spirit.
Now consider the older brother, which for me is one of the most intriguing aspects of this parable. He will inherit the bulk of the father’s wealth anyway, and knows it. He serves his father not so much out of love but out of duty and with the promise of inheritance as his motivation. When his younger brother comes back, the older brother does not celebrate but instead jealously pouts over the unfairness of the younger man’s redemption in comparison to his supposed fidelity.
This conflicts with several of the Beatitudes, especially poverty of spirit, mercy and meekness, the proper definition of which is recognizing one’s authority but using it for mercy. The elder son does not recognize that he does not have a right relationship with his father, either. He serves, but only out of obligation and not love. He covets the father’s wealth in the same manner as his younger brother, more passively but just as unfaithfully. The elder brother does not wish to celebrate the redemption of his own kin, but sees that as a zero-sum game that puts him at a disadvantage.
What is the father’s reaction to this? Not to punish, but to make peace — to teach, to love, and to be patient and merciful. Both sons needed redemption.
Jesus’ audience of Pharisees would have found this lesson to be especially pointed. The scene opens with them complaining that Jesus tended to sinners more than to the power structure of the Temple, of which the Pharisees were part. This parable was more than a rebuke of those complaints; Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see that the sinners were their own brothers, and that their redemption was a restoration for all. But He also wanted the Pharisees to understand that they needed redemption from the Father, too, and recognize their own sinfulness.
The parable later took on added importance as a distinction between the peoples of the old covenant and new covenant. In all of its contexts, it reminds us of our own rebellious natures and the Father that loves us even after the worst of sins when we are ready to come home to Him. The Beatitudes teach us that path back to the Lord. When we are ready to embrace God as our Father and His love for us, we will come back by the way of the younger son. And when we have come back, we must embrace the Father’s love for all His children wishing to be redeemed and have the poverty of spirit to recall that we were once in that position, and celebrate the return of our brothers and sisters without concern over our rank or service.
Put simply, if we love the Father, then we love what makes Him happy, and we align our own wills to His for that reason. Not for rank, not for inheritance, and not from duty alone, but because we yearn to share in His caritas love. Only then will we be able to celebrate at the great feast that welcomes all those who come back to His table.
The front-page image is “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-70. On display at the National Gallery of Art.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.