Sunday reflection: Luke 15:1–3, 11–32

“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.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 15:1–3, 11–32:

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 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.’”

Anyone who reads Hot Air, especially on Sundays, knows that both Jazz and I are big football fans — if not exactly the greatest prognosticators in the biz. Both of us like to hang out on Twitter during the games in order to share the experience with others. Each game has its share of controversial calls, and reaction to them (even from me!) falls into a pattern that’s pretty easy to recognize. If they benefit my team, the refs never looked better. If those breaks cut against my team, well … that’s an injustice that must be rectified, and right now. A flag on a passing play against the defensive backs of our team brings out calls to “Let them play!”, while we want every penalty for pass interference enforced when it comes to our team.

We become caught up in winning, and the status it brings, rather than in the game itself. In a perhaps odd way, this relates to our relationship to the Lord’s promise of both justice and mercy. It is a measure of our fallen state in how we often yearn for forgiveness and redemption for ourselves from the Lord — and perhaps believe we deserve it — while we want a more specific form of justice against those who fall short in our own estimation. C.S. Lewis saw this particular issue as a danger in our path to salvation in his marvelous book on spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters. In his instruction to his nephew Wormwood, Screwtape specifically advises the “junior tempter” to pay close attention to the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son when it comes to the “patient’s” mother.

Finally, tell me something about the old lady’s religious position. Is she at all jealous of the new factor in her son’s life?— at all piqued that he should have learned from others, and so late, what she considers she gave him such good opportunity of learning in childhood? Does she feel he is making a great deal of ‘fuss’ about it— or that he’s getting in on very easy terms? Remember the elder brother in the Enemy’s story?

In this part of the parable, Jesus chastises the Pharisees who are complaining that He has come to evangelize those who need it the most — sinners. However, as Lewis astutely notes, the point isn’t to tell people that they aren’t sinners at all and don’t need to fret over a perceived lack of justice. It’s that they do not recognize in themselves the need for the exact same level of mercy that the father in this parable shows the prodigal son, and that the pharisaical demand for temporal justice puts us in the position of dictating our will over the will of the Lord.

Consider the elder brother’s testament to his father. The younger brother has taken off with the part of the inheritance that he would have had when his father died, so his departure didn’t impact the elder brother’s standing much. His return without any of the wealth he took, however, may threaten the elder brother’s inheritance, or so he might believe. It’s at this point that the elder brother reveals that his loyalty to his father is mostly based on what he expects from the father, and not on love of him. He doesn’t object so much to his father’s forgiveness over the fact that the younger son all but considered his father dead and broke his heart, but on the fact that the father still loves his younger brother and shows him mercy. “All those years I served you,” the elder brother says in accusation, “yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” His service to his father was aimed at his status and his inheritance, rather than out of love for a father whose younger son has returned to life.

The elder brother is as offended as the Pharisees at the welcome Jesus provides to these sinners, and for the same reason: he deems his brother unworthy, and clearly less worthy than himself. But that is its own sin; we would perhaps call it “scrupulosity” today, but in effect it is lacking faith in the Lord’s ability to judge for Himself who is worthy and who isn’t. And we all do this — attempt to look into the hearts of others and judge them worthy or unworthy of our brotherhood. In the parable, the younger son repents in his heart of the wrong he has done to his father, and resolves to spend the rest of his life serving him as penance for the terrible sin of utter rejection he committed. The father knows this, but the brother can only remember the sin and demand justice, at least from his perspective — and a kind of ranking that demonstrates his superiority over the younger brother. The Pharisees do not perceive their own sin in this arrogation of God’s prerogative.

While the following analogy has been used in my Sunday reflections before, it still fits. Think of sin as a 100-foot chasm between two cliffs; we stand on one side, and God on the other. No matter how well we can jump on our own, we all still fall into the same chasm without the grace of the Lord to sustain us. There is no ranking. Those who truly accept salvation in the Lord will be saved as equals, regardless of what sins they may have committed in the past. If we were to be ranked according to the justice of the elder brother or the Pharisees, none of us would make that jump successfully, not even themselves —  which is why the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Jesus later would teach His disciples to “love your enemies and pray for them,” and not just love one’s neighbors, which hardly provides a challenge. Love in this instance is caritas, a self-sacrificing desire for the best for others, and not just a gooey sentiment. (Lewis has plenty to say about the difference in The Screwtape Letters, too.) Rather than demand a perceived reward for the holiness we believe we have achieved and punitive justice on others, we should be praying that those who have left the Lord will receive salvation as well, where all will be equal in the Lord. We pray for our enemies so that they find the true path to the Lord, and we leave justice as well as mercy to Him, who sees perfectly what we cannot. We pray for our enemies because the Lord wishes to love us all as brothers and sisters, and have us all embrace him as Father willingly.

Paul emphasizes this in his second letter to the Corinthians. “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come,” he writes. God reconciled Himself to fallen humanity through Christ, “not counting their trespasses against them,” and urged us to become ambassadors of Christ in order to welcome as many back to the Lord as possible.  We are not called to be Pharisees, nor to be self-righteous “elder brothers” to those seeking salvation, but to show love in the recognition that others are as we ourselves were. That shows love not just toward others, but to the Father who loves us so much that He celebrates every son and daughter who returns to Him — including us.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt from the late 17th century. It is now displayed at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. 

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