This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 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 lesson of the prodigal son is one of the most compelling of Jesus’ parables because it fits our desires so perfectly. We commit the same sins as the younger son does; in fact, this is a very incisive retelling of Original Sin — the rejection of the Father and the wish to inherit His kingdom as though he were dead. We reject His authority and go out to make the world as we see fit rather than through His will.
And that turns out about as well as one would expect. The younger son makes ruin of his life, realizes and repents of it. As fallen sons and daughters of the Lord, we eventually feel our sins so keenly that we become desperate for forgiveness. We hope to receive at least some crumbs of the table when we return in repentance to the Father, not the fatted calf. That kind of reception is too gracious for us to imagine — and yet Jesus promises us exactly that, if we return as the younger son does.
It might surprise people to consider that the younger son is actually our idealized conception of ourselves. Too often, we are the elder brother — the son who complied out of fear alone, sitting in judgment on others, and jealous to the point of rage over the Father’s love for others. The father forgives the elder son too, but not without a soft rebuke for his stubbornness and scrupulosity. This son also sins in his own way, also seeks to supplant the Father as judge, but unlike the younger son neither recognizes his sin nor repents of it.
In the historical context in which Jesus preached, it’s not difficult to understand which audience Jesus intended for both parts of this parable. The younger son would have been the rank-and-file Israelites who had been lost in sin; the elder brother would have been the temple authorities that used the law as a weapon to protect their own privilege and deny the love of God to others.
But this goes farther than just the historical context, because we find the same tension within ourselves. At different times, we might be the dissolute son thumbing his nose at the Father, or the repentant younger son seeking His forgiveness. In fact, we might swing back and forth repeatedly between these two states, and in between — when we’ve momentarily humbled ourselves and repented — suddenly become the elder brother, willing to cast out those who acted in the same manner as we did. In those moments, we become so determined to follow the law that we forget that the Father who wrote it is the one true judge.
Today’s readings give us guidance on navigating these waters. If any one New Testament figure embodies the elder brother, it is Saul of Tarsus who later became the apostle Paul. Saul persecuted and pursued Christ’s church, being present at and likely directing the martyrdom of Stephen, among others unnamed. He was determined to impose the law by force and ensure that those who crossed it in his judgment could not be saved. Paul writes to Timothy that he was among the worst of sinners — “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.” Yet Christ forgave and anointed him, in part, to show the boundless nature of the Lord’s forgiveness. “I was mercifully treated, so that in me as the foremost [sinner], Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example[.]”
In our first reading from Exodus, we see the grace that Jesus taught in action. The Israelites have decided to dethrone God just as the younger brother does in Jesus’ parable, relying on their own material wealth to create an idol for the worship that belongs to God. After building the golden calf for idol worship, the Lord tells Moses that His people have blasphemed and must be destroyed. Moses, an elder brother of sorts in the faith, does not run down the mountain to smite everyone in His name. He implores the Lord for mercy on Moses’ younger siblings in faith. The Lord blesses Moses for his love of his family and withholds His judgment, forgiving the blasphemy against Him.
Jesus calls us to be both the younger and elder son, or more accurately, recognize that in the end there is no difference. Sin is our rebellion against God, our attempt to dethrone Him and exploit His inheritance to satiate our own selfish desires. Both the younger and elder son do this in different ways and for different purposes, but both have to recognize this and ask forgiveness. The Father waits for one and all to return to Him in that way, and has a banquet of celebration waiting for each of us who do.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69. Currently on display at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“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.