LENT 4 C
The parable of the Prodigal Son only appears in the Gospel of Luke. In the opening lines of Chapter 15 we hear that tax collectors and other sinners were gathering around Jesus. The Pharisees and Scribes, who were also gathering around, were grumbling because Jesus welcomed the sinners and even ate with them. Eating with people who are unclean, makes Jesus unclean according to the religious rules of the time.
So, in answer to their grumbling, Jesus tells three stories: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This last parable is significantly longer and more fully developed than the other two.
The Prodigal Son is probably familiar to all of you. The younger son demands his inheritance while his father is still living. In those days this was a terrible insult, implying that the son was wishing his father’s death. Still, the father agrees and we can only assume that he had to sell half of his land or some other assets to give to his younger son. There is nothing in the story about it, but one has to wonder how this division of assets would impact his future earnings.
No surprise – the younger son blows all his money in a city far away and winds up feeding the pigs for a gentile farmer. He decides instead to go home and beg his father for a job as a farm hand.
As he is walking the last bit of road to home, his father sees him, and forgetting all the rules of dignity for a head of household, he runs, flapping his robes up over his knees to give his lost son a hug and a kiss of welcome. He cuts off his son’s speech of repentance, tells the servants to bring the young man a new robe, a ring and sandals. Then he orders them to kill the fatted calf in order to have a party to celebrate, because what had been lost is now found.
So far, this parallels the previous stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin. The basic point is how God rejoices when a person who has gone astray or been lost, repents and returns to God. In fact, in the sheep story Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Enter the elder son! He is the one who stayed home, worked the farm with his father, followed the rules, did what was expected of him. Now he is furious! His wayward brother comes home and gets new clothes and a banquet. No one has done that for him! IT’S NOT FAIR!”
He refuses to take part in the celebration. When his father comes out, he expresses his feelings in no uncertain terms; “I have worked like a slave for you and I have never disobeyed your command. But when this son of yours came back (notice, not my brother, but THIS son of yours!) you killed the fatted calf for him!”
The father replies, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Notice that the father turns it around to “this brother of yours.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this a rather annoying end to the story. Did the son relent and go in to the party? If so, were the two sons reconciled? If not, what must life on the farm have been like in the aftermath?
Why does it seem more appealing to imagine myself as the younger son rather than the older one? Which one would you rather be? Ah, yes, and which one is most like you?
I suspect that most of us are more like the older son. That cry of ‘that’s not fair’ rings rather close to home for me. There was a time in my life when I worked very hard to be the older son, to follow all the rules, to obey my parents’ wishes for me, to make them proud. And I would have reacted exactly the same way the older son does in this story! It doesn’t seem fair that the older son is so taken for granted by his father.
And yet, Jesus tells us this is how it is. How can we come to grips with the implications of such a tale? Several encounters I’ve had come to mind. One was a conversation with one of our team members about the concept of universal salvation. (This is the notion that, in the end, everyone will be ‘saved’). She relayed that someone she had discussed it with reacted just like the older son. Basically she said, “It’s not fair that people who have been terrible and evil should be saved when I’ve tried all my life to follow the rules and be good.”
The second encounter was on the same subject. I said rather casually that I was beginning to believe that ultimately we would all be saved. My friend came right up out of her chair to say forcefully, “Oh no, there MUST be judgment!”
I know in her case enough about her childhood to understand why she felt that way. She had been raised very strictly with punishment for bad behavior. And she devoted herself to avoiding that by following the rules and doing what she was told was right.
It seems to me that the distinction implied by the inclusion of the older son in the story Jesus told, has to do with why we do what we do, rather than just what we do. The younger son learned from his experience that he had blown things and he repented. He was prepared to bow down and beg his father for forgiveness. He was prepared to live out his life as a hired hand.
The older son is so proud of himself for following the rules, that he has no awareness of his own sins, whatever they might have been. He is self-righteous. In fact, he is the image of the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes in this piece. It seems that following the rules for their own sake is not good enough for Jesus. One’s heart must be in it as well.
As you all know, one can follow the Ten Commandments and still do nothing to help others. You don’t have to kill someone to hurt them. Sometimes ignoring people is worse. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites – following the rules just for show.
The questions this story forces me to ask myself is this: do I follow the rules, do I try to live a righteous life because I want to be seen as such, or do I do it because it’s the right thing to do? Do I follow the rules because I’ve been promised heaven or because I want to make the world a better place? Do I follow the rules because I’m afraid of not conforming or because I know the rules help me be a better person?
These are very uncomfortable questions, but asking them of ourselves and trying to answer honestly can be useful in enriching our spiritual lives. Take some time this Lent to reflect on your own life in relation to this story. This is NOT an exercise in blame and shame, but is instead an opportunity to consider more closely what kind of person you want to become and move in that direction. Maybe we can all move from running on the rules towards running on authentic kindness and mercy. AMEN