One of the problems with familiar parables, like this Sunday's “Parable of the Prodigal Son” [Luke 15:11-32], is that, having heard them all so often, it’s hard for us to hear them as Jesus’ actual audience might have heard them – and so be challenged, as they were, by what must have seemed surprising, even shocking, although to us today is now familiar and unthreatening.
A man had two sons, Jesus tells us, and the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.”
In a world in which one’s family was one’s most cherished relationship, what would be worse than a son who behaves so unbelievably badly, scheming to inherit while his father is still alive? Even so, the father obliges, and gives his son what he asks for. For his part, the son soon skips town – one way to deal with community disapproval – and goes off to spend his inheritance.
Then comes the inevitable recession! So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. How, Jesus’ audience must be wondering, could anyone become so depraved as to tend to pigs? Quickly, the kid recalls his easy life as a spoiled brat back home. Why not go back? His father had indulged him in the past. Might he not do so again? Maybe, like a modern politician or CEO, he can get off easy by regretting that “mistakes” were made. So he got up and went back to his father.
On the way, however, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. This is not, I think, a statement about his superior eyesight. I think we are meant to understand that the father was, so to speak, on the look-out for his son, perpetually ready for his return. So, seeing him, he runs, embraces him, and kisses him.
In that society, a respected elder didn’t run, wouldn’t lift up his robe and expose his legs. But this father doesn’t stand on his dignity. He runs to his son. Still, he never forgets who he is. He peremptorily cuts short his son’s silly prepared speech, and instead orders his immediate reinstatement to the position he had so gracelessly forfeited. Then, full of fatherly joy, he throws a big party. (In a world without refrigeration, if you kill a fatted calf, that’s a lot of meat to eat. So you’re going to invite everybody!)
If only the story had ended there! Unfortunately, however, for those who always expect a happy ending, at least one person doesn’t come to the party. The older son had been out in the field. A good son sits at his father’s side when his father throws a party. Instead, this guy gets angry, refusing to come in. Now who’s disrespecting his father! Once again, refusing to stand on his dignity, his father came out and pleaded with him.
And what kind of response does he get? “All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat … But when your son returns” – notice, not my brother, but your son – “for him you slaughter the fatted calf.”
Just listen to all that envy, all that jealousy, all those years of accumulated resentment camouflaged as loving obedience. “All these years I served you.” Is that the speech of a son? He sounds like an employee, suing for back pay – if not a fattened calf, at least a young goat! (One wonders whether he’d ever actually asked for that goat. After all, is there anything in what we have seen of the father’s character that suggests he would have refused?)
“My son,” the father answers, again completely in character, cutting off another ungrateful son’s speech, you are my heir; “everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother” – notice, not just my son, but your brother – “was lost and has been found”
And that’s how the parable ends. Does he come into the house and join the party? Or does he stay outside – alone with his resentments?
Remember the context. The Pharisees and the scribes began to complain … So to them Jesus addressed this parable [Luke 15:1]. When we hear this parable today, we correctly identify God with the father, but then we typically identify ourselves with the younger son (which misses the point). Remember to whom the gospel story says the parable is addressed! Isn’t it obvious that we are supposed to identify with the older son?
The younger son certainly deserved no praise. But he did understand something very important about his father. In the end, he understood the most important thing about his father. And so he could accept his father’s love and forgiveness – unlike his brother who’d completely missed the point of what kind of father he had and what kind of relationship he wanted with his sons.
The story ends there in the doorway, with the father pleading with his son to come in. It ends there because it’s up to us to relearn the real story of God’s fatherly love – and to decide whether or not we want to be part of his kingdom.
Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TV, September 12, 2010