The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and scribes complained. “This man”, they said, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, he spoke this parable to them. Luke 15, 1-3, 11-32
We all know today’s gospel parable of The Prodigal Son so well that we can repeat it by heart in all its detail. So, as we pause once again to reflect on its significance for our lives, let’s keep in mind a saying to which many storytellers subscribe: “The story begins only when the teller stops talking.” I am confident that Jesus would have shared their view. So, what will this story evoke from you and me?
I want to suggest that the context in which Jesus first told this story is of equal importance to the story itself. Luke tells us that Jesus is among tax collectors and sinners, all eager to hear what he had to say. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and scribes were looking on, tut-tutting at the fact that Jesus was associating and even eating with the dregs of society, those detested for their depravity and corruption. However, by the time we get to the end of the parable we are left in no doubt that nobody earns entrance into God’s kingdom. It is all gift. And there is an additional message for all those among us who see themselves as upright, religious people. A heavy investment in religious knowledge and practice, however impressive it might look, is no proof that we have a healthy relationship with God. What we display on the outside is not always a good indication of what is going on in our hearts. Impeccable religious observance may be doing more for our own ego than for those around us. It may also be doing little to nourish our relationship with God.
So, I am suggesting that this parable is especially directed at the good religious onlookers who would not even think of mixing with the group of sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors close to Jesus, let alone eat with them. Now, let’s look at some of the characters in the story and the significance of their actions. We’ve already mentioned the educated, religious leaders who were the standard bearers of morality, law and religious observance. They were the ones with status, power and control in the society of the day. Then there are any number of public sinners - those already mentioned, but also the two brothers, and the pig farmer, representing those despicable people who prey on the vulnerable and who use their cunning to seduce them from their culture, their principles and the values they learned from their childhood. And there’s the father who not only breaks all the conventions and expectations of how fathers were supposed to act, but who contributes to the dissension between his two sons. And these characters all have their modern-day equivalents.
We all know from bitter experience that none of us is above sin. We all fail, and fall from grace in one way or another. We also know that we can be quick to identify those whose sin is public while we do our utmost to keep our sinfulness away from the public gaze. But among us there are many so-called religious people who are intent on hiding their sin and their human frailty. We now know from bitter experience that even the administrators of some religious institutions colluded in keeping hidden the sins of their leaders.
While today’s gospel reading opens with Luke identifying the two groups (public sinners and religious leaders) listening to Jesus, the parable itself begins with the very direct statement: “A man had two sons” - just like the two groups listening to Jesus’ story. And the story is apparently directed at the public sinners, as the religious leaders smugly look on. But as the story unfolds we come to see that the younger son is a public sinner and the elder a private sinner. It is true that the younger son sank to the depths of depravity and infidelity. By demanding his share of the inheritance, he effectively told his father that he wished he were dead. Interested only in himself, he rejected his father, his family, his Jewishness and his religious practice. In so doing, he earned the hatred of his brother. Moreover, his reasons for deciding to return home are based on self-interest. He calculates that he can get a job on his father’s estate, be paid a wage and be given his meals. He returns on his own terms. And his father bends over backwards to welcome him back and restore him to his former status. His father asks no questions as to why he has returned. He is simply overjoyed that his wayward son has come back.
But while the younger son left in a way that humiliated his father, and went on to pursue a scandalous life-style, the older one was never really at home for his father. It is clear that he, too, was just waiting for his father to die. He adopted a martyr complex, regarding himself as a servant who spent his time slaving away on the estate, but was resentful, totally selfish, and full of anger and passive aggression. When his father left the party and went outside to coax him to come in and join the celebration, the elder son angrily pushed him away and blamed him for being forgiving and indulgent. All he wanted was a private party for himself and his friends. If we put the two brothers side by side, we see that they are not very different, except that the older one is a private sinner who not only can’t see that he has done wrong but even interprets his behaviour as virtuous. As the elder brother in a Jewish family, he had a responsibility for both his younger brother and his father. It was his job to go searching for his little brother and his job to protect his father from being humiliated in front of all his friends and neighbours. The younger son turned his father into a public laughing-stock, and the older son couldn’t care less. The younger of the two, despite his callousness, irresponsibility and utter selfishness, eventually came home. And we are left wondering if the older one relented, stopped pouting, let go of his anger and came into the party and back into the family.
When all is said and done, this parable invites us to look into the mirror to see for ourselves with which of the two we identify.
In sitting among the tax collectors and public sinners, Jesus adopts the role of a truly responsible brother, prepared to reach out to his brothers and sisters who have strayed, to celebrate their return and, thereby, to hold God’s family together. In that sense we can say that Jesus becomes the parable of God. And therein lies the challenge to those of us who like to pride ourselves on our fidelity and regular religious practice. Have we yet discovered who God is and do we ever reach out in welcome to and acceptance of those who have apparently gone astray? The parable invites us to reach out in mercy and forgiveness to others, and also to come in and celebrate whenever those we might be inclined to avoid accept the mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love of God which we sometimes take for granted.
Finally, there is something about this parable which is ageless. The younger son does not really want a father and the older one does not want a brother. Their attitudes are alive and well in our contemporary world. We meet any number of people who want no one to answer to, who shun the commitment of close relationships, who refuse to be accountable to anyone, who see themselves above and beyond the law. They want to be unrestrained to pursue a lifestyle that ultimately leads them to self-destruct. In addition, there are those around us who want neither sister nor brother. They don’t want anyone who might make a claim on them. They are intolerant of difference, and slip with ease into racism, discrimination and religious bigotry. Can we find it within us to reach out to these too?