Sunday March 6, 2016
A Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, N.A.B.
By: Larry T
A Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, N.A.B.
By: Larry T
The Parable of the Lost Son is arguably the most beautiful of Jesus’ parables. In a non-biblical publication such as Aesop’s Fables the story might begin with, “Once upon a time there was a man who had two sons . . .” Upon reading the story we might shake our heads in wonderment at the young son’s foolhardiness; we may well marvel at the father’s love and understanding, and puzzle over the older son’s bitterness. Aesop’s fables always had a point; the wisdom of this story might be a lesson for young people and their inheritances.
2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So to them he addressed this parable.
11 Then he said, “A man had two sons,
12 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.
13 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.
14 When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.
15 So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
16 And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.
17 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.
18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
19 I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
20 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.
21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
22 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.
23 Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast,
24 because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.
25 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.
26 He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
27 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.’
28 He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.
29 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.
30 But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
31 He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.
32 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 faces of any Jews in this group of tax collectors and sinners would have contorted with revulsion at this story because for Jews pigs were the most unclean of all animals. Moreover, in Jesus’ time, Jews simply did not associate with Gentiles. They were permitted to have business dealings with them, but upon leaving a Gentile town they ceremoniously shook the dust from their sandals to show their complete separation from Gentile practices. For any Jew the image of feeding pigs and depending on a Gentile for starvation wages would have been revolting.
The Pharisees and scribes listening to this story would have probably recognized themselves in the older son. For them the very spirit of God was expressed in the six hundred and thirteen commandments set out in the Torah (Mosaic Law). As administrators and interpreters of the law, they saw themselves as being in a right relationship with God. When they saw Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners they might well have shuffled their feet and muttered angrily, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders”. Jesus was telling the Pharisees and scribes to convert from their Law-God to the God of love and mercy. We should note that the father in the parable doesn’t dispute the older son’s fidelity, but asserts his love for him: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.”
Early Church Fathers saw the lost son as an image of humanity. To them the younger son’s journey “to a distant country” was willful and intentional alienation from the father – the world of God. The freedom-seeking younger son wanted to taste everything life had to offer, especially forbidden fruit. He didn’t want to be subject to any commandment, rule, or authority and felt that he had the right to govern himself. The eventual consequence of being forced to work for a gentile as a swineherd and craving pig food was an expression of man’s extreme misery and poverty in living a life without God. In the end the totally free man became a miserable slave. At this point a conversion takes place: the lost son decided to return home, to the father. In the parable the father orders the servants to bring quickly “the finest robe.” For the Church Fathers, this “finest robe” meant the lost robe of grace which man had been originally clothed with, but which he forfeited by sin. But now this “finest robe” is given back to him and the joyous celebration begins.
At one time or another most teenagers can identify with the younger son. And if they are honest, most parents will admit to harboring some of those same feelings when they were teenagers themselves. Some teenagers become so desperate for a life without rules that they run away from home; sometimes they end up living on dangerous city streets. All the while their parents can only wait for them to grow up, to come to their senses, for a conversion. Imagine the joy of the parents when their wayward son or daughter does repent and returns home! In this story Jesus shares an aspect of the Father’s character by presenting us with a vivid image of the Father’s love for his children, for us. Only Jesus who knows the Father could reveal the depth of the Father’s love and mercy in such a beautiful way.
Jesus’ story about the lost son is about conversion and love: the tax collectors and sinners had repented and converted or were in the process of repenting and converting; the lost son did repent and convert; the older son needed to repent and convert. But what does conversion look like to us?
Admit it or not, a number of us have some things in common with the older brother: we faithfully fulfill our Sunday obligation, pray, tithe, and try to good people. Still yet, some of us haven’t truly converted from the Law-God to the God of mercy and love where we will find joy in our faith. We can begin by recognizing the love that the Father has for us as described by Jesus in this parable. The next step is to love the Father – as he abides in us so should we abide in him. Finally, we must love our brothers and sisters because this is when our love for God is brought to perfection:
20 If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
21 This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
-1 John 4:20-21 N.A.B.
We cannot claim to have a right relationship with God if we hate our brothers and sisters because there is no room in God’s Kingdom for bigotry of any kind.