When we read the parables of Jesus, we need to remind ourselves that they are not accounts of historical events. Rather, they are stories with a spiritual lesson for all times and places. In most cases, these stories are not new to the audience. They are really old, familiar stories, which are much appreciated when they are told well. Jesus tells the stories very well indeed but he also adds a “twist” to the narrative. By telling the story so well he captivates his audience and then, once they are drawn into the story, he surprises them with a spiritual application.
The story in today’s gospel about a father and his two sons is an old story, going back at least as far as Esau and Jacob. In this story, the elder son is very dutiful but also rather dull. The younger son, by contrast, is wild and unpredictable but also interesting and attractive. In the classic story, the younger son sows his wild oats but then repents and is welcomed home with joy. The older son resents his father’s celebration of his brother’s salvation and is rejected. The audience is convinced that justice has been done.
In Luke’s parable, however, the focus of attention is on the father and especially on his reaction to the elder son’s anger. The twist that Jesus adds to the story is the refusal of the father to reject his elder son who in fact is treated by his father with surprising gentleness. When the audience asked why the story had been changed, as we can assume they did, the reply would be that the father is in reality God, who loves his dull and dutiful children just as much as those who are wild and perhaps a bit more interesting.
The wisdom expressed in this parable teaches us that human sin can take the form of wild and rebellious behavior or, perhaps more commonly, of sullen, angry and judgmental attitudes. The civil law is concerned almost exclusively with rebellious behavior but, in the parable, it is clear that the sinfulness of the elder son is much more dangerous.
Those of us who lead quiet and “responsible” lives may very well fall into the trap of sullen, resentful and angry attitudes toward others who seem to be “getting away with murder.” What we need to ask ourselves is whether we have the kind of love that can understand why others, often less privileged than ourselves, may need both correction and forgiveness.
When the elder son in the parable says to his father, “your son,” (and, by implication, no brother of mine) has done wrong and should be punished, the father gently corrects him with the words, “Your brother” (and not just my son) “was dead and has come to life again.” This wayward son has indeed sinned but he has also repented and has paid a price for his sin. Now it is time to rejoice.
The clear point is that we dare not ever disown our brothers and sisters, who are all children of God. On the contrary, we must love them and rejoice to see them have a chance to repent and be brought back to life again. And this is true of all sorts of people, including both the village prankster and the person on death row. We may feel that some people do not deserve a second chance but the danger of such a judgment is underscored in the challenging words of Jesus that “the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Matt 7:2)
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.
Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669