The Pharisees and scribes are complaining that Jesus is a companion of tax collectors and sinners: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds to the criticism through three parables. In the first two parables, a shepherd’s finding a lost sheep and a woman’s finding a lost coin are compared to the joy of God upon finding a lost sinner. In the third parable, Jesus reveals that God is like a father who welcomes back a prodigal son who had left home and foolishly squandered his share of the estate. Furthermore, the father continues to love an older, resentful son who refuses to join in welcoming back his younger brother.
In the social-religious culture of that time, sinners and those in dishonorable occupations, as well as those who associated with them, were judged to be excluded from friendship with God. In the parables Jesus justifies his companionship with social and religious outcasts by implying that what he is doing reflects his knowledge of God’s nature and God’s will. In another place in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ claim of acting with divine authority is made explicit: “No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (10:22). (This central theme of the Son’s knowledge of the Father is developed more theologically in the Last Supper Discourse of the Fourth Gospel.)
In the three parables of today’s gospel Jesus reveals the joyful news that God loves us. There could be no deeper source of awareness of our worth than to trust Jesus and to believe that we human beings are truly precious in the eyes of God. Further life-implications may come to light if we imaginatively identify with the Pharisees and scribes to whom the parables are addressed and also with the two sons of the third parable.
We succumb to the self-righteous illusion of the Pharisees and scribes when we judge that some of our fellow human beings are excluded from God’s love, and thereby may be excluded from our love. We become like the foolish younger son when we fall victim to the illusion that our happiness and freedom lie in autonomy from God. We become like the older son when we remain in our Father’s house, but do not experience the joy of being at home. The older brother did not live as a child of a loving father, but as an employee who keeps track of what the boss owes to him and to other employees as well. In his resentment of unfair compensation, he can no longer recognize his brother as brother.
In Jesus’ third parable, only the younger son comes to his senses and returns to his father, who forgetting his own dignity runs to welcome him home as a beloved child. If today we receive the grace to be freed from our own illusions, we can also come to identify with the attitude of Jesus and allow God’s love to be present in the world through our actions. This is the most effective way of proclaiming to the world that God truly does love all of us as his own children.
Luke in his gospel repeatedly points out that Jesus sought to be in harmony with his Father’s will through prayer. In this way he wants to teach us that only through prayer can we have confidence of acting in harmony with God’s will in the particular circumstances of our lives. Also in prayer, we ask for the grace that will enable us to respond to new criticisms of God’s ways with the insight and wit of Jesus.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.
Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1617-1682