A question: The name of the parable that we have in this morning’s Gospel is??? The Prodigal Son. This younger son certainly is a significant character in the story. With great brashness and insensitivity he asks for his share of the inheritance before the Father is even sick, much less dead, and then goes off and wastes it all on "loose living". This younger son certainly did some stupid, mean, and very destructive things. He hurt his family, wasted his money, and very easily could have ended up dead.
Now you could argue that the Father was not very wise, and not even very loving, in giving in so easily to the younger son’s demand. Would it not have been better, for the younger son’s own good!, for the Father to not give the son any money, to take away the car keys, and to ground the younger son for a year or more until he got sane again?
I often think this way.
But we know, in fact, that God has given us a terrible freedom, and does not prevent us from doing horribly wrong things. We know we are free to do mean, hateful, demeaning things that are destructive to ourselves and to others, things with really serious consequences. We know this because we read about them in the paper every day. We know this because we’ve ourselves have done them. And God does not stop us. God does not protect us from ourselves. I wish God would. Think of all the heartache, embarrassment, painful regret and lasting, gnawing guilt that we could avoid if God would only stop us before we do something mean or vile or stupid. If you’ve ever awakened some morning and said, ..”Oh God, what did I do?”… you know what I am talking about.
But God so badly wants us to be free to give ourselves to Him, that God even allows us to freely hurt one another and our own selves. And so the Father lets the younger son go. Freedom is tough.
The younger son is very significant to the story. In many ways he is the protagonist. But still, he is not the key to understanding the parable.
Then there is the Father. He is a very important character too in the story. If for no other reason, than for the fact that he is a stand in for .....? GOD! And what an image for God. Here is an image of God Who is anxious and eager to forgive. The Father stands on the hill top, anxiously searching the horizon for the younger son’s return. As soon as he sees him, still a long way off, the Father runs out to meet him, throws his arms around him, kisses him, won’t let the son finish his little rehearsed speech of apology, gives him a new outfit and throws a big party. This Father is more prodigal with his love and forgiveness than even the younger son was with his inheritance. The Father is a great lover and a great image of God. For Jesus knows a God who is always, always, always, eager and anxious to forgive. God wants badly to reconcile us and heal us and love us.
The Father is very significant to the story. He teaches us so much. But still, he is not the key to understanding the parable.
Finally, there is the older son. Given the dynamics of the parable, the way the story works as a story, he is the key. For at the end of the parable the issue is not with the younger son. That is resolved. Nor is the issue with the Father. He’s O.K. The critical issue is with the older son. ¿Will he go into the party and accept his Father’s love and accept his brother as his brother, or will the older son remain caught in his bitterness, pride and self-righteousness, and choose to isolate himself?
We are given a clue to the centrality of the older son at the beginning of the Gospel. You remember that the sinners and tax collectors were all gathering around Jesus to hear him. This upset the Pharisees and the scribes. They murmured and grumbled about this. They didn’t approve.
You see, they didn’t think it was fair. The Pharisees and scribes could tell that Jesus was something special, that he was very much in tune with God. But here they were, the good people, the people who worked hard at keeping the law, doing what was pleasing to God, keeping the commandments, not sleeping in on Sunday morning but getting up and coming to church, and they end up standing on the outside of the circle around Jesus. Meanwhile, all these sinners, tax collectors, drug dealers and prostitutes, had elbowed and pushed and squirmed their way up to the front, right in front of Jesus. And instead of shooing them away and sending them to the back of the crowd, where they belonged, Jesus welcomed them. And the Pharisees and the scribes did not approve.
And so, Jesus addresses this parable to them. Not to the disciples. Not to the sinners and tax collectors, but to the Pharisees and the scribes.
The Pharisees and scribes have gotten a bum rap. They weren’t bad people. In fact, they were the good people, the people who worked at it, who tried to do what was right. They were like us. But they did have a problem. They, like so many of us, began to believe that they did it.
That is understandable. It is so easily, almost inevitable it seems, that when we have put a lot of effort and energy into something, worked hard at it, tried our best, stayed with it and succeeded, that we begin to believe that we did it. But that is not true. ¿Where did the talent, the energy, the perseverance, the intelligence, even the time and the opportunity come from? We are tempted to believe that they all came from ourselves. But they didn’t. They came from God. Everything is a grace.
The older son thought he could earn the Father’s love. "For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, ..." And he thought the Father owed him. And so he thought the Father’s celebration at the return of his brother was terribly unfair.
The Pharisees and scribes worked hard at doing what was right, at being pleasing to God. They thought they could earn their justification, and God’s love. They thought God owed them, that they belonged up close to Jesus.
And so they thought Jesus’ welcoming and eating with sinners was terribly unfair.
We can, and do, easily fall into this trap as well, working hard at doing what is right, subtly beginning to think of our goodness as our accomplishment, with some claim on God; God owes us, earning our salvation and God’s love; and even thinking that God’s prodigal love for all is terribly unfair. But that is wrong.
The correct understanding is given to us today by St. Paul in the second reading: "All this has been done by God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation."
"All this has been done by God," God does it. God chooses us to be His children. Any choosing we do is irrelevant compared to that. God reconciles us to himself through Christ, and any good that we accomplish is the result of God’s grace, not the prerequisite for earning it.
This beautiful parable of the prodigal son is not addressed to the sinners out there on the streets, not addressed to the indifferent people out having coffee at Starbucks this Sunday morning, but to us, the church goers, the good people. The parable instructs and warns us not to take our goodness as our accomplishment, but as God’s gift to us.
"All this has been done by God," "All this has been done by God,"
Thanks be to God!