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 a “life of dissipation”, or as the Jerusalem Bible more evocatively translates it, “a life of debauchery”. Debauchery is such a juicier word than dissipation. In any case 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.
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. It would be nice if 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. So we can identify, at least to some extent, with the younger son.
There is also the older son, the “good” son. Given 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. They felt slighted.
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.
And so it is to them Jesus addresses this parable and forces them – and us – to make a choice. Do we want to stand on our own self-righteousness and remain outside, or are we willing to accept God’s free gift, not just to us, but to those undeserving others, and so embrace them as brothers and sisters? It is not easy. And Jesus does not answer the question for us.
Finally, there is the Father. When the younger son comes to him with the outrageous request that he receive his share of the inheritance, and in effect telling his Father ‘I wish you were dead,’ the Father, instead of doing what he should do and smacking the younger son up the side of his head, foolishly gives in and divides the property. ¿ 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 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 Father is more prodigal in His love than even the younger son was with money. What an image for God! Here is a 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 doesn’t wait till the son gets back, but unable to restrain himself – with no concern whatsoever over his dignity and how he appeared - 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. The Father does not demand an apology. He does not demand an accounting of where all the money went. He does not require a listing of all the things the son did wrong. Quite the opposite. The Father 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 the key to understanding the parable. We know about people who do stupid and selfish things like the younger son. We know about self-righteous and proud and closed in people like the older son. But the Father who loves and gives and forgives so eagerly, so prodigally, so overwhelmingly, is not common.
The Father loves. That is what He does. He loves the younger son even when he is selfish and stupid. He loves the older son even when he is self-righteous and up-tight. It makes no difference. The Father loves, because that is what the Father does.
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 almost 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!