Even a person minimally versed in Scripture will recognize the parable of the Prodigal Son. The terms “prodigal son” or “prodigal daughter” are part of daily parlance. Once when I returned late from a college party my mother was sitting up waiting. As I closed the door behind me she said, “The prodigal son has returned.” See what I mean? Of course such familiarity with biblical stories is not always advantageous since the familiar might just evoke the same response we made when last we approached the text. “What’s new?” It’s the question the preacher wrestles with this Sunday as we ponder the parable of the Prodigal Son. If the Word of God is always fresh bread then, potentially, everything is new.
Speaking of bread, before we go on, let’s look at our first reading. It’s about the cessation of one form of bread and the beginning of another. In Joshua we read that the Israelites are completing their arduous and long journey under God’s guidance; they came out of Egypt and spent 40 years on their wilderness journey. They have finally crossed the Jordan and entered the Promise Land. They have left the land of Egypt and can now claim the land of Canaan. In the new land they finally eat “the produce of the land.” No longer would food be scarce when they had to rely on the daily manna God provided for them. Now the land would produce more than enough to satisfy the people.
There is a danger in that, isn’t there? During the hard times they had to learn to trust that God would take care of them. It was a daily act of trust because each day the manna had to come anew. Now, in the Promise Land, they could care for themselves – or so it would seem – planting, harvesting and shepherding. It’s a danger for us too. No one wants hard times, but for the believer who learns to lean on God each day, difficult times can teach us trust. In good times, we risk forgetting God.
Whatever sins the people committed in the desert, especially their disloyalty to God and the temptation to turn to other gods, would now be forgiven. As our Psalm says, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The manna may have ceased, but God is still providing the daily bread of forgiveness.
The Israelites, like our parable’s younger son, wandered in the wilderness and lost their way. God takes them back after their infidelities and declares to them, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” While, in the parable, it is the father who rescues and redeems his son from his past wanderings. “He was lost and has been found.” The Israelites feast after God’s cleansing; the prodigal son enters the feast after his father’s words and embrace. Our Eucharistic feast today is our welcome back from wandering and our acceptance to the banquet.
The context for a parable can give us a clue to its meaning. The parable of the prodigal is one of the responses Jesus gives to his critics. The scribes and Pharisees have complained that he associates too closely with sinners. So, he responds with three parables about things lost and found. However, they are not repetitious: the first two are about lost things which, when found, are cause for rejoicing – the lost sheep (15:1-7) and a lost coin (8-10). Both parables link the findings with repentance, “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10).
The Prodigal Son parable brings us into a household under stress. This is a comfortable family with “issues.” There would be very few families in the congregation this weekend who wouldn’t be able to put a specific name of a family member, or someone from a friend’s family, in place of the wayward son in the parable.
Who hasn’t heard about a parent who helped a particularly needy or wayward child with financial assistance, only to cause rancor among the siblings, who claimed, “You’re wasting our inheritance on your no good son/daughter!” Parents will claim to love all their children, but if you were to ask, “Which one do you love the most?” – the response would sound like a version of today’s parable, “The one who needs me the most.”
The atmosphere in the parable is complicated from the beginning, when the younger son asks for part of the inheritance. The nerve! It was as if he couldn’t wait for his father’s death so that he could get his hands on some money. Those of us listening to the parable would want to interrupt to tell the father, “Don’t be such a foolish old man! Don’t waste your hard-earned money on that ne’er-do-well son of yours!”
But there’s no stopping this father, he’s going to go ahead and risk his property and reputation on this irresponsible son. Imagine what the father’s associates, family and townspeople would say about his reckless generosity. What will happen to his standing in the community? The father has risked more than his money on the boy.
God could be accused of a similar foolish risk. God is taking a big chance on us by generously giving us: our faith, talents, other people and the created world. We do tend to go off on our own, into a “distant country,” forgetting our connection to God; focusing more on what we have been given and less on gratitude to the Giver; using and spending as if all we are given is just for our sole use.
“In coming to his senses,” the conniving boy hatches a plan to fill his belly and so, once more, he goes to his father for help. Forget whatever notions we might have about how the father should teach the boy a lesson or two for his reckless behavior before taking him back. The father puts all his dignity, as head of the household aside, to rush out to welcome his son home. He even cuts the son off before he can finish his rehearsed speech of contrition.
While we might like to interject some words of wisdom on good parenting to the father, this isn’t a lesson on how to raise children. It’s a parable about how it is between us and God. The first two of these three parables were about repentance, but the emphasis in this parable is less on the son’s repentance. It doesn’t say he was sorry for taking advantage of his father, rather he “came to his senses” – an ambiguous description.
It’s a story of grace. Forgiveness does not rely on the son’s doing acts of penance and reparation. Nor did he have to confess his contrition and plans for reform with a properly worded speech. What got the boy’s welcome and his re-installment back into the heart of the family (symbolized by “the finest robe… a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet”) were the embrace and words of the father. Who gets a welcome, or welcome-back, into God’s kingdom? Judging from the dynamics of this parable, anyone who even dares approach and hope for a reception.
The older brother didn’t appear to be a “lost sheep or lost coin” – not the way his younger brother was. Still, the older, like the younger son, was a lost child as well. He reasons the way we do: he did the work, did not break the rules and stayed around while his brother went off. He is like a lot of us good church folk. But, while he did everything he was supposed to, he never appreciated the uniqueness of his father. He misinterpreted the world in which he lived: he did his work, but missed the grace of what it meant to live in his father’s house. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.”
What we can say about the older son is that he gets it: he names how foolish and outrageous his father’s princely welcome is to his younger brother. He understands that the boy has done nothing, not even finish his apology, yet he receives a royal welcome home. What the father showed the younger son, he now offers, in a slightly different way, to the resentful brother. He doesn’t cast him off for his disrespect, but reaffirms their relationship by calling him, “My son,” reminding him that he is a member of the household – “everything I have is yours.”
We presume the younger son grabbed the opportunity to get back into the bosom of his family. We don’t know how the observant son responded. Will he also “come to his senses” and reenter the family home to join the feast and celebrate the gifts of his life? Will we?
fr. Jude Siciliano, O.P.