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Our Gospel reading today is a long one – an entire chapter from the Gospel of Luke. And it includes three different but related parables that Jesus relates, perhaps the best known of which is usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many paintings have been made depicting this parable, particularly the scene of the Prodigal Son himself returning to and being embraced by his father.
One of the commentaries about this Gospel that I read, however, gives this parable another title: the Parable of the Compassionate Father and His Two Sons. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it and doesn’t sound as memorable, but it’s a little more accurate. Because, even though the majority of the parable is about the prodigal son himself, it actually is a parable about two sons and their father.
All three parables that Jesus relates in today’s Gospel have to do with mercy. The shepherd who searches for his lost sheep, leaving the other 99 behind, and rejoices when he finds it. The woman who loses a precious coin and searches all over the house for it, and likewise rejoices when she finds it. And of course, the son who goes to his father and asks him for his share of the inheritance, in effect telling his father that he wished he were dead because he wanted his money. It is a little difficult under the circumstances to feel much sympathy for this son because of the cruelty of this action. And then he follows it with foolish behavior: he squanders it all on “a life of dissipation.” Like the person who wins millions in the lottery and then blows it all and goes broke within a couple years.
So when a famine strikes the foreign land this son has gone to, he is left destitute and ends up tending pigs. He’s so hungry that he even longs to eat the food of the pigs. Jesus’ Jewish audience would have recognized just how far this young man had fallen, because to them pigs were considered unclean animals; they wouldn’t have anything to do with them. And here this young man is reduced to looking after them and cleaning up after them, and even worse off than them because he wants to eat their food! He has fallen very far indeed.
So he decides that it’s time to go home. He rehearses a speech he will make to his father acknowledging that he has sinned, declaring himself unworthy, and asking that he be treated as a hired worker, not even as a son. But as we heard, when he is still a long way off, his father sees him and runs to him. For an elderly man in Jesus’ time, running would be seen as undignified. But the father is so happy to see his son again, that he doesn’t care. The son tries to give the speech he has rehearsed, but his father doesn’t let him finish. He forgives his son completely; he harbors no resentment towards him at all for the insulting way his son treated him. He restores him to his place in the household as a son, not as a hired worker, and he rejoices that he has returned.
And this is where the other son, the older brother, enters the story. He has heard the sounds of the celebration of his brother’s return. When he learns what it’s all about, he gets angry, and refuses to enter the house, preferring to remain outside. When his father comes to plead with him to join the festivities, he responds angrily. He doesn’t call him, “Father”, and speaks resentfully about how he has served him all these years, never getting anything in return. But his father still calls him “Son”, and urges him to rejoice over his brother’s return. However, we never hear if the older brother chooses to go inside and join in the festivities or not.
I’ve retold the parable of the prodigal son – or the parable of the compassionate father and his two sons – because I want to highlight a few things from it. First, it’s about mercy. I think everyone recognizes that the father in the story is an image of our Heavenly Father. When we sin, we are like the prodigal son, turning away from God. And the further we descend into a life of sin, the further we stray from God – we end up far from our true homeland, which is with God. And sin degrades us, just as the prodigal son ended up in such degraded circumstances. But if we repent, we can be assured that God the Father will forgive us, just us the father in the parable forgives the prodigal son. Although we might feel unworthy, although we might feel that our sins are so great that God could not possibly want us back or be willing to forgive us, God chooses to forget whatever we’ve done. He will restore us to our true place in his household – not even as his servants, but as his beloved sons and daughters. And he rejoices when we ask forgiveness for our sins, when we return to him. This theme of rejoicing is found in each of the three parables that Jesus relates in this Gospel, because he really wants to emphasize it.
Jesus tells these three parables about lost things being found and the rejoicing that follows because the scribes and Pharisees have complained about the fact that sinners are coming to listen to Jesus. They are like the older son in the parable. They faithfully follow all of the many rules of their faith, but they look down on everyone else, on all those who have failed to live up to the demands of the faith. They don’t just look down on them, they don’t want to have anything to do with them, and they think that Jesus shouldn’t either. They serve God faithfully, like the older son, but there is resentment in their hearts. And they fail to recognize their own need for repentance. The chief sin of the scribes and Pharisees is not that they are sticklers for rules, but that they are proud – they think they have no need of repentance and look down on everyone else. Because they fail to see their need for repentance, their own need for God’s mercy, they in effect put themselves “outside” of God’s house. They forget about their true identity, not as the leaders of the Jewish faith, but as God’s children.
God is infinitely merciful, but he does not force his mercy on anyone. Nor does he force anyone to acknowledge him as their father and to recognize their true identity as his children. If we believe we are not in need of God’s forgiveness, that we never do anything wrong and so don’t need to be forgiven, we are like the older son of the parable, putting ourselves outside of the range of God’s mercy. This is a dangerous place to be. We do not know what the older son ended up choosing to do – did he stay outside angry or did he finally acknowledge that he was in the wrong and go inside. But we are free to choose to reject or accept the mercy that God freely desires to give us and to recognize our true identity as God’s sons and daughters.
How do we receive God’s mercy? It begins contrition and continues with the sacrament of reconciliation. If it’s been a long time, or if you have something heavy and serious on your heart, do not be afraid to come and ask the Lord for forgiveness. God is waiting for you; He is waiting to forgive you.