Is there a more familiar parable of Jesus than this one?
Hardly! You know it well with the younger son treating his father as if he were dead and demanding his share of his father’s estate NOW instead of after his father dies. Then he wastes it all on “wine, women and song,” ending up in a pigpen (hell for a Jew) and then, when he was down and out, deciding to repent and return home. His father, who never forgot his son and never stopped loving him, runs out to him before the boy sets foot in his home. The boy begins a rehearsed speech of repentance but his father stops him, hugs and kisses him, and then throws a big party part for him. Great story; happy ending.
What’s the point of the parable? What does Jesus want us to see?
Let’s take a look at the elder son. Is he the focus? Look at who Jesus was talking to — the self-righteous, the moralizing Pharisees who despised Him for hanging out with sinners. The Pharisees had nothing but contempt for Him for doing that. He even shared His meals with them (and in Jewish society back then you were judged by whom you ate with). The Pharisees sneered at Jesus for being “a friend of sinners.” Their sarcastic judgments didn’t bother Him because He was indeed a friend of sinners. And He still is — which is why we are here.
In St. Luke’s Gospel account, two stories come just before this one — stories about finding lost sheep and finding lost money. Everyone can identify with that. But to be identified with the elder brother? Well, that was too much, and yet he is the point of contact between Jesus and His accusers, the Pharisees. They, like the elder son, never left home, never “wasted their Jewish heritage,” always obeyed the rules, and slaved for their God. It’s curious that word “slaved” was used — did they really think we are called to be slaves? Jesus, on the night before He died, said: “I no longer call you slaves, I call you friends.” And then He suffered and died for us. We are called to be God’s sons and daughters, even though we too often behave like the younger son in today’s parable.
Well, those Pharisees, like the elder bother, were angry! And don’t we, too, become angry when others get public acclaim and recognition while we’ve worked far harder than they have and yet receive no recognition for all the good work we’ve done? We need to know, also, that in Jewish law the eldest son, upon his father’s death, receives a double portion of shares of the inheritance going to each of the children. That younger son received twice as much as the portion the elder son would receive. On top of all that, in this parable, the youngest regards his father as already dead in demanding his share of the inheritance coming to him… and his father gives it to him! Can’t you imagine the rage and anger in the heart of that eldest son? It was unfair favoritism to his way of thinking. He had been more than slighted.
But God’s generosity cannot be measured in human standards. Our thoughts about what is fair and what is just can’t possibly even approximate God’s. And it was ever thus. Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve, yet God favors his brother Abel and accepts his offering, not Cain’s. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, but God chose Isaac instead. Esau was firstborn, but God chose Jacob to be the father of Israel. David was the youngest son of Jesse, and God chose him to be king over Israel. There are many other examples, but you see the pattern here. Eldest brothers cannot rest easy in a culture built on firstborn favoritism. God sees things differently.
But our reflections on unfairness aren’t over yet. We note, too, that the father in this parable had already given the youngest son what was due him, which meant that everything that was left over belonged to the eldest son, or so he assumed. So whose money was it that was paying for this big party the father was throwing? And whose corn-fed cattle were being slaughtered for this feast? Why, the eldest sons! And boy was that elder brother jealous!
Another point is that the father rushes outside to go to this wild-spending younger son. The thing to note, however, is that the father does the same thing for the jealous and angry elder son — he goes out to him also. He treats him the same way, and does all that he can to console him. The father even stands there and lets the elder son vent his anger and dump his toxic fury all over him. Then, in utter tenderness, he invites his son to share everything he, the father, has — even his love for his younger son. He invites him, as God our Father invites you and me, into His banquet of forgiveness and self-surrendering love. Question: Can we forgive such a forgiving God, or do we demand fairness on our terms?
We need to see that the party was actually thrown for both of the sons? And can we accept the truth that God loves all of His children with all His love? We need to see that sharing what our Father wants to give us is the source of His greatest joy.
God takes the initiative to save us all, to overcome the alienation and distance that separates us all from Him. The parable ends with the younger son in the loving embrace of his father, and with the elder son somewhere on the outside. Did he ever surrender? Did he ever yield to his father’s insistent call to love? We do not know.
But we do know of those around us who, for one reason or another, are still outside, who will not come to Mass with us and join in the banquet God sets before us here on this festive table each and every week. We do know of those who feel they have no need of forgiveness and repentance. We do know of those who give God the cold shoulder, or who are angry at God, or who for any number of unknown reasons choose to live in alienation and distance from God. They need to hear the good news that God still loves them anyway, that He has never forgotten them, and that He is waiting for them to begin again by coming to Him here at the Eucharistic Banquet. If He, no matter how great the distance between us, sees them coming back home He will rush out, throw His arms around them, and bring them back into His house.
What a message it is you have to give to a world that is cynical, bitter, and seemingly without hope. What a powerful message, what wonderful good news you have for those who continue to stand “on the outs” with God.
But how can they find God, and how can they experience God’s unreasonable, prodigal, and limitless love, unless they hear about it? Unless you tell them?
The real point of today’s parable is that you and I should be like the father and go out to them.