The Gospel reading this week includes one of Jesus’ greatest parables. It contains many themes and images that represent what this season of Lent is all about. That of “hope, mercy and love.”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son opens with “tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying — This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We have to ask an all important question, “why were the tax collectors and sinners drawing near to Jesus and why were the Pharisees and scribes chastising Him?”
The gospel of Mark tells us about these relationships where it says, “The scribes and Pharisees asked the disciples “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:16b-17)
Jesus had a special sense of mission to poor and oppressed people. He reached out to those at the bottom of the social pyramid–poor people, women, Samaritans, lepers, children, prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus commanded, “Love your neighbor.” When asked to define “neighbor,” Jesus expanded the traditional meaning of the word–defining our neighbor as “anyone who is in need, including all social outcasts.” Jesus was also eager to accept people who were well-placed, but he made clear that all, regardless of social position, needed to repent.
The tax collectors and sinners know that what Jesus will give them hope and a way out of their sin. They trust Jesus. He welcomes them and dines with them. On the opposite side, the Pharisees and scribes complain. Perhaps they are proud, arrogant and suspicious of the authority with which Jesus speaks and acts.
These are classic reactions to Jesus in the gospels. Perhaps we have been in both of these places in our lives. There have been times when we have drawn close to Jesus to hear His words and there have been times when we have shunned His words out of pride or arrogance — or even fear. If we were to look at our lives over the past six months would we say that we have been drawing nearer to Jesus? Or, have we been standing in the shadows of sin looking on from a distance? Have we been judgmental of the individuals we see as tax collectors and sinners in our own community? Have we been self-righteous?
Now, the rest of the story. To the Pharisees and Scribes he addressed this parable: A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me”. The father divided the property between them. It should be awkward to hear the younger son ask for his inheritance now. But, in our society it seems to be the norm. It is called something for nothing. In the parable it is as good as calling his father dead. It is extreme, hurtful and disobedient. Sin is like that. It can cause us to consider our relationship with our heavenly Father dead.
It is interesting that the father does not object. No chastisement and no pleading. The estate is divided. The father allows the younger son to exercise his free will and to make his choice. We are given free will with which to do beautiful, charitable works for God. It is, also, this very same free will which allows us to make bad decisions in life. God allows us to make choices.
The younger son set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. Not bothering to set any aside for a time of need.
The son hits bottom as he finds himself in dire need. Perhaps he should have returned to his father then and there; however, he may be paralyzed by pride or even shame. He would rather try plan -B- than return to his father. Maybe I can get myself out of this mess — he thinks to himself. Have we been in this position? Have we stopped ourselves from being reconciled with our heavenly Father out of shame, pride, or fear? Have we contemplated a plan -B- which only prolonged our pain? Did we only sink to a lower place until we came fully to our senses like the son is about to sink?
So he hired himself out to tend swine. Tending the swine communicates the depth to which the son has sunk. He is working with unclean animals and willing to forego any legal preparations of food to render it clean. He is willing to eat pods on the ground. He is hungry. He is desperate. Coming to his senses he thought, “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”
There is a hint of selfishness and humility in this passage. The thing that causes him to go back to his father is his own hunger and comfort. He compares himself to the servants of his father who have more than enough to eat. He longs to be like them. Satisfied. Comfortable. He is willing to have this comfort at a price. He is willing to no longer be called the son of his father, but rather a hired worker. So he got up and went back to his father. What we have here is the sin of envy. Envy because everybody has more that he has. Envy because he wishes to have more food to eat, a better place to be – home. Home where everything is good, even if he asks to be a servant.
While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son. The father is filled with such joy that this is no matter to him.
Despite the motives that bring this son back to his father, the father still warmly welcomes him home. What does this tell us about God and ourselves? If our plan is to wait until we become perfect human beings before we turn back towards God then we will never begin our turning. God knows that we are broken. God knows that we are sinful. God knows that we have made bad choices. However, God will take us back in any condition we are in with the hope that we continue to grow more deeply in His love. We should never wait until we completely have our act together before we return to God.
It is interesting that the father makes no response to the son when the son tells him that he no longer deserves to be called his son. The father is so full of joy that these words fall on deaf ears. He has his lost son back again and that is all that matters. It is time to celebrate. This is true joy. This is the kind of joy that our own repentance might cause in heaven.
The older son is returning from the field and he hears the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was happening. The servant said, “Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has is back safe and sound.” The older son became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” Here is another side of the sin of envy. We have not seen this kind of envy since Joseph and his 12 brothers. Envy that the other brother is loved more by the father.
He said to him, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Now the son is referred to as YOUR BROTHER — reminding the older brother of his relationship to him and the fact that he should share the joy of having his brother back.
We are all challenged to share in the joy of having any member of our community or family back who has traveled away from God. What seems just or fair in our world is not to be imposed on God. The ways of God are His ways. Our ways are our ways. In the end I believe we will all be grateful for the mercy, compassion and love that God has for all his creations. And perhaps, just perhaps, we are more like the younger son than we know.