Today’s readings are the second of the three Sundays before Holy Week, all of which stress the summons to return to God (repentance). Paul states the theme crisply: “The old things have passed away; behold new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.” The Gospel, often called somewhat inaccurately the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” has been described as “the gospel within the Gospel.”
The story is a drama in three acts. Act One: a younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, goes off to a “distant country,” squanders the money, suffers degradation and starvation and ends up feeding pigs and eating the garbage thrown to them. (He works for a gentile and eats unclean food, an action that denies his very heritage). He then decides to return to his father, but he is hardly a model of repentance. His motivation is quite self-serving, “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough to eat, but here I am dying of hunger.” He resolves to return and prepares a little speech for his father, “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would one of your hired workers.” His journey home begins, and we can almost hear him reciting his program for forgiveness.
Act Two is the return of the prodigal. While he is still in the distance, his waiting father sees him, “has compassion” and then runs, embraces and kisses him. Jesus’ hearers would have gasped at the image of the father running, a strong cultural taboo in that society. The son launches into his little speech, but in the embrace of the loving father one part of the speech is never uttered, “treat me as one of your hired servants.” In another shocking gesture the father orders the son clothed in a robe, ring and sandals. Far from being welcomed as a servant, the son is restored to family dignity and given the signet ring to act with the father’s authority. When I first taught this parable, I wondered about the sandals until I learned that sandals were worn by free people, while slaves went barefoot. An African-American student once said to me: “Professor, you did not have to do all that research. Haven’t you heard the spiritual that the slaves sang in hope of freedom—‘All God’s children got shoes; all God’s children have traveling shoes’?” Act Two ends, like all the parables in Luke 15, with a party. Finding must be celebrated.
In Act Three the spotlight is turned on the older brother. He is working the farm, as he has faithfully done for years. Hearing the unfamiliar sounds of partying, music and dancing, he asks another servant to find out what is going on. When he hears, “Your brother has returned,” he becomes angry and sulks outside the house. In an action as shocking as his running and embracing “little brother,” the father goes out and pleads with his elder son, who, like his brother, has his own speech; but this one reeks with resentment. I have obeyed and served you “all these years,” and you never even gave me a goat to celebrate with friends. The father does not debate the issue, but simply says, “You are here with me always; all that I have is yours,” but now come and celebrate and rejoice because “your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and now is found.” The parable does not tell us whether he joined the party.
Despite their different life journeys, the younger and older sons have the same image of the father. The younger son thinks that the way to return to the father’s good graces is to be treated as a servant; the older one boasts that all these years he has been a faithful servant. Both define sonship in terms of servile obligations; each in his own way destroys the family. The story is really a story of the “Prodigal Father,” lavish in love, who shatters the self-understanding of both sons and wants both to be free. St. Paul puts it succinctly, “You are no longer slaves but sons and daughters, and if a son or daughter, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7).
Living this parable becomes a challenge for our Lenten journey of return to a loving Father who breaks through our self-image as servants bent on pleasing a demanding master. This pardoning and prodigal God invites us to a family party freed from aimless wandering and resentful dutifulness.