Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 15, 2019)
The story of the prodigal son is both the most consoling and yet most challenging story in the New Testament. Having been lost morally, for a time, is not an unknown experience for many of us. We may more easily identify with the younger son.
Jesus portrays his father in heaven as the father of two sons. The younger son makes a decision to do life “his way.” It doesn’t work out. We need to put on our Jewish ears to hear how bad it was: he gets a job feeding pigs. A good Jew would not eat pork and would not slop pigs. He “comes unto himself.” He is not sorry for having insulted his father by asking his father “to make like he’s dead, so he can get his inheritance.” He is selfishly sorry because his own, personal day to day life is miserable.
He composes and practices his well-worded “act of contrition” and starts for home. His father sees him from afar. Had he been watching for him for months, years? His father runs to greet him. His son never even finishes his act of contrition, poor as it is.
The father accepts him as he is. His father is exuberant: get new clothes; a robe, sandals, a ring. Let’s party – no cold cuts. We’re having filet mignon.
The elder son. Who dutifully did what he was told regarding work, comes in from the fields. He becomes angry. More significantly, he lacks his father’s generous heart and spirit.
The father understands. This son is also lost, so the father goes out to meet him, as well. This son is hard-hearted - like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day and perhaps, a little like ourselves.
Earlier in my life, I identified with the younger brother. As life went on, I identified with the older brother in hindsight, having gone through the “duty’’ stage of immature, spiritual growth. It is a stage of being self-righteous, unforgiving. Pondering this parable, recognizing how pharisaical it is, we see Jesus’ guiding us to a new level with a new principle: “everything through love; nothing through fear.”
This is also another vivid example of a key issue in the New Testament: forgiveness. Our father loves us unconditionally. The meaning of “unconditional” is seen in this story. He loves us no matter what we do. We appreciate that as the best part of the good news. His love is called “agape,” a love that refuses to take revenge for hurts or exact punishment.
Let’s recall that Jesus’ words: “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” are in the context of the father’s mercy to us. We got a sense of relief to learn that we are not expected to do everything we do perfectly; that is the error of “perfectionism.” In our relief from perfectionism, however, let’s not forget what Jesus’ saying does mean: grudges are not allowed. It is the tender secret of the human-divine relationship.
Unforgiveness is a spiritual cancer that destroys our spirit / our soul as inexorably as untreated physical cancer will kill our physical body. Our Father is aware of his children’s sins, takes the initiative, comes out to meet us, and rejoices at our homecoming. Once again, this is an example of God being a both/and God, not an either/or God. He goes out to both sons.
Don’t you think that a parent’s joy at a child’s rehabilitation from drugs or alcohol more closely mirrors god than the moralist’s condemnation of evil or the church’s imposing a penalty? Significantly, there is no conclusion to the story of the second son; the story stops without the elder son’s response. The father now begins his worrisome wait for the elder son.
And us? We are challenged to evolve toward the third person in the drama, the hero-father. When we have done what we can do in a relationship, we wait both for someone to return from alienation and wait - even for churchmen – for hearts to soften, lose self-righteousness, and find love.
As I said at the beginning, this parable is at once consoling and challenging.