Homily on Luke 15:11-32
The parable in today’s Gospel is traditionally called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But the New American Bible calls it the Parable of the Lost Son. It is the third of three “lost” parables in Luke’s Gospel. It follows the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the Parable of the Lost Coin. It is important to note that, in these two previous parables, the focus is not on what was lost, but on the joy of the person who found what was lost.
Jesus usually told a parable in response to something he witnessed or heard. We don’t always know to whom Jesus directed a particular parable, but in this instance, Luke tells us that Jesus tells this parable because the Pharisees and Scribes were complaining that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.
While the traditional interpretation focuses on the Prodigal Son, the parable actually begins, “A man had two sons,” So we really need to focus on the man and his relationship to his two sons.
The younger son approaches his father and asks for his share of his inheritance. Now we know that one receives his inheritance only on the death of his father, so what the younger son is really saying is, “I wish you were dead.” We would expect the Father to be angry at this, but instead he says, “Sure, here it is.” And we watch the son go off and squander his father’s money. And I’m sure he had a lot of friends as long as he had money, but now that he has no money, he doesn’t seem to have any friends.
As he reaches a very low point in his life, he starts to think about how much better his life would be even as one of his father’s servants, compared to the life he was then living. And so he decides to go back to his father, and rehearses what he will 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.”’
It is important to notice that word “deserve.” He thinks his father’s love is something to be deserved or not deserved.
Now think about the father. He has probably been going about his life, but every once in a while scanning the horizon for a glimpse of his son. He doesn’t go out to look for him. He doesn’t send the troops out to find him. But the son does not have to come all of the way home before the father reacts. He merely has to turn back, and as soon as the father sees him on the horizon, he goes out to greet him. And instead of punishing him, he welcomes him back with open arms.
Then we have the second son, the older son. He hears noise coming from his house, and he has to ask one of the servants what is going on. He is so estranged from his father that he does not even know what is going on in his own house. And look at the language he uses. He says to his father “This son of yours,” causing the father in reply to emphasize that the prodigal is “your brother.”
And look at how this older son describes his years with his father. He says he has slaved all of these years. He seems to think that this means he deserves what the father gives him (or hasn’t given him).
If it is the parable of the “Lost Son,” the fact is that both sons are lost. Neither of them understands the father’s love.
It is in fact the father who is prodigal. He is prodigal in his love. He gives it away recklessly to those who do not deserve it.
I suppose it has been popularly referred to as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” because most of us would prefer to be compared to the younger son. No one liked to be called the “goody-two shoes” when they were young. And even if we never acted like the younger son, I think we would want rather to be associated with him than with his brother. I wonder if the older son was so mad because he had thoughts of doing exactly what his brother did, but could not bring himself to do it, and was perhaps jealous of his brother.
But like the Martha and Mary story, where we are not meant to identify with one or the other, but realize that we are called to be a combination of both; so, too, are we a combination of the younger son and the older son, so we see ourselves sometimes in the younger son, but we are called to be unlike either of them, in recognizing that the father’s love is not something we deserve or don’t deserve, but a gift freely, even prodigally, given to us.
Augustine J. Curley, O.S.B.