To read the texts click on the texts: Jos 5:9-12; 2 Cor5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
The Parable of the Prodigal son is more aptly named the Parable of the Prodigal father. The real prodigal, profligate, wasteful character in the story is not so much the son as it is the father. It is the father who is wasteful in his love. It is the father who is profligate in his forgiveness. It is the father who is prodigal in his unconditional mercy and compassion. This Parable is unique to the Gospel of Luke and is set in the context of the murmurings of the Pharisees and scribes because Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners”.
There is no rationale in the demand of the younger son. His demand was such that it would result, not only in breaking family ties, but also in regarding his father as dead. The father, however, holds back nothing. He gives all he can give to his sons, he gives his very life. The granting of the demand of the younger son results in his progressive estrangement. He first leaves home and his father and goes to a far away country. He also mismanages the money given to him. He spends it all on loose living. His descent into poverty and deprivation is swift. He descends so low that he agrees to work for a gentile, in a gentile land, ending swine. Swine were an abomination to Jews, who were prohibited from raising swine. The man who would dare to breed swine was considered cursed. The younger son becomes a total destitute.
However, when he is at the depth of his degradation and in the midst of mire and filth, he comes to his senses. That he is serious about his return is shown in his actions. He prepares his act of contrition, his plea for mercy and then, gets up from the mire and begins the journey to his father. While the son is still a long way off, the father runs to meet him. In the first century, it was considered undignified for grown men to run. The father sets aside respect and dignity. The son begins his speech but is not allowed to complete it. The father interrupts his son even before he can finish, He gives instructions to his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals, all of which indicate that the son is given back his original place as son. The call to kill the fatted calf is a sign that the return of the son is to be regarded as a time of celebration. The dead son has come alive. The lost son has been found. All sin is forgiven, a;; iniquity is pardoned, and all guilt is erased by the embrace of father and son.
This is only one part of the parable and has to do with the vertical dimension and reconciliation. It has to do with one’s relationship to God. The second part of the parable, in which the elder son is introduced, has to do with the horizontal dimension and is equally important. The elder son neither addressed his father, as father, nor his brother, as brother. His focus is on merit and what he thinks is rightfully his. This also leads him to point to the faults of the younger son, his brother. His father, however, wants him to focus on the joy and delight of welcoming his brother who has come back from darkness to light and from death to new life.
While many of us can resonate with the first and third parts of the parable, namely the demand of the younger son for his share and the unforgiving attitude of the elder son, we find it extremely difficult to believe or even fathom the centre of the parable which concerns the forgiveness of the father. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that our image of God is warped. We concentrate only on the judgement, anger, and wrath of God. We forget God’s unconditional mercy and love as revealed in Jesus. The second reason is that we expect God to behave with us like we behave with others. Since we are often unforgiving, like the elder son, we think that God will be unforgiving with us as well. However, the truth is that we have been loved first. We have been forgiven first and we have been pardoned first. We have been accepted totally and completely by God. Even the first reading of today speaks of the mercy that God had on the people when God rolled away the disgrace of Egypt for Israel and they were given the privilege of eating of the produce of the land. God erased their sin and accepted them, even with their failings and their faults.
The readings of today throw up a dual challenge. The first is to believe, and know, that God forgives unconditionally no matter how grave our sin might be. It is to accept totally the immeasurable depth of God’s boundless love. It is to realize, in the depths of our hearts, that God is always willing to take us back. The second challenge that follows from the first, and is related to it, is our acceptance and forgiveness of others as God forgives us. This is the challenge that Paul issues to the Corinthians in the second reading of today when he invites them to be ambassadors for Christ. Anyone who claims to be a disciple and follower of Christ has become a new creation and has been reconciled to God.