4th Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2016
Luke 15: 11-32
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.
“Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15: 1-2).
In Luke’s 15th chapter Jesus tells 3 parables, addressed specifically to the Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining about his friendly association with tax collectors and other notorious sinners—whatever that designation means, precisely. Those parables are the lost sheep, the lost drachma, and the one we just heard, the lost son. (3 years ago I added “the lost Swiss Army knife,” which I’d just found serendipitously while setting up my kit for a Scout Mass.)
We usually call the parable of the lost son that of the “prodigal son.” Prodigal means “recklessly extravagant,” “characterized by wasteful expenditure.” The latter meaning describes the younger son, certainly, who “squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (15:13)—eating tons of pizza, drinking gallons of Bud, and playing video games, no doubt, altho the elder son suggests worse (15:30), perhaps having seen YouTube or perhaps engaging in rash judgment. But the 1st meaning, “recklessly extravagant,” may well apply to the father, who is certainly prodigal with his forgiveness. Which is just the point that Jesus is making to his interlocutors: “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous who have no need of repentance,” he says to them as he concludes the parable of the lost sheep (15:7); he says something similar after telling of the woman who had lost one of her 10 drachmas (15:10).
So do we identify with the younger son, the wastrel, the ingrate who in effect says, “Dad, I wish you were dead and can’t wait for my inheritance”? who “comes to his senses” (15:17) or becomes remorseful only when he’s slopping unclean pigs and starving because what he feeds them is unfit for his own food? He seems to have what in the old catechism we called “imperfect contrition”; he’s not sorry because he offended his gracious and loving father but because he’s in such a sorry state himself. When we admit our sins, perhaps it’s because we’re truly sorry for having offended a Father who is so good to us and has committed himself to our eternal welfare; perhaps it’s because we’re afraid of his wrath. But either way, we’re happy to be forgiven and are grateful for that. We’re happy that the Father welcomes us back into the family.
But when we remember that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and scribes, who are complaining about his friendliness—and mercy—toward people whom the Pharisees and scribes detest for their moral and ritual failings, we need to look toward the elder son as the key figure in the parable. He represents the Pharisees and scribes, who never disobey any of the rules of the Torah but don’t find a lot of joy in their faith, don’t seem to have a close relationship with the Father—and who’ve done nothing to try to call those tax collectors and sinners back to God, just as the elder son didn’t do his familial duty when the younger son demanded his share of the family estate, sold it off—alienated the land the family had owned for generations—and abandoned his home and family. Unpardonable behavior on the younger’s part, and in the Middle East the elder son would have been expected to mediate between his father and his brother, patch things up, save the family estate and the family honor. But he doesn’t. He’s really not a likeable fellow. He even speaks disrespectfully to his father, who loves him and seeks him just as much as he did the younger son.
Are we so different from that elder son? Do we think ISIS targets should be targeted without regard for civilians as “collateral damage”? Do we think every convicted killer should be fried, and quickly? Do we think gays should be sent to Siberia? Do we think that all those illegal immigrants—you know, all those Irish hiding in Manhattan and Brooklyn after overstaying their visas—should be rounded up and shipped home? Oh, yeah, and the Mexicans and Central Americans too, including the ones their parents brought here at age 2 or 7. Do we think everyone on welfare should just get a job and the unemployed shouldn’t be so lazy? Are there family members from whom we’ve been alienated a long time because of something they did or said, or didn’t do; or we thought they did or said or didn’t do, but we really didn’t verify that? Whose behavior do I really resent? Whom do I look down on because they’re morally inferior to me?
We’re probably not quite that harsh. More likely, we find in ourselves some elements that make us resemble the elder brother, and some the younger brother. Jesus is certainly calling us to be more compassionate, more understanding, more patient with the faults, even the grievous faults, of others; to be forgiving and encouraging of those who want to come back—into our lives, the Church’s life, God’s family. That’s the only way we can get into the celebration that the Father is throwing, the celebration of eternal life.