The Prodigal Son

Today is Sunday. At Mass, I listened to the deacon preach on this Gospel. He did not understand its meaning, so he made up his own meaning; he told us what it meant to him, his personal opinion. Anyone in the church could have gone up and done the same thing, with the same result. It’s unfortunate that so many priests and deacons did not learn the original meaning of Sacred Scripture, so their preaching is not so helpful. At worst, it leads people astray; at best, a few may feel some comfort from his particular message. But it is his message, not the Gospel message. Thanks be to God many seminaries today seem to have re-captured the Gospel message and newly ordained priests and deacons are preaching it.

Let’s look at the parable of the Prodigal Son.

11 And he said, "There was a man who had two sons; 12 and the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. 15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants."' 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry. 25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, 'Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!' 31 And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Lk 15:11-32)

First, the context. Jesus was preaching to some ‘sinners,’ when a group of Pharisees mocked Him for associating with sinners. Jesus responded to the Pharisees with four parables. Remember that parables were used in judgment against the Pharisees, the idea being that parables were analogies which the hard-hearted Pharisees could not understand. The first three parables were about things/people being lost, then found; sinners who return to God are such lost-then-found people. The parable of the Prodigal Son is the longest of the three and contains an important lesson to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

The Father is, of course, God the Father. His two sons in v. 11 represent those people who were faithful to God and those who were not. Historically, the two sons living with their father represented the children of Adam. Throughout history, there was a group of faithful people, the people of the Covenant. At the time of Jesus, these were the Jews. The Jews and the Israelites before them had always been God’s faithful ones, His chosen people. The Gentiles were, in contrast, those peoples who had long ago rejected God’s covenant. We see in these two sons the older brother – the Jews, and the younger brother – the Gentiles. The Gentiles rejected God – they left Him, as analogously represented by going far away, to another country. He lost his inheritance, that is, grace, through a life of sin. He ended up in poverty, that is, devoid of God’s grace.

The younger son repented and begged mercy of his father, not to be restored as a son again, but merely as a humble servant in the household. So the Gentiles, hearing the Gospel message of God’s mercy, turned again to Him and many joined the Church, the new covenant people created by Jesus. They could not, did not, expect to be received on the same level as the Jewish Christians, the faithful, chosen ones. As we know, the first 40 years of Christianity were difficult ones, trying to discern how the Church was Jewish, yet accepting of Gentiles. From the beginning, Christianity accepted that the Jews were our older siblings in the Faith. They have our respect as the first of God’s people.

22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26 And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." (Mt 15:22-27)

Those Gentiles who sought after mercy through Jesus understood they were second to the house of Israel. However, in this story of the Canaanite woman, note Jesus’ response:

28 Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Mt 15:28)

Jesus pointed to her great faith. Because of that faith, He gave her the mercy that had been reserved for the house of Israel. This is the message of the Gospel, of Christianity: God’s covenant is no longer restricted to a people, but is offered to all. So the Prodigal Son receives mercy from his father. The father did not receive him as a servant, as he humbly asked; he received him back as his son, with all the rights and privileges thereof. Both the prodigal son and the Canaanite woman had something in common: they both recognized they did not deserve what they were requesting, that it was a bold move to ask for a share of what belongs to the older brother/the house of Israel. But they knew they needed it, so they humbled themselves deeply to ask. The moral aspect to this parable is that we must be humble as we ask for God’s mercy; we have no right to it, but thankfully the Father is happy to give it to us.

The anagogical aspect to this parable is that the Gentiles were lost, but have been found and this is a great joy to the Father and to all of heaven. The whole Church, Gentile and Jew alike, are children of the Father, recipients of all the rights and privileges thereof. But the older brother of the Prodigal Son was not happy. He had been in the field, that is, working; likewise the Jews had been toiling in this world for generations, keeping the Faith which was no easy task. The older brother thought it unfair to celebrate the return of his unfaithful, younger brother, when he had been faithful all along. Remember: Jesus was speaking to the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees. He saw that same jealousy in them; they could not believe that the Messiah would welcome unfaithful sinners. They thought the Messiah would celebrate them, the Pharisees, who were faithful to the fine the details of the Law. Note the older brother of the parable was outside the Father’s house and he ‘refused to go in,’ although the Father ‘entreated’ him to do so. And here the parable ended, the two of them, standing outside the Father’s house. So it was with the New Covenant; the Jewish people were entreated by the Father, but many refused to come in.

Back to the moral aspect: Our primary takeaway should be to remember that we are the younger son. We must humbly beg the Father for permission to return to His house, even as a servant to serve others. We can be confident that our Father will embrace us and restore us to sonship and all heaven will rejoice.