A man had two sons… There are three characters in today’s parable of the prodigal son, and so three acts, with each act centered around one of the three characters in the story.
The parable is also a demonstration of the Beatitudes:
poor in spirit – young son
mourner – young son
meek – young son, father!
hungry and thirsty – young son, first for food, then for righteousness/justice!
merciful – father of course
pure in heart – young son! A pure heart comes with struggle!
peacemaker – father
persecuted for righteousness – older son (in his own mind, of course)
We see in this parable the same reversal of righteousness that we see in the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector and in so much of Jesus’ teaching.
Notice how chapter 15 of Luke begins: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus then tells three parables, all having to do with finding something that is lost: sheep, a coin, a son.
The pharisees and scribes are operating from an attitude of shortage – there is not enough mercy and kindness to squander on undeserving people; it’s only for those who deserve it (deserving according to their definition, of course). Jesus operates from a different mindset, God’s mindset! There are no limits to God’s love, mercy and forgiveness.
One of Warren Buffett’s most famous aphorisms is that rich people should give their children “enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing”. That’s good advice, and the father in the story could have used some advice from Buffett. But the point of the story is not really about money; money simply provides the motivation, the impetus, for the lesson.
Act 1: The young son came to himself; which means he had gone away from himself. He had left behind not only his father, but his own true self, everything that was good in his own heart and soul. So he had to come to himself first, and then to his father. His hunger prompted a spiritual awakening! But it was very much a spiritual awakening, an awareness of what he had done to himself and to his family’s reputation.
Act 2 begins with the father looking for his son. The father is an image of God. He receives his son and hardly gives him a chance to speak his remorse, but gives instructions for him to be dressed with the finest robe, a ring, and shoes. The symbolism here is rich, and the great St. Augustine interprets it allegorically: the robe to be the robe of blessedness that Adam lost, the ring to be the pledge of the Holy Spirit, the shoes for the feet that will run to announce the gospel of peace! Kill the fatted calf and let’s party. The kingdom of God is always a party! And this chapter 15 is all about the kingdom. Whoever is found, is found for the kingdom!
Act 3 centers around the older son. The young son has gone into the house, into the party. Now the father comes out to see the older son, who is very upset at the father’s generosity to his undeserving brother. But the father’s answer is the answer that rings down the ages for us too: “All that is mine is yours.” There is no shortage in God’s heart. All that is his is also ours; that’s how immeasurable is God’s generosity and God’s desire to share the fullness of divine life with us! We don’t know whether the older son accepted the father’s invitation to come in and join the party. I’m sure he did, as we all would do in his shoes. As indeed we all do!
The Pharisees resented the openness of Jesus. But don’t think of the Pharisees in purely Judaic terms. The Pharisees in the Gospels are simply symbols of something bigger. There is a “pharisee” in ALL of us; it’s human nature to put limits on love, and decide who is “deserving” and who is “undeserving”. But God is not a man. And Jesus was no pharisee.
The older brother’s language reveals his conception of the father as authoritarian and controlling, common enough in Jesus’ culture but in no way fitting for this father, at least as he has been portrayed in the parable. And so also the younger son! How wrong both were. Many of us are wrong about God. We also see God as an authoritarian being, just looking to send us to hell. If God keeps watch over us it’s to lift us up, to forgive, to heal our souls and our relationships. To make us Beatitude people!!