Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 12, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
The meaning and purpose of the three parables we have just heard–of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son–are given by the first words of this marvelous fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and Scribes began to complain: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
In Palestine at the time tax collectors were considered compromised both by their regular contact with the hated Roman occupiers and by a reputation for dishonesty. “Sinners” was a designation that could apply both to people living wicked lives and to people who followed a different understanding of the Jewish law than others did, who considered themselves the only truly righteous ones. The complaint lodged on more than one occasion against Jesus was that he consorted with such social rejects and even permitted them to enjoy his company at meals.
The first two parables begin Jesus’ response. A shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep unguarded and goes after one and, having found it, calls on friends and neighbors to celebrate with him. The woman loses a coin of very little worth, but turns her house upside-down looking for it, and she too invites neighbors and friends to rejoice with her. The emphasis of the parables falls, first, on the desire and effort to find what was lost and, second, on the invitation to celebrate when it is found. The point is made twice: “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” “Joy in heaven” means joy in God, and St. Gregory the Great exactly catches its import: “God’s joy is our life, and when we are led back to heaven, we complete his joyful celebration.”
But Jesus’s response to the scribes and Pharisees gets even more pointed with the third parable, about the lost son. We may be tempted to think that all its drama lies with the fate of the younger son who goes off with his share of his father’s wealth, spends it foolishly, repents, and comes home where he is greeted joyfully by his father and welcomed back with a great party. This is indeed an important part of the parable, but the real drama of the story Jesus tells, and the place where its point lies, is in the conversation between the faithful older son and the forgiving father. Here it is obvious that there is a gulf between the two of them, which perhaps was never obvious before the younger son came home and was received so lavishly.
Listen to the older son: “All these years I have slaved for you, and never once have I disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” He speaks of his life as one of slavery, of obedience to orders, in the hope of reward. He doesn’t call him “father”; he doesn’t speak of his “brother” but of “that son of yours.” There seems to be nothing of love, nothing of joy, in his life; and he stands outside the party, unwilling, perhaps even unable, to join in the festivities.
And now listen to the father: “My son,” he calls him immediately, thereby restoring their relationship. “You are here with me always, and everything I have is yours.” He reminds them of all that they share. But, and here is the difference, he says, “We have to celebrate and rejoice. Your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” We have to celebrate!
Two men living in two worlds. What is an “ought” in the father’s world is simply incomprehensible in the older son’s world because he cannot think except in terms of obedience to commands for the sake of reward. Why does the father experience an “ought” that the son does not experience? Because the father loves where the son does not. People who love recognize “oughts” that people who don’t love don’t recognize. “The heart has reasons that reason does not know” is the famous saying of Pascal. The only way into the father’s world is to share the father’s love.
The older son, like the scribes and Pharisees, stands outside the party. Some interpreters have assumed that the older son relents and comes in. But that is not in St. Luke’s text, which leaves it unknown whether he accepts his father’s gentle invitation to share in his joy. It is left undecided because whether the son goes in or not is really determined by everyone who hears this parable, that is, by you and me. If we live in the world that Jesus inhabits, that Jesus creates by his love, then we go into the party; if we don’t, we stay outside, sullen and resentful. But what an awful position to be in! To be unable to share God’s joy! That is not a bad description of what hell must be.
So there is something for everyone in this beautiful chapter. It may be that you see yourself more like the younger son. If so, then know that your Father is waiting for your return, and at the first sign of it, will run to embrace you and welcome you home. It may be that you find yourself more like the older son. If so, then let go of your resentment and come into the party. It may be that you see yourself like the father, sinned against by someone you love. If so, look at what the father’s love was able to recreate by his forgiveness and welcome, and consider becoming more like the eternal Father who has no greater joy than that of welcoming both sons into his festival.