24th Sunday of the Year — September 12th, 1971 — CNR
The fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel is the whole Gospel in miniature. Christianity may have developed enormously in the last two thousand years, erecting a vast and sophisticated intellectual and institutional superstructure. There may be great difficulties in understanding the complexities of certain doctrines, in providing for the larger community of thought a defence of the reasonableness of faith, in discerning the concrete implications of faith for the complex problems of our age. But to find the central meaning of the New Testament, of what Jesus of Nazareth was all about, of what this gathering today is all about, we have only to turn to Luke 15 to hear the word about the God who rejoices in the return of his lost son.
Jesus of Nazareth sat down to eat with sinners. That is the whole of the Gospel. For that meal is not just a meal; it is a sacrament of communion, of the restoration of communion between God and man, of God’s initiative of mercy. It is the same meal we gather to eat today.
Men found it hard to accept this gracious God and grumbled. And the three parables are Jesus’ gentle invitation to them to open their hearts to acknowledge wider and more gracious horizons than those of strict calculating justice, to permit joy into their lives to replace sober and secure self-righteousness.
In particular the parable of the lost son and merciful father is the haunting portrait of both the Good News of salvation and of the conversion needed for a man to receive it. Two conversions are described, one as fact, the other in invitation. The younger son who has wasted his patrimony in wild living, comes to his senses and returns confessing his unworthiness any longer to be a son. But, such is the father’s love for him that he cannot wait for his return, he runs to meet him, embraces him, and prepares a feast in celebration.
But it is the other conversion that Jesus is especially concerned about, that of the older son. For the father’s joyful welcome of his sinful son can’t fit into the way that son has understood his whole life with his father. He can’t even call the man his father; he has been the one from whom he has received orders, none of which has he disobeyed, for he has slaved for him, but not once has he received reward. His father’s generous welcome and feast-giving come from another world, where “orders,” “slaving,” “obedience,” “reward” are so transcended as to be nearly unintelligible. A carefully constructed world of meaning and value, of word and deed, of habit and orientation has to be dismantled before he can come into the feast.
The father tries his gentle best. “My son, you are with me always, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate and rejoice!” There is no way to demonstrate that “we had to;” no argument, no proof can bring the older son in. All the father can do is invite him to see as he sees and to love as he loves: “Your brother was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is now found.”
We do not know what the older son did.
The parables of this chapter interpret themselves, or perhaps better, they interpret us to ourselves. For there is not one of us who cannot see himself in either younger or older son. There are times when we feel we may no longer call ourselves God’s children, but always he is there, running to embrace us and bring us into the feast of his communion. There are times when ours is the sullen inadequacy of a purely formal relationship with God and with our brothers, and again God is there gently taking us by the hand, inviting us to free ourselves so that his ways may become our ways, his thoughts our thoughts, his joy our joy, his son our brother.
24TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 13, 1992 – SLOVAK MASS, SHRINE
If nothing had been left of the teaching of Jesus Christ except this one page of the Gospel, we would still know the essence of what he had come to do and to teach. He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners: with the impure, those stained by their failures, those compromised by their collaboration with the hated oppressor. He is criticized for it by the self-declared bearers and defenders of religious and national orthodoxy. And he tells three parables with a single lesson: about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son, or, as they may also be described, about a foolish shepherd, a foolish housewife, and a foolish father. The shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost; the wife turns her house upside-down for an insignificant coin; the father leaves aside his oriental dignity to run to embrace a wastrel, undeserving son. Each parable ends with an invitation to share in the extravagant joy: of the shepherd who has found his lost sheep, of the wife who has found her lost coin, of the father who has found his lost son. And each parable ends without our knowing whether the others come in to the celebration, and it ends there because it is only the hearers of the parable who decide whether they will come in or not to share in the joy of the Jesus who sits and eats with tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus was not just telling stories: he was saying what he was about. It is in him that the divine shepherd seeks us his lost sheep, the divine housewife seeks us in our insignificance, the divine father embraces us repentant children. And he invites the scribes and Pharisees, and in them he invites us, to decide whether we can share his love and joy.
That is why it has always been a mistake to call the third of these parables the parable of the prodigal son, because that son is not the focus of the parable. The dramatic center of this parable has two actors: the father and his faithful son, and the heart of its drama is the conversation between them, when the son hears that his father has called a celebration in honor of his unfaithful brother’s return. Their dialogue reveals the depths of the conversion that is necessary if one is to enter into Christ’s love and joy.
Listen to the older brother: “For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me as much as a kid to celebrate with my friends.” This is a world of slavery, of obedience, of reward: it is the only world this son knows, and it is simply incomprehensible to him that the father could have called a celebration for the return, not of his brother–for he does not call him that–but of that other “son of yours.”
And now listen to the father, who also goes out to this son, who now threatens to be as lost as the other son had been: “My son,” he says in reply, although his son had not called him “father,” “you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” He reminds them of their communion in life and love. “But we had to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.”
The father and the elder son inhabit different worlds. Where did the father’s “have to” come from: “We have to rejoice”? No such duty was intelligible from the son’s standpoint: it has no place in his world of slaving obedience for the sake of reward. There is only a duty if one loves and can forgive: and then it is perfectly obvious and needs no justification: We have to celebrate. “Da mihi amantem,” “Give me someone who loves,” St. Augustine once exclaimed when trying to speak of the power of God’s call. Only someone who loves can know this naturalness, this duty, to celebrate.
The parable ends with this dialogue. Does the elder son come in? Or does he stay outside, imprisoned in the small world of his envy? That question was posed then to scribes and Pharisees to ask them whether they could enter into Jesus’ joy to be eating with sinners and tax collectors, and it is posed to us now, for us to answer by the way we deal with one another, by the degree to which we can share God’s joy that one sinner has repented.
Is there anyone of us who does not need to hear this parable? Anyone who is not in the position either of the wastrel son, scarcely daring to believe his father could still love him as a son, or of the father who is asked to forgive someone who has offended him deeply, or of the elder son who needs to learn to love as much as God does? It is a marvelous parable, and it speaks as powerfully today as it did then, and leaves it up to us whether we can inhabit the world of the God who has sent his Son for us sinners.
This message of a God who has sent Christ for the sake of our reconciliation with him and with one another is the greatest gift the Church has ever had to offer to the world. It is a gift that is needed no less today than it was two thousand years ago, and no less needed by Christians and by Catholics than it is by others. What a great tragedy it would be if it were self-declared disciples of Christ who now were taking the place of the scribes and Pharisees and resenting the generosity of God’s love! who were unable to love as broadly as they have been loved! who refused to forgive as completely as they have been forgiven! St. Paul called himself a minister of reconciliation, and that is what the whole Church, and each of us individually, is supposed to be: ministers of reconciliation, of the overcoming of barriers, of the restoration of the unity of the human family.
I bring this up in the context of our celebration today, because we Slovaks, both here and in Slovakia, also face the challenge of reconciliation. Our brothers and sisters in Slovakia, after many years of oppression, have regained their freedom, as have so many others in neighboring lands. It cannot be said, I am afraid, that in all those areas the regaining of freedom has led to greater harmony, to reconciliation. In many cases, the regaining of freedom has only meant the rekindling of ancient enmities, ancient jealousies, ancient envies, and in one country in particular it has meant fratricide, even among peoples who claim to be disciples of the Christ whose essential message we heard today.
Thank God this has not happened so far in Slovakia or in the Czech lands. But the crisis is not over, and indeed it may become even greater if Slovakia adds independence to freedom. That will not be the end of the struggle, but the beginning, the real test of what world Slovaks choose to inhabit, a world as broad in its generosity and forgiveness and love as the world Jesus inhabited, or a narrow world defined by self-interest, corroded by envy, and driven by resentment. Even as we thank God for the freedom our brothers and sisters now enjoy, let us pray that they, and we also, may choose well in this hour of crisis, of fundamental choice, and choose to be children worthy of the God who has loved them in Jesus Christ.
24TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 17, 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The point of the parable we have just heard does not lie, as Hollywood once thought, with the younger son’s disrespect to his father, his dissolute life, and his repentant return. It is found instead in the dramatic confrontation between the father and the other, elder son.
The parable is set in context when Pharisees and scribes grumble that Jesus has been found with tax-collectors and sinners. Another parable, the one about the master who rewarded all his workers with the same pay, no matter how long they had worked, captures the attitude of the grumblers: “Are you resentful because I am generous?” What an awful attitude: resentment at generosity! That is the older son: angry because his father is forgiving. He stays outside the house where the celebration of music and dancing goes on.
The three parables mean that in Christ God himself is like that old man joyfully celebrating the return of his errant child: “We have to celebrate!” he cries. “Rejoice with me!” the shepherd says to his friends. “Rejoice with me!” the woman says to her neighbors. “Rejoice with me!” the father says to his older son.
For the older son to be able to share his father’s joy he is going to have to share his father’s love. It is only love that recognizes this “ought”: “We have to celebrate!” All the father can do is to invite this son to enter his world. He cannot force him. He can say how he sees the world, how he loves both his sons; and he can display his joy. But who can be commanded to be joyful? Who can be commanded to love?
Well, in fact, we have been so commanded: “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus says elsewhere. The command is an invitation, addressed to our freedom. There is no better illustration than this parable of what it means, in this one world created and redeemed by God, not to share in his love and joy in forgiveness than this man angry and resentful and lonely, outside the house of joy. We decide whether he enters. We decide whether we enter.4TH
4TH SUNDAY IN LENT – 26 MARCH 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
This parable still works. A couple of years ago, a colleague at Catholic University asked her class to read it and to jot down some ideas about what it means. After a few minutes a woman in the class, came up to the teacher, said, “I can’t do this,” and walked out. The next day she came to explain. She had been an excellent student in high school and been accepted at a prestigious university. During the summer before she was to leave for school, her younger sister ran away from home, desolating her parents, who spent hours driving around their town looking for the girl. The older sister decided she could not leave her parents and enrolled at Catholic to be near home. One day she came home and found great excitement at the house. As she entered, her mother rushed to her and said, “Emma is home!” “I walked into the living room,” the woman told my colleague, “went over to my sister and slapped her across the face. And I haven’t been home since.”
It is a mistake to call today’s reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It would be more proper to call it the Parable of the Forgiving Father or perhaps the Parable of the Unforgiving Brother. The whole point of it is concentrated in its second half, in the dialogue between the father and the older brother, which sets out two visions of what the world is like and what kinds of selves we ought to be in it.
The worlds are visible in the language of each. Listen to the older brother again: “For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as kid goat to celebrate with my friends. Then, when this son of yours returns after having gone through your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him.” He doesn’t address his father as “Father.” He doesn’t acknowledge the other one as his brother. He speaks of slavery, of orders, of obedience, of expectation of reward. All too familiar a world, with which more than a few people have confused Christianity, with which more than a few people still think a society can be content.
Listen now to the father to the older son: “My son, you are with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found!” The bonds of communion and presence between him and his older son are recalled. The bond between brother and brother is invoked. And there is a call to acknowledge an ought, a “have to”: “We have to celebrate and rejoice!”
Two worlds, two selves. Two selves, two worlds. The ought the father experiences does not fit in the older son’s world. The only oughts he knows are within the enslaved framework of orders and obedience: I ought to obey, and if I obey, I ought to be rewarded. There is no joy in it, and no room for an ought of forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t fit, and within that world no logic can ever conclude to this ought.
Where does the father’s ought come from? It comes from his love for his younger son. “There’s no explaining love,” a saying goes, which means, on the one hand, that if you don’t love, you will never understand love’s demands and, on the other, that if you do love, love’s requirements don’t need justifying. “Give me someone who loves,” St. Augustine once said in a related context, “and he will understand.” The father’s ought only love can experience and understand.
Which world is the real world? the father’s or the older son’s? Who says? Who decides? By what arguments do you decide? What is the world really like?
Left to ourselves, I do not think we could decide. But this is a parable, a parable spoken in reply to those who grumbled that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners. The parable describes what is going on when he eats with sinners. In him and in this welcoming gesture God is that father, throwing off his oriental dignity, running down the road to embrace his errant son, and calling for a joyful feast. That settles what the world is really like, as defined and determined by its creator and redeemer. God’s act created this world out of generosity and God’s act in Christ recreated it out of generosity even greater now, because it takes the form of forgiveness. God made the world and God settles the question what the world is really like. The whole Gospel is here, in this one page.
True. Yes. Yes, of course, we may say. But there is one other person who must determine what the world is like, what world he lives in: You, each of you, and I. Some years ago, I was asked if while I was reading this Gospel at Mass, three men could mime it. I said yes, provided I could see the mime beforehand. They showed me what they intended to do: their mime ended with the father and the older brother embracing. I said that they could not do that without destroying the drama that Jesus deliberately left unresolved. When we came to the Gospel in that Mass, they did their mime, but after the older son had described himself and his world and the father had described himself and his world, the mime ended, as the Gospel does, with the two of them standing in face of each other. There they stand again, still today. We decide–you, each of you, and I–we decide whether they embrace.
24TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 13, 1998 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
I have often thought that if, of all that Jesus said, there had been remembered only this fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, we would have the center, the essence, of his message. These parables, particularly the last one, the parable of the lost son, are the Gospel-in-miniature.
They are not morality-stories, told for edification or moral guidance. They are the Gospel, the revelation of what Christ was about, of what was going on in his life and work, and they are an invitation to faith in it.
The parables are told in response to grumbling about what he was doing, about his association with sinners. They have the same structure. Something is lost–a sheep, a small coin, a young son. What was lost is found. And those who find what had been lost invite others to share their joy.
Between loss and finding, the principals act strangely. The shepherd abandons 99 sheep to go off in search of the lost one; the woman turns her house upside down in search of an insignificant coin. But it is the father of the lost son on whom our attention should focus. He is the object of a disrespectful request: that he anticipate his own death by giving his younger son his share of his estate. The son disappears and is lost to view. We are told what happens to him: how he falls into misery and then comes to his senses and determines to return home even if only to become a servant of his father, no longer worthy to be called his son.
Of the father during this absence we are told nothing, but we sense that he must have missed his son, as if he were always on the lookout for him. For he sees him returning while still a long way off. And now, strangely, he throws off his oriental dignity and runs out to meet him, does not let his son finish his apology, embraces him, and orders his servants to prepare a feast in celebration.
All of that is preparation for the heart of the drama, the dialogue between father and older son, in which the point of all three parables is pressed home. The exchange reveals two incompatible worlds, constituted by two incompatible selves. The older son protests his loyalty, his obedient work, and complains about his lack of reward. He does not refer to his father as father, he does not call his brother brother: “This son of yours…” The father’s response is different: He calls the older son his son; he reminds him of their communion; but he adds, “But we have to celebrate. Your brother was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.”
This is the Gospel. This, Jesus is saying, is what is going on in himself and in his activity: God is that shepherd in search of one lost sheep. God is that woman in search of a tiny coin. God is that father embracing a penitent son. And God is asking others to share in his great joy when sheep and coin and son are recovered. “Rejoice with me,” say the shepherd and the woman. “We have to celebrate,” says the father.
And we–who are we in the stories, particularly in the last one? Well, we might be the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son–and, if we are, then these parables are appeals to us never to feel that we are so insignificant or so lost that God cannot find us; and in that case they ask us never to despair. But it might be that we are those who stand outside God’s joy, grumbling, we are the older son who will not join the feast celebrating his brother’s return. And in that case, these parables are an invitation to conversion, to a conversion that may be even more difficult and more profound than the one required in the sinner.
Think again of that final dialogue, of the worlds the older son and the father inhabit. One world is the narrow world of command and obedience and expected reward. It is a clear world, a “just” world, in which everything is known, well-defined, regular, that is, by-the-rules, a world in which the father’s action is simply incomprehensible and impossible to share, and so he must stand outside the joy. The father will not leave him there, and so he goes out also to him, to the older son, and invites him in. He appeals to him, in words used in another parable, not to resent his generosity. “We have to celebrate,” he says, “we have to celebrate.”
You will note that the parable ends with those words, with that invitation. We are not told whether the older son joins the celebration. And the reason we are not told is that we decide whether he goes in, and we decide that by deciding whether we will go in. We decide whether we remain locked in a lonely world which has no room for such searching, for such joy, for such forgiveness. We can be invited in; we cannot be forced to come in. The difference between the father and the older son, between God and us, is that the father loves where the older son does not, that God loves where we do not. Love discerns an ought–“We have to celebrate”–a natural, spontaneous, joyfully fulfilled ought, that those who do not love do not sense and do not fulfill.
This is the Gospel at its simplest. This is the call to conversion at its deepest. It is the revelation of God’s searching and tireless love. It is the invitation to recognize the world as God sees it, to recognize oneself as God sees one, to recognize others as our brothers and sisters and never to consider them as hopelessly lost or dead to us. And it is an invitation–that is all that God can do–an invitation to love as he has loved us in Jesus Christ, to love as he loves us now. That is the only way to be able to enter into a world defined by the joy of God.
24th SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 16, 2001 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
(The Sunday after the attack on the World Trade Center)
This has been, this still is, a week of the most primitive emotions and reactions: horror, disbelief, a dumb incomprehension in the face of evil; tears at the sufferings of people we don’t even know; and then, beyond sadness, anger also, and the stirring of hatred and of desire for revenge. Primitive emotions and reactions: not ones you have to think about or deliberately summon up, not the result of reflection and choice; they come from somewhere in our gut, from deep recesses; it is almost as if we are connected at some profound level of sensitive bodily tissue, in our sinews, in the marrow of our bones.
Along with these there is apprehension about the future: what kind of response should we make? What reaction will that provoke? How much suffering must we, may we, inflict? How much more might we have to suffer? What will be the consequences of this act or that? How do we prevent the primitive emotions that war evokes from turning a desire for justice into a passion for revenge, a reluctant recourse to force into indiscriminate violence? The older ones among us will remember that these are the kinds of questions you ask when you speak of war, a word not lightly to be used, a commitment not lightly to be ventured, as we might remember from one of the parables in last Sunday’s Gospel. The undergraduates at Catholic University, one can tell, are troubled both by the feelings and by the necessity of thinking about such things; they are too young to remember war, its pain and its great uncertainties.
In such circumstances, with such feelings and thoughts, we gather here as a Church, in this church where we can lay the thoughts and feelings upon the altar and submit them to the judgment, comfort, and challenge of the Word of God. Here is where we bring the big questions, questions about origins and ends–where we have come from and where we are going–about foundations and centers–where do I stand and what holds me together. And this is why the churches have been full ever since Tuesday, and why our own presence here for this eucharist is today anything but routine and habit.
In the Scriptures we are not going to find precise answers to the great questions of why that we quite legitimately ask about so much innocent death and pain, nor to the questions about our own and our nation’s responsibility in the next days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years–May God prevent it!. What we can do is bring these questions and the feelings out of which they spring before the God in whom we have learned to believe, and whose own nature and plan is nowhere in the Scriptures more clearly revealed than in the parable we have heard this morning. In fact, I think that if we had lost everything else that Jesus taught except this fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, we would know the essence of what he thought and could comprehend the meaning of what he was and did.
These are three parables about the love of God, revealed in his joy at the recovery of what was lost. A shepherd foolishly abandons his flock to save one lost sheep, and wants everyone to join in his joy. A housewife ridiculously turns her house up-side down in search of an insignificant coin, and wants her neighbors to rejoice with her. An oriental patriarch, whose son had shown him outrageous disrespect, throws off his dignity and rushes to embrace him as he returns, orders a great feast of rejoicing thanksgiving, and finds himself having to invite his other son not to remain outside pouting over imagined injury, sunk in a world of orders, obedience, and justice, but to come in and share his joy that the brother who was lost was found, who was dead was alive. That, Jesus was saying, was what was happening in his ministry: what the Alleluia-verse neatly summed up in the words of St. Paul: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.”
That is the sort of God we believe in: joyful at reconciliation, eager to forgive, wide in his embrace. He asks us to believe in and to accept the embrace of his love; he asks us to have a joy in reconciliation that is as full and wide as his, and not to remain outside his joy, perversely limiting the world to the limits of our narrow, constricted, unhappy hearts. That is really the question: whose world is the real world? Is it the forgiving father’s world, the one who discerns oughts that only love can feel? or is it the older son’s world, which has no room for anything so illogical, cannot think of any other possibilities but the endless dead and deadening cycle of exact justice? Whose world do we inhabit? Whose self is our self, the father’s or the son’s?
This parable has no direct answer to the questions we bring with us today. They are in large part questions that we have, each of us, to answer for ourselves. All I can do is to offer this: when you try to make sense of these events; when you try to understand those evils; when you look for some insight that will enable you to stand them; do it as a Christian believer. Bring these questions before the God who reveals himself in today’s parables. It is to him that you should be directing your prayers and your protests, of him that you should be asking your questions, from him that you should be seeking your comfort, by him that you should be willing to be guided as you think about the future.
In a moment we are going to make our common prayers to God. At the end I will leave time for you, if you wish, to add your own prayers, either asking for mercy and blessings upon particular people, relatives or friends, or for direction and guidance for the country.T
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 16, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
Sometimes I am tempted to think that if we knew nothing more about Jesus of Nazareth than what we can learn from this fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, we would know the essence of what he taught, of what he was about. The heart of the Gospel is here.
Pharisees are complaining, grumbling, because Jesus is consorting with people of immoral habits or occupations. So Jesus tells three parables meant to reveal how far this complaint is from the way God thinks and acts. A shepherd foolishly abandons ninety-nine sheep to search for the one lost; a housewife turns her house upside-down in search of a cheap coin. When each finds what was lost, they call friends and neighbors to come and rejoice that what was lost has been found. That is what God is like, Jesus concludes these two parables: he rejoices more over the conversion of a sinner than over the righteousness of ninety-nine.
But it is the third parable, about the lost sons (G. B. Caird), that displays in dramatically inescapable form the fundamental challenge that Jesus represents to Pharisees of any age. The younger son is lost to the father by his asking for his share of the inheritance and his departure for a foreign land. But when he has returned and his father is welcoming him back with a great party, the father learns that he has also lost his older son. Listen to how this son speaks: he does not address his father as “Father”; he does not see his brother: “this son of yours,” he says scornfully; he sees his work in his father’s house as years of slavery, of obedience to commands, in expectation of reward. Listen to his language. Slavery, obedience, reward define the older son’s very narrow world.
But then listen to the father: “My son,” he begins, re-establishing their relationship. He reminds them of their common life: all I have is yours. “Your brother”–your brother!–was dead and is alive, was lost and is found! We have to celebrate! We have to celebrate! What a different world the father inhabits, into which he invites this lost, older son.
Which of the two men inhabits the real world, describes how things are, knows what ought to be done? Is it the father? But, let’s be honest, are we not tempted also by what the older son says? Don’t we sympathize with him at least a bit?
And what accounts for the different worlds of the two men? Why does one see one world and the other another? Surely it is because the father loves where the older son does not. The older son’s world must be ruled by justice: command, slavish obedience, reward. Love does not enter the picture. Whereas for the father, love paints the picture, is the picture: my son, your brother, was dead and is alive, was lost and is found–we have to celebrate! We have to celebrate!
Love sees oughts that those who do not love do not see–real oughts: what the situation calls for, what is really needed But these are not externally imposed oughts, received ungladly, resentfully. They are oughts that make themselves known spontaneously as the desires of one’s one heart, and to have recognized them is already to have begun to fulfil them. Think of the oughts husbands and wives discover toward each other; watch parents caring for their children; watch good Christians forgiving.
The parable ends without our being told whether the older son goes in to the party. It ends there, I think, because whether he goes in or not depends on those who hear this parable. Which means that it depends on us, on me and on each of you. We decide where we stand in the parable: resentfully standing and grumbling outside, or going in to share the father’s joy.
The parable has something for everyone. If we ever find ourselves in the position of the younger son, we have learned from this parable that we can always return home, and our God and Father will rejoice over us. If we ever find ourselves in the position of the father, offended by another, we have learned from this parable the example of mercy that God gave us in Christ. If we ever find ourselves in the position of the older son, we have learned from this parable that God comes out even to us and invites us, so very gently, to share his joy. How sad it would be not to be able to share God’s joy!
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 of joy.