Learning to Read Signs of Love
February 29, 2016
Prodigal Son cropped
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C - March 6, 2016
Chapter 15 of Luke's Gospel is often referred to as the "Lost and Found Collection" of the New Testament since it begins with the parable of lost sheep (vv 1-7), followed by the parable of lost coin (vv 8-10), reaching its crescendo in the parable of prodigal son (vv 11-32).
The Prodigal Son story in today's Gospel is one of those rare gems that captivates the mind of every listener, then and now. The parable epitomizes Luke's gifts as a storyteller -- his ability to "paint" a scene with such vividness and sensitivity to human relationships that it can echo with each person's lived experience.
At different times in our lives, most of us have played each of these roles: that of the doting, loving, apparently overindulgent parent; that of the younger son who experiences being brought low by sinfulness and pride, and desperately in need of mercy; the older son, who is responsible and above reproach, and who is frustrated by the generosity and leniency with which the weaknesses and sins of others are dealt with.
There is some of each of these characters in each one of us.  Luke's unique and marvellous parable of the Prodigal Son was originally aimed at Jesus' respectable contemporaries who resented his fraternizing with tax collectors and other disreputable types.
In his 1984 apostolic exhortation "Reconciliatio et Pænitentia" that followed the Synod on Reconciliation, Pope John Paul II wrote: "The parable of the prodigal son is above all the story of the inexpressible love of a Father-God -- who offers to his son when he comes back to him the gift of full reconciliation. [...] It therefore reminds us of the need for a profound transformation of hearts through the rediscovery of the Father's mercy and through victory over misunderstanding and over hostility among brothers and sisters."
Portraits of 3 characters
In the ancient Jewish world, the right of "primogeniture" (being the first-born male in a family) meant that the eldest son received a double share of his father's inheritance. Thus, the younger son would have received roughly one-third of the value of his father's property and possessions. But the very fact of asking for his inheritance (v 12) would have been a grave insult to his father, suggesting that his father was "taking too long to die," and that he had become impatient with waiting for the old man's death.
The younger son obviously goes off to a pagan (Gentile) nation (v 13), since no self-respecting Jewish farmer would raise pigs -- an animal that was considered non-kosher. The son apparently traveled a long way, imagining that he would find in some other country the happiness and excitement he had apparently not found in his own land. The result was just the opposite: he is reduced to indentured slavery, is forced to tend unclean animals, and being ill-fed, he is slowly starving to death (v 17).
We are told that younger boy "squandered his property" (v 13). Once again, this is certainly a possible meaning of the Greek noun (ousia), but it also has the sense of "his very being, himself." Not only did the young man recklessly surrender his money and property but he surrendered himself as well: he "lost" who and what he was.
We read that the younger son "came to himself" (v 17). Perhaps it is sufficient to say that the young man came to realize how foolish he had been and so "came to his senses." That is a prelude to repentance, even if not repentance itself.
The prodigal father
In one of the most poignant scenes of "an expectant father," the old owner of this plantation sees the son, even while the boy is a long way off, walking home slowly, awkwardly and ashamed of his state (v 20). It is the father who takes the first step, who chooses to go out and meet his wayward son en route, instead of waiting for him to come crawling home.
The father's actions would have been considered highly inappropriate and a source of shame. The father's reaction is an overflowing of love, compassion and tenderness: he "falls on his son's neck," hugging and kissing him, and demands that the symbols of his freedom and of his status within the family -- the best robe, sandals, ring -- be restored to him, as if nothing had happened (v 22).
This father would have been well within his rights to turn the son away, on the basis of his deeply insulting actions, and the shame he had caused his family. We can only imagine that village hostility would have been substantial upon the younger son's return. Village families would be afraid their own younger sons would get similar ideas!
The disease of entitlement
The reaction of the elder son (vv 25-29) is one of righteous indignation: His words quickly make it clear that, although he has done his filial duty, it has apparently not been out of any sense of love or generosity; instead, he feels that he has been imposed upon, has "slaved away" for years for his father without appropriate gestures of gratitude. He focuses, not on what he has been given, but on what he feels he has been deprived of. He suffers from the terrible disease of entitlement!
The elder son is very concrete in condemning his brother's behavior, speaking of how he has "devoured your money with prostitutes" (v 30). Did rumors about the younger boy's actions eventually filter back to his hometown and family? Or is the elder son simply imagining the worst about his brother, and describing him in the harshest possible terms?
The elder son has "written off" his sibling in his heart, and now refers to him only as "this son of yours" -- he may be your son, but he is no longer my brother! It is, Jesus says, possible to seem to be a son without really being a son in one's heart, and that is what the elder brother reveals by his reaction.
Isn't it interesting that the one who was believed to be free, reveals himself to have felt like a slave, and he who remained in the father's house reveals himself to have felt like an alien and an outsider, not to have felt like a son at all?
Working out reconciliation
This deeply moving parable highlights two of Luke's characteristic emphases: God's welcome of sinners and those considered socially and religiously unacceptable, and the rejoicing and celebration that are meant to accompany that welcome, that are meant to respond to the repentance that God invites.
The generous father of both sons welcomes back the youth who squandered his inheritance but does not repudiate the older son who protests the father's prodigality yet remains faithful to him. "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours" (v 31). The restoration of the son who "was dead and has come to life." who "was lost and has been found" (v 32), does not invalidate the fidelity of the older son. The younger son, restored to the father's household, must make a new beginning in the life of fidelity. Reconciled to God, both sons must work out together their reconciliation with each other.
Does the elder son finally make peace with his brother and welcome him back? Does he find it in his heart to forgive, and to share in the father's rejoicing? Or does he, in the final accounting, find himself even more alienated than his younger brother had been? Where is the mother in this story? What was her response? We are left hoping for a conclusion that Jesus never provides. That's what the parables are all about: They invite us to enter into the story and to find the answers in our own lives and times.
The parable of "The Wayward Son" or "The Prodigal Father" or the "Indignant Elder Brother" can cause much grief for us, as we see ourselves and our motives exposed for what they really are. The prodigal Father squanders his own love on our pettiness, our meanness, our diffidence, and our arrogance.
Open fields
For my Lenten reading this year, I came across the little gem of a book "Love Alone is Credible" by Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 2004). Toward the end of the book, these words jumped off the page:
"Once a person learns to read the signs of love and thus to believe it, loves leads him into the open field wherein he himself can love.
"If the prodigal son had not believed that the father's love was already there waiting for him, he would not have been able to make the journey home -- even if his father's love welcomes him in a way he never would have dreamed of.
'The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be, and really is, there for him; he is not the one who has to bring himself into line with God; God has always already seen in him the loveless sinner, a beloved child and has looked upon him and conferred dignity upon him in light of this love" (p. 103).
Ministry entrusted to us
Today's second reading from St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17-21) summarizes beautifully Luke's masterful Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son. Paul attempts to explain the meaning of God's reconciling action by a variety of different categories; his attention keeps moving rapidly back and forth from God's act to his own ministry as well.
If we are reconciled with God, with ourselves and with others, and if we in turn foster Christ's reconciliation in society, we can make a convincing claim to be ambassadors of the Prince of Peace. Just as God took the initiative in sending his son to reconcile the world, so he expects us to take the initiative to restore harmony to a broken world, to wounded families, and an often-divided Church.
On this fourth Sunday of Lent, may we, who have been forgiven so much, embrace as brothers and sisters every sinner who joins us in the feast of forgiveness we celebrate in the Eucharistic liturgy.
Along our Lenten journey on the road to the Father, may a song of gratitude and joy burst forth in the wilderness of our hearts and the deserts of our vengeance, meanness and hardness of hearts. May God teach us to read the signs of love in the world today, and gladden our hearts at the Word that sends us on our way in reconciliation and peace.
[The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent are: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32]
(Image: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt)
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