All the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
This is probably the best-loved of all the parables of Jesus; yet it appears in only one gospel: Luke’s. It can be read from the perspective of each of the characters: the younger son, the older son, and the father. When we call it the parable of “the prodigal son” (an expression that does not occur in the parable itself), we are reading it from the perspective of the younger son. But in the context in which Jesus told it, it was clearly about the father.
If the word ‘prodigal’ means lavish, we ought to call it the parable of the prodigal father. The father was prodigal in mercy and forgiveness. In the parable the father represents God. Jesus could have drawn any kind of picture of God he wanted. This is the one he drew. God is rich in mercy, abounding in love. The ‘Almighty God’ of our youth didn't always leave us with that impression, but the truth was never lost on the saints. Julian of Norwich wrote, “Our courteous Lord will show himself to the soul full joyfully and with glad countenance and friendly welcoming, as if he had been in pain and in prison, saying sweetly, ‘My dear one, I am glad that you are come to me: in all your woe I have always been with you, and now you see my love, and we will be united in bliss.”
This heart-warming story of God is essential to our Lenten diet. Without it, our efforts to lead a better life only lead us into self-righteousness – or despair.
Which brings us to the older brother. Remember that when Jesus told this story he was surrounded by a crowd of surly scribes and Pharisees. They were objecting to his friendliness towards sinners. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus captured them perfectly in the figure of the older brother. It sometimes happens that the eldest in a family becomes a sort of third parent, but of course without the warm instincts of a father or mother. When an elder brother loses his brotherliness, other qualities flow in to take its place: grumpiness, cold anger, stinginess, resentment.... Thank God there are many exceptions in real life, but the older brother in the parable was all of those things.
“I have been working like a slave for you... yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” But as his father pointed out, the goats were his! “All that is mine is yours.” The real reason is that celebration was foreign to him, he was enjoying his resentment, he was a kill-joy, he had no heart. And he was stingy.
Any of us, if we’re not careful, could slip into that dreary role. We can become so focused on doing our duty that we disregard all other values. The Pharisees were like a group of angry elder brothers; they accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard (Lk 7:34), because he knew how to celebrate. But they were not able to make him like themselves. In fact he spoke of the kingdom (the presence) of God as a banquet (Mt 22). Again, it was not lost on the saints. Julian again: “Our sins are forgiven by mercy and grace, and we are received with joy, just as it will be when we come to heaven.”
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