Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C Lectio divina on Lk 15,1-3.11-32
There are few pages of the gospel as familiar as today’s passage. The parable of the prodigal son has always been one of the favourite stories of Christians of all times. Herein precisely lies the problem: the story is so well-known that we are not struck by the surprising message it contains. The first point to be made is that we should not focus on the behaviour of one of the two sons, but on the attitude of the father throughout the whole story. The most important thing is not what the sons said or did, but what the father said and did to each of them. We will understand the teaching of Jesus if we are able to identify with one or other of the two sons in the parable. And if we know which son we identify more with, we will know better what God the Father expects of us.
At that time: the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 11 “There was a man who had two sons; 12 and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. 15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, `Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ 31 And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
Too often we fail to notice that fact that Jesus spoke not one, but three parables (Lk 15,3-32), to defend his practice of eating with public sinners (Lk 15,2), a practice that scandalized the people who thought they were good. We need to realize, therefore, that the parable of “the father who had two sons” and the other two that precede it (Lk 15,3-7: the lost sheep; Lk 15,8-10: the lost coin), are all intended by Jesus to defend his unusual behaviour. He eats with sinners because he knows that God delights in the conversion of even one of them (Lk 15,7.10). When God recovers a lost sinner, he rediscovers joy and the desire to hold a feast – such is the power of the sinner who returns to God.
In reality, there is only one main actor in the story, the father (Lk 15,11). There are two separate scenes (Lk 15,12-24 and 15,25-32), one for each of the two sons. The younger son is “the bad one” and the older son “the good one”. Both characters were created by Jesus to describe two ways of being a son of God. In presenting them to his critics, he wanted them to decide which of the two they were better able to identify with. Most of all, however, he wanted his listeners to reflect well on the father’s response to the very different attitudes of his sons. The really decisive point in the story is not what the sons want, but what the father says or does, what he orders or suggests, what he requests or desires.
The two sons are very different and the Father is able to treat each of them differently. He is not the same for both. He does not treat them the same, nor is he treated the same by both. He asks nothing of the one who offended him. He is just happy that he has come back home, even though the son knew he was not worthy of his father nor deserving of a place in the home. The Father begged the older one, who had not left home, to accept the long lost son as his brother. Both sons are tested, but the test is not the same for each. The Father adapts the test to each one’s way of being a son. Everything comes from the Father’s desire to have two sons.
The younger son was aware of his sin. He had left his father and gone as far away as he could, but he had never banished him from his heart. He asked for his share of the inheritance and quickly squandered it, but he never forgot that he was a son, no matter how bad he was and how little he deserved to be treated as a son. When his situation became desperate “he came to himself”… and went back to his father. His coming back home began by his coming to himself, in other words, a change of heart. The father met the lost son at the door of the house. The son had already found his father, before he ever saw him, or felt his embrace or been accepted by him as his son. He had carried him with him in his heart and it was there he found him. And it was there in his own heart that the lost son found himself.
The older son worked hard and never left home. But he was not there when his younger brother returned. He missed the home-coming, even though he knew about it from one of the servants, and he did everything possible to avoid taking part in the feast. It is worth noting that the father’s attitude is a bit more insistent with the older son, more persuasive and even more affectionate. He does not deny what the older son says, nor the reasons he gives, but he adds a new reason, one that could only come from a father: the newly arrived is your brother, whatever he may have done, because he is still my son. In an indirect way, the father points out that obedience and fidelity do not always go together. Being a servant is not the same thing as being a son. The son should feel that he is an owner, even if he works with his father’s servants. The son is free to dispose of his father’s goods, because the father is the supreme gift and the source of all goods.
The older son did not lose his father or his goods. He did not go away from home or absent himself from work. He did not sin against God nor against his father, but he had worked all his life like a paid servant. He had no father – only a boss. He had no home, only a workplace. His was indeed a sad story. However, and this is the point of the parable, because the “good son” was unable or unwilling to be a good brother, the father could never again have his two sons in the home.
So-called “good sons” who are unwilling to accept their brother, rob God of what he considers most precious. They deprive him of the joy of being father. Refusal to accept a fallen brother, and to receive him back as a brother, means depriving God of the thing that is most important to him. Quarrelling with a brother, no matter how many reasons there may be, is an attack on God our Father. We should remember that this is the test of the “good son”. For the “good son”, conversion means becoming a good brother.
II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life
To understand this parable of Jesus, we need to keep in mind the circumstances that motivated it, the pharisees’ criticism of Jesus’ behaviour. Jesus justifies his familiarity with sinners by describing the way God acts, and he does so by using the example of the father who had two sons. The prodigal son never ceased to be a son, even when he left his father’s house and squandered the family’s goods. Even after he had sinned, he still felt that he was a son, albeit an unworthy one. This is what saved his life and saved him from his sin. The son who did not leave home, always felt like a servant to his father. His fidelity was not easy, because his was not the obedience of a son but of a servant. He did not join in the family feast, either before or after the incident. The really sad thing is that the father could no longer be the father of two sons, because the so-called “good son” refused to recognise the other as his brother. He could not accept that the father showed more love to the one who had behaved badly. If we look closely, we see that the parable is not about two sons who had a father, but about a father who had two sons. And it was not the younger son who was prodigal, but the father. It was the younger son who squandered his share, first by asking to have the inheritance divided and then wasting what he received. It is true that the younger son left both home and father, and wasted his share of the inheritance by his loose lifestyle, but the father felt greater sadness at the loss of his son than at the loss of his property. The main character of the story is not the badly behaved son, but the father who was always willing to recognise him as a son, even though he did not deserve it and aspired to nothing more than being taken back as a servant. He chose to leave home and family, but, no matter how far he went, he was unable to escape from the place he had in his father’s heart. The father continued to long for the son who had abandoned the family and gone to live in a foreign land. The father felt his son’s absence, and kept him alive and present in his heart and in the family home. We would need to have experienced a similar situation to be able to understand the pain and the sadness of the father while his son was away from home and living a dissolute life. The attitude of the older brother is also not easy to understand. It’s true, he did not leave home, but he never felt free at home. He always submitted to the father, but with the obedience of a servant. He had grown up as a son, but he had always considered himself a servant. He did not abandon his father, but he did not see himself as the heir. He could not celebrate with his friends. He did not allow himself to ask for anything, not because he did not want to, but because he did not have enough trust. And when his father’s son returned home, he was unable to accept him as a brother, and unwilling to join in the feast. Maybe he had good reason, but he had no sympathy for his father. He had spent a long time with his father, but he had not learnt to be a brother. During all the time he had lived with his father, he could see him only as a boss. His submission did not make him a brother and his obedience did not make him a son. Because he could not understand his father’s way of thinking, he remained without a feast, without a brother and without a home. It is sad to realize that, even after a life of fidelity to God, one can still end up by losing him forever. It is not enough to do what the Father wants of us – we must also want what he tells us. Doing what is commanded is the work of a servant. To be a son requires an inner obedience that comes from the heart.
The parable is only a shadow of the reality. The good father is nothing other than an image of what God wants to be for us. How often we have felt the temptation to leave God at home, and go in search of places of greater freedom, where we could do our own thing without being recognised as children of God, where we could spend what we have received as if we had earned it ourselves! And how often we have consented to this yearning for freedom, this sudden urge to leave home and cease to be a son! Yet every time we do so, we end up becoming a slave in somebody else’s house. However, the story told by Jesus is not pessimistic, since our abandoning home does not lead to our being abandoned. If we see something of ourselves in the younger son’s departure, we can also see something of ourselves in his return. We too will find a Father waiting for us, moved with pity for us, running towards us ready to embrace us. He will welcome us with a kiss, even before we say we are sorry.
The story of the younger son could be our story. Far from home, he experienced joys that destroyed him, and sadness that made him feel homesick. He enjoyed some pleasure and at the same time felt need. He turned back to think about his father, only when he felt an empty stomach, when all his money was gone and he had no more friends to help him to waste his fortune. In his loneliness, he felt the absence of human affection, and the lack of food. Then he thought of his Father and the food his servants enjoyed. When people are successful and satisfied, and able to arrange things for themselves, when they think they are not sinning just because they have all they need from their own goods, it is difficult for them to decide to come back home. But we should not envy them – they have lost home, father, and family, and missed out on a family feast. When we realize we are in need of something important, it can be the occasion for us to return to the good Father who is waiting for us all. Despite our sins and mistakes, and our poverty, there is always a God who awaits us, a God who will not keep count of what we have done, provided only we return. We need to turn back to God and rediscover him as Father. Only if we try, will we discover how good he is! We all have a Father who is waiting for us at the end of the journey – why do we hesitate to come back home? Our own home is waiting for us, why are we so slow to leave that other home that is not ours? The banquet for the feast is ready – why do we still go hungry?
One final comment: if someone we know has gone away from home, and comes back to our Father’s house, let us welcome him as a son who has been found, and a brother who is still to be found. Let us share our home with him and our Father, without any envy or rancour. God needs sons if he is to be Father, whether they are good, or maybe not as good as we are. And we need good brothers to form one family with God. No one is to be considered better just because he has never left home. We are all still sons, even if we are unworthy. If we claim to be faithful to God, but do not welcome the less faithful, we will never feel anything other than servants in our own family. For God to be our Father, his sons must be our brothers, even if they are not as good as we are. What God is asking of us today is to reflect on what kind of son we are, by examining what kind of brother we try to be.