The full readings for this morning can be found here:
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Good morning. How’s your Lent going? It’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, so we’re about knee deep in it. And you know, somewhere between the global pandemic, the Russian Invasion, and events in this parish, I think it’s about the lentiest Lent I’ve ever lented. But here we are, and this morning, the Church has offered us this magnificent story. We call this story the prodigal son. That word “prodigal” makes me wonder. It means extravagant, lavish, or sometimes wasteful spending and I promise you we’ll come back to that next week.
It’s one of my favorite stories, a story about how we should treat terrible sinners—you know, people like you and like me. So Jesus tells us this story that captures the essence of not only this season of repentance, but also of the heart of Christianity.
And he begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” Now, I think Jesus’ audience, when they heard this introduction, would have immediately thought, “Uh oh. There’s going to be trouble.” Because these people knew their Scripture, and they would have immediately thought of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Essau, and perhaps of Joseph and his brothers.
You see, I had several brothers, and I understand what kind of trouble younger brothers can be. But in this story, the younger son goes to his father and says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Now, we may miss the import of this request. In that world, at that time, that was in essence the younger son saying, “I wish you were dead” or at least, “You’re taking too long to die.” But the father complies and gives his younger son his inheritance early. So, the younger boy gathers all he has and goes off to a foreign country.
Oh, I know about that foreign country. I’ve spent time there. You see, there was a time in my life when, if you had asked me, I would have told you that I spent all my money on fine clothes, fast cars, good wine, and pretty women. The rest of it, I wasted. These are years when my father referred to me as Count No-Account. So, I’ve been in that foreign country where the younger brother went. And the boy spends everything he has on dissolute living and then trouble comes: a famine strikes the land. You see, there’s one thing about that foreign country: it’s a lot of fun—until it isn’t anymore.
And we know how far this younger son has fallen, because here’s this good Jewish boy in a gentile country feeding the pigs. Feeding the pigs! I mean, that’s no place for a good Jewish kid. And Luke tells us he would gladly have eaten the pig food, but “no one gave him anything.” “No one gave him anything.” That’s the way the world is sometimes, when you’re down on your luck. And it’s hard to find a way out.
But then, Luke tells us, something remarkable happens. The younger brother has what you might call an epiphany, or a moment of grace, or maybe he’s just desperate. But look at what Luke says: “when he came to himself.” Now, that phrase implies more than just a change of mind, it implies that for a while he had been lost to himself, he had wandered away, he had forgotten who he was. And while we may not have run off with daddy’s money, most of us have forgotten who we are at some point. And he decides to go home, even if that means being treated like one of his father’s hired hands.
And now the story gets really good. Luke tells us, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” That may be my favorite line in all of Scripture. Do you know why the father saw him from a long way off? Because he was looking for him. I suspect he’d been looking for him to come home ever since the boy left. And I take great comfort in that, in the idea of a God who is always anxious for us to come back home. Maybe I find that notion reassuring because…well, I’ve been a long way off myself.
The younger son tells his father, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He confronted his failures, and he recognized that the heavy cost of them. He recognized they might cost him his place in the family, just as our own failures carry a cost. We might add a pause here in the story, as the father weighs his response to the younger son’s words. But the father, in a moment of lavish generosity and forgiveness, tells the servants: Dress this boy up in something fancy and let’s have a party, “let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
And in a real sense, the younger son was dead to his father. He was gone; he was lost. Look at the father’s response: there’s no price to be paid for re-entry into the family; there’s no penance to be done. The father is full of nothing other than joy at his son’s return. Now, we call this parable the prodigal son, and remember that word prodigal means lavish or extravagant. But, I think we could just as easily call it “prodigal father,” because his response of love and forgiveness is just as extravagant as was his son’s spending.
And the family begins to celebrate the boy’s return—well, not everybody in the family joins in the party, the pachanga. The elder son, the good son, who never did a thing to take advantage of his father, can’t even bear to come into the house. Some of us may identify with that older son: he’s responsible; he does what’s expected of him; and he’s very good at keeping score. In fact, he is shacked and bound by his rage.
The older son tells his father: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” And in the world he lives in, he’s right. He lives in a world of the zero-sum game, where anytime someone gets ahead, you’re falling behind. We call that an economy of scarcity. He cannot even bring himself to recognize his brother. Look at what he says: not my brother has come back, but this son of yours came back.
The problem isn’t that he has a sense of right and wrong. The problem is that he is a prisoner of it, chained to his sense of injustice. He can’t even go into the house. That’s a hard way to live. He reminds me of something we used to say about my family. We said that we suffered from a genetic case of Irish Alzheimer’s—that’s where you forget everything except the grudges.
Let’s contrast his response to that of the father, who tells him: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Contrast the older son, who says “this son of yours” with the father, who says “this brother of yours.” The father had to celebrate because the joy and forgiveness overflowed from him. The elder son lives in an economy of scarcity; the father lives in something much closer to what we call the economy of grace, or God’s economy. In the economy of grace, love and forgiveness are the currency, the coin of the realm. And that’s the world, the economy, in which the father has chosen to live.
Now, here’s the brilliance of this story, the genius of this tale: we don’t know the end of the story. We don’t know if the older brother accepted his father’s invitation to join in the celebration. We don’t even know if he ever came into the party, into the house. We don’t know if the younger brother really did change his ways, or if he fell back into his old lifestyle. And I think Jesus meant for that story to remain unfinished, because we get to write that ending every single day in our own lives. We can choose to live like the younger brother, the older brother, or the father. We get to write the ending of this wonderful story in the way we live. It’s your story. Make it a good one.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022