The Parable of the Prodigal Son
How often we have heard the parable and yet never really listened to the lesson it tries to teach. The story about a father’s unconditional love, and the son’s return has even made its way even to the secular world as a classic story with a profound message.
But before we move too quickly into our discussion about the Prodigal Son, the church offers us a glimpse of another reading, from the book of Joshua. Both readings, from the book of Joshua and the Gospel of Luke are clearly related. Joshua recounts the fate of the Israelites at that crucial time in their history when they ended their desert sojourn and entered into the Promise land. “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” The promised people have been rescued from slavery, and given their own land, free from the shackles of their oppressors. In thanksgiving, the Israelites are to celebrate this important moment with the Passover meal.
The juxtaposition of this reading from Joshua with the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son calls our attention to the striking parallels between the two texts. The return of the son to his father’s home after a period of exile is an unmistakable echo of Israel’s deliverance from slavery. The father’s invitation to the banquet mirrors Israel’s festive Passover meal in the promised land.
In both accounts the benevolent father with arms always open, ready to forgive and welcome back those who had strayed, is comforting and nice to hear, but it doesn’t say anything about ourselves. We know, we have been taught and come to believe that God is all merciful, all loving and ready to forgive all our sins. But the story of the Prodigal Son is less about the father and more about the two young men. We are more like them than the father who seems to have qualities only God could have.
It begins with the young man who went away and squandered his money and time on empty promises was following a path of immaturity. He hadn’t had the breadth of knowledge and wisdom to figure out that what he was searching for could not be found at the bottom of a bottle, or in some fruitless and superficial relationships. Finally, the first son comes to his senses, due to factors outside of his control, but he did come see the errors of his ways. Does this not sound very familiar? How often through our own spiritual immaturity have we strayed and wasted precious time and resources on things that are not life -giving, only to return to our senses and ask for forgiveness?
Immaturity has nothing to do with chronological age! At any age, we can do things as silly as some younger person, who at least has the excuse of a lack of experience and wisdom. It should be easy for us to relate to the first son, for all have strayed, and in remorse, asked to be welcomed back into the peace and security of our heavenly Father.
Now to the second son. There is little difference between the first and second son. Although the circumstances are a bit different, the second son doesn’t seem to have a problem with his passions but suffers from a spiritual immaturity which can actually be worse. The second son’s immaturity is a bit shrouded, but nevertheless still quite present and debilitating. It would seem at the outset that since the second son stayed with his father, worked the fields, did not squander his or his father’s money, he is the individual who has been slighted in this parable. So, it may seem. But the father reminds his second Son he has not been cheated. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.”
In reality, the second son’s immaturity is far more advanced than the first. The first son gave into his passions, and finally returned. But the second son exhibited a whole host of immature responses.
The first is pride. He thinks he is the better son for having stayed and did what he thought was expected of him. True he stayed but the relationship with his father was contractual instead of loving. Next, the ugliness of jealousy, “you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”
The list continues…
Disproportionate justice. “It’s not fair! I have done what you have asked and yet my brother who hasn’t paid his dues is entitled to and more of what I receive.” What about his presumption? those things are due us, like God’s forgiveness and love. Anger, resentment, and entitlement are all in the mix. Indeed, we all have the characteristics of the second son at one time or another.
As Christians, during the course of our life we must learn, (and this is what our Lenten journey is all about) the Divine love for you and for me is not conditioned, it is not earned or owed. This love is not a token or exchange for things we give or have done. Divine forgiveness is all gift! When we finally realize it is sheer gift, can we finally understand the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The story of the Prodigal Son ends without never knowing whether the second son was able to grasp this concept. Do you?