If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. – Deuteronomy 21:15-21
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. 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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! 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!’ Then the father said to 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.’” – Luke 15:11-32
This may be the best known of Jesus’ parables; if it isn’t, it’s probably only second to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s important to understand that Jesus is being challenged by the religious leaders of his time because he’s going about things in unorthodox ways. His teachings are running against the long-standing religious and social norms of the day, and they’re using that to challenge his validity, and Jesus offers them this story as an answer to them.
Even before we start to think about the parable, I invite you to feel free to imagine it in ways that maybe speak more directly to your own life. You could imagine the father as a mother, or the children being a sister and brother, or two sisters. However the parable speaks most fully to you, feel free to make that shift.
In telling this story, Jesus starts off by painting a word picture for us of a young person who does one of the most despicable, disrespectful things they could do to a parent – to ask them for their inheritance in advance. It’s the equivalent of the child telling the parent that their only worth to the child is the money; that they’re better off dead, so the child can go live their own life. It would be an awfully boorish thing to do now, and it was even worse in first-century Jewish culture. You heard in today’s First Reading the scriptural context for how much people were to honor their parents, and that famous scriptural injunction that mouthy, uncooperative children should be taken out and stoned to death – although thankfully, the fact that the Jewish people have survived to this day is evidence that they apparently didn’t take that particular scriptural command too literally. Still, it does illustrate how important the idea of children being respectful to their parents was in this culture. These scriptures would have provided the context, this was the background cultural understanding of Jesus’ listeners as they heard about the younger son’s actions. They would have been outraged at what the son proposed, and they’d have been shocked and scandalized that the old man actually agreed to it.
They’d have been just as shocked at the way the father welcomed the son back – running out into the street, casting aside any decorum, and treating this terrible son as if he were an honored guest. They would likely have seen the father’s actions as disgusting; they’d have seen him as a fool.
Remember that we have the benefit of knowing how this story ends, but those original listeners didn’t. And frankly, as they heard the story unfold, they’d have likely cheered when the eldest son, who’d respected his father and played by the rules, laid into his father for going all wobbly over the return of the troublemaking son. They’d have all been better off if this troublemaker had never returned. And you have to assume that, human nature being what it is, the elder son was wondering what the financial implications of the brother’s return would be for him. Would the old man hold a hard line regarding any inheritance, saying he’d already gotten his and squandered it; or would he welcome him back into the financial fold, too, meaning that the inheritance that the eldest son was in line for was going to shrink? It just wouldn’t have been right or fair. The elder child’s anger was justifiable.
So we can imagine how shocked Jesus’ listeners were when he turned the story in a way that gives the father credit, and discredits the elder son’s righteous anger. Jesus uses the father’s actions to justify his own actions of associating with the undesirables of religion and society, which was being seen as crazy, disgusting, contrary to the scriptures in the eyes of the religious leaders. I imagine that many, if not most of the people hearing Jesus’ story took his point as anything but good. It just didn’t comport with anything they’d learned or had as a reference point before.
It probably doesn’t sit much better with us, either. The younger son’s actions were deplorable, and there are supposed to be consequences to a person’s deplorable behavior, even if that person is someone you might love. And all of us have likely felt the anger and pain of seeing someone else being treated in a way better than their actions merited, often even coming at our own expense, when all along we were playing by the rules, keeping our noses clean and doing what we were supposed to. I’ll offer a personal example: I remember many years ago when I was a young architect in the corporate world, and as part of a year-long corporate restructuring, there was a new Vice President’s position being established. In conversations with my boss, he told me that if I achieved certain things, hit certain benchmarks, over the course of the coming year, the job would be mine. And I met all of those benchmarks. In fact, I surpassed them all by a long shot, but – and you know where this is going, don’t you? – in the end, my boss ended up giving the position to a golfing buddy of his – who I was then tasked with training so he’d know how to do the job. That was in 1988; I remember that because just a year later, in 1989, the exact same thing happened to a character played by Steve Martin in the movie “Parenthood.” I love that movie, but I have to admit it’s always been painful for me to watch that part of the story play out.
But whether it was a scenario like the one that happened to me or it was something else, we’ve probably all experienced someone else benefiting unfairly, and at our expense, so we can all relate to the feelings of the older son through some experience or another.
But many of us can also relate to the actions of the supposedly crazy, foolish father. Many of us have had children or other loved ones do something stupid, maybe really stupid, or self-destructive, or hurtful to others. And we’ve wrestled with what our proper response should be – where is the line between teaching consequences for actions and graciously forgiving and moving forward? Where’s the line between tough love and enabling destructive behavior? It’s the age-old parental dilemma, and each of us ultimately draws that line at different places, I suppose in accordance with our Myers-Briggs personality type or some similar classification. But in the end, regardless of where we draw the line, I suspect we’ve all actually crossed it at some point or another, in favor of a more generous and accepting attitude. We’ll second-guess ourselves and wonder if we should have taken a harder line, to be sure, but still, we’ve all likely crossed that line. In one way or another, we’ve all been the father in the parable.
We can draw a lot of thoughts out of this parable, but I think that one important point is that through it, Jesus illustrates that wherever God must draw that kind of line when dealing with us, it must be ridiculously far away from where any of us would draw it. God’s level of acceptance of us – you could even say, God’s willingness to look foolish or weak for us – is apparently far beyond our sense of reason or fairness. It seems that when it comes to God’s reconciliation with us, and the kingdom of God, even when it comes at great cost, it isn’t a matter of choosing between the elder child or the younger child, it’s an all or none proposition where God chooses “all” – and if that decision comes at a cost to anyone, it’s to God, and not us. It’s a truth that can shock us.
But after we’re shocked, hopefully we’re grateful, too – because just as we can imagine ourselves as the elder son or the father, we can all surely see ourselves in the face of the younger child from time to time, maybe especially so as we reflect on our lives as we journey through Lent. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all messed up, and suffered consequences for it. At times, maybe some of us have felt like we’ve crossed a line that we could never cross back over, into the graces of our loved ones, or even into God’s own good graces. This parable shows that when we think we’ve stepped across a line that we think is impossible to get back over, God simply erases it, and maybe redraws it on the other side of the two of us.
Thanks be to God.