An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 15:1-3.11-33, March 10, 2013
HOW DO WE TREAT the members of our community who do not behave according to the standard of the dominant society? In today’s Gospel, we have an example of such a person: a prodigal son who, selfish and extravagant, got his inheritance and squandered his money with whores and on dissolute living. Having become destitute, he even longed to eat the husks that were fodder for pigs, but no one gave him anything (Luke 15:12-16). Philosophers might describe him as a short-lived epicurean—“Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”—but we who have no leisure for the abstract would call him profligate. Obviously, such a man has nothing to contribute to progress and development. On the contrary, if his behavior were conducted at a national level, he would ruin the economy. We really have no use for him. How do we treat people like him? In our society, we expect him to be in jail, if merely to ignore him would not suffice. Of course, he has nothing that we can be proud of; we would disinherit him for shaming us. Such is our usual thinking and attitude. But as Christians, how do we deal with such a person?
The parable, which is traditionally known as the parable of the prodigal son, provides two answers we can learn from. The first one is given by the elder son. Having learned that his profligate brother was back, he did not even bother to see him, still less join the merrymaking. For him, since his brother was unredeemable, dissolute and sinful, the book should be thrown at him. He should suffer the consequences of his action. Having squandered his share of the estate and therefore having lost his rights to partake what now belongs to him, why should he receive ring, the finest robe and a new pair of shoes? Why give a party and kill the fatted calf? (Luke 15:22-23). Since he sinned seriously, he did not deserve this royal welcome. There is simply no justice there, especially in view of the fact that his Father did not even give him, the elder brother, so much as a kid goat to celebrate with his friend, even though he never disobeyed his orders (Luke 15:29). Logically enough, he would not join a sinner in a party. The thinking and attitude of the elder son is easily identified with those of the Pharisees and Scribes. They criticized Jesus for welcoming sinners into his company, and eating with them.
The second one is given by the father. In the parable, the Father of the two sons was so loving to his prodigal, younger son that he did not even allow him to finish his prepared piece. What was important to him was that he was back, and so it was time to hold feast. He overlooked the sinfulness of his son; instead of severely reprimanding his son, he embraced him without any criticism, recriminations, but with total forgiveness and mercy. The fact is, he had been longing for his son to come back (Luke 15:20a). And now that he was back, it was time to put the past into oblivion and to make merry: “Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found” (Luke 15:23). Such an attitude and behavior may be, in our very human, all too human thinking, very inappropriate, for we usually think that one must first pay his debts before he could be accepted to the normal society. But God’s behavior is different from ours. And that is how he wants us to behave and treat the sinful members of our community. That explains why Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. God is generous and extravagant in his love. Like the father in the parable, he takes the initiative in reconciling himself with sinners. Paul explicitly asserts: “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). In Christ, he even went to the extent of identifying himself with them: “For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). That is why it is preferable to title this story as a parable of a father’s love, instead of the parable of the prodigal son, for the focus, no doubt about it, is God’s love for sinners. His love is so different from ours!
It is worth emphasizing that God’s love is not only shown to the outcast of society, like the prodigal son. He also loves the self-righteous, like the Pharisees and the Scribes, whom the elder son represents. In the parable, the elder son resents that his father, instead of punishing him for wantonness, gave his brother ring and new clothes and threw a party for his coming back. It is as if he did not like that his brother was entirely forgiven. He was righteously indignant that his father wholly welcomed his wayward brother. When we are righteous, we are often jealous that God cares for sinners. But the truth is, we are no less sinful, because we are trapped in our own righteousness. That is why the father in the parable sought the elder brother, too! He said that everything he had was his. Thus, he reminded the elder brother that everything the latter had comes from him. Moreover, what the elder brother needed was a lesson on fraternal charity and forgiveness.
A community, of course, does not grow merely by following the rules of society. There may be order, which is the purpose of law, but that would not create an atmosphere that is conducive to authentic living. For a community grows when there is love, which law cannot give. Law without love is like a body without spirit—it is dead. But when there is love, there is also forgiveness and reconciliation, and the good of the beloved is sought. A society that kills its sinful members will end up killing itself—none will be left, for we are all sinners. But when there is love and forgiveness among the brothers, even what seems to be impossible emerges. A new man, a new community looms in the horizon.