July 9, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus’ parables: The prodigal son in St. Luke’s Gospel

John F. Fink(Sixth in a series of columns)

Which of the characters in Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son do you resemble?

That’s a common question for those who preach about this parable because it is a good way to examine our consciences.

We all know the story told in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 15:11-32): A man had two sons. The younger son asked for his share of his estate and took off for a distant place where he spent all his money on a life of dissipation. Soon he was destitute and found himself caring for pigs, longing to eat their food.

Finally, when he became desperate, he came to his senses. He decided to return to his father, confess that he had sinned, and ask his father to treat him as one of his hired workers since he was no longer worthy to be called his son. But the father not only welcomed him back home, he quickly arranged for a celebration for his return.

This angered the older son, who refused to celebrate. When his father urged him to come into the house, the older son said that he had served his father for years but never received anything for his effort. Yet his brother spent his money on prostitutes and for him the father had slaughtered the fattened calf.

The father simply explained that the older son was always with him and everything the father had was also his, but “now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Lk 15:32). We would like to think that we, too, would act as the father did.

Jesus told the parable, his longest one, to illustrate his particular concern for the lost and God’s love for the repentant sinner. The father is like God, who will take back those who are sorry for their sins no matter how great the sin or how unworthy the sinner.

This is good news for us, to be sure, since we are all sinners. Perhaps we are not as bad as the younger son in the story, but we are sinners nonetheless. Jesus didn’t go into detail about the man’s sins other than to say that he “squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Lk 15:13) and “swallowed up [the father’s] property with prostitutes” (Lk 15:30), but it is not hard for us to imagine. Yet the father not only forgave him and allowed him to return, he organized a great celebration for him.

What about the older son? Perhaps we are like him in that we have tried to live a good moral life in service to God and others but have never seemed to receive anything in return. Do we feel slighted when we believe we have been treated unjustly?

Unlike his father, the older son was not forgiving. Would we, too, be jealous or resentful to see honors bestowed on someone we consider to be unworthy? If so, we are in danger of becoming isolated or estranged from the community of forgiven sinners. †

Local site Links: