Luke 15:1–3, 11–32
The tax collectors and sinners, however, were all crowding round to listen to him, and the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “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[e] 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.’”
This familiar parable told by Jesus in our Gospel reading today refuted the Pharisees’ objection to Jesus’ friendliness with sinners. The Pharisees and Scribes were a minority among the Jews at the time of Jesus. They were the self-appointed leaders of religious thought in Palestine. They kept the Mosaic law strictly, in fact too strictly, and were so proud of their strict observance that they despised all the other Jews for not behaving as they did. Externally they kept the law that God had given to Moses, but in their hearts they gloried in themselves rather than in God.
Because they were so proud of their observance of the laws, they were blind to the infinite mercy of God, the Father of saint and sinner, is brought our very clearly in the story of the younger son. Even though he abandoned his father, the father did not abandon him. The father’s mercy was big enough and generous enough to forgive and forget. His love for his son was strong enough to smother any feelings of personal resentment. His son’s return, humble and chastened, blotted out all his past faults and failures. It was surely an occasion for general rejoicing.
Could the Pharisees fail to see that the father in that story was God and the wayward son the sinners with whom Jesus was associating? That the elder son who had stayed with his father looking after the part of the property given to him represented themselves, must have been evident to them too. They were faithful to God and to his law in most ways even if not from completely unselfish motives. But their lack of charity, especially their lack of interest in their fellow-men and the pride they took in their own strict observance, vitiated all their otherwise good deeds. They were the elder sons, they were still nominally God’s chosen people. But their place was about to be taken by the younger son, by the sinners and publicans, by the Gentiles they so despised.
They must have seen the point of the story and the message Jesus had in it for them. Yet they failed to learn its lesson. They remained obdurate in their pride and refused to accept Jesus as the Christ and his salvation.
For the vast majority of us Christians, our message of consolation and hope is in the first part of today’s parable. All of us have, many a time, been prodigal, ungrateful, selfish sons and daughters of our loving Father. But he is still a Father of infinite love, of boundless mercy. He is not only waiting for us to return, like the human father in the story. He is continually sending our messengers to recall us and to help us on the return journey.
Like the prodigal in the story, we may have squandered the gifts that our heavenly father gave us. We may have abused our freedom and broken his laws. We may have descended to the deepest depths of degradation. We may now feel torn and tattered, but we should never forget that our loving, merciful Father is waiting for us with open arms to welcome us back the moment we come to ourselves and decide to return. Until we have drawn our last breath on earth, the mercy of God and his pardon are there for our asking. Amen.