Year C: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Your brother was dead and has come to life again.

Luke 15: 1-5, 11-32

 The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, to them he addressed this parable. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy

Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So, he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.

And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” So he got up and went back to his father.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.

Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. 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.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Regardless of whom we identify with in this story, both sons are lost. How does this impact you in terms of whom you relate to most?
  2. How does this parable influence your understanding of repentance as a complete “change of heart and mind”, over smaller acts of behavioral contrition only during Lent?
  3. Our human “reward–driven” mind-set and calculations, are not part of the Father’s equation. How does this parable help you to let go of “reward–punishment” based images of God?
  4. You cannot earn what has been freely given. How would letting go of an “I have to it earn it” mindset, change your relationship with God?

Biblical Context

Luke 15: 1-5, 11-32
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

 Often when the Lectionary reading includes a parable from the Gospels, the selection does not name the audience to whom Jesus tells the parable. This makes it difficult to interpret the parable, because the lesson of a parable is drawn from a comparison between the story and the audience. In this Sunday’s reading, however, the Lectionary tells us to whom Jesus is speaking when he tells the parable of the prodigal son: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So to them Jesus addressed this parable.”

After naming this audience and before telling us the parable of the prodigal son, Luke’s Gospel includes two other stories through which Jesus tries to teach the critical Pharisees and scribes that God loves even sinners. First he tells them the story of the lost sheep and then the story of the lost coin. Both stories illustrate the fact that when that which has been lost is found there is great rejoicing. “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). While each of these stories teaches the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus has been sent to seek out sinners, neither teaches them that they are among the sinners whom Jesus welcomes and with whom he eats. The parable of the prodigal son, however, calls these self-righteous and judgmental people to self-knowledge and conversion.

As the parable of the prodigal son begins, the younger son is the obvious sinner. He has no respect for his father. He asks his father to give him “the share of your estate that should come to me.” Then he packs up all his belongings, moves to a distant country, and squanders his inheritance “on a life of dissipation.” As Jesus describes this younger son tending swine, the Pharisees could only have felt superior. They are nothing at all like this irresponsible and disobedient younger son. He is the epitome of a sinner.

In time the younger son realizes that he is worse off than his father’s servants, so he decides to return home and apologize. His father sees him coming from a distance and runs out to greet him. He embraces and kisses the son and tells the servants to prepare a great party. “Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” If Jesus simply wanted to teach the Pharisees and scribes what he had taught through the previous two stories, he could have stopped here. So far the story illustrates that there is great rejoicing when that which has been lost is found. Jesus wants to do more than that, however. Jesus loves the Pharisees and scribes too. He wants them to see that they, too, are sinners.

Enter the older brother. This son has been completely responsible. When he describes himself to his father he says, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders ” This son is just like the Pharisees and scribes. They, too, are very careful about obeying the law. As with the older brother, their obedience to the law has made them feel superior to those who have not been so obedient. Just as the older brother resents his father’s welcoming his brother back and preparing a banquet to celebrate, so do the Pharisees resent Jesus’ welcoming sinners and eating with them.

As the story continues, we can see that it is the older brother who is now the sinner. He is incapable of loving his own brother. When he hears from a servant that his brother has returned and that his father is rejoicing, he becomes angry and refuses to enter the house. The father loves both sons. Just as he came out to meet the younger son on his return, so does he now go out to meet with his angry and unloving older son. He begs him to join the celebration. “… 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.” The Pharisees and scribes, of course, know how the older brother feels because they have the same faults as the older brother. As the story corrects the older brother, so does it correct the Pharisees.

Through this story Jesus is calling the Pharisees to self-knowledge and conversion. We do not learn whether the father persuades his older son to join the party or not. If the older brother is excluded it will be because he is incapable of loving his brother, his fellow sinner, and so he will exclude himself. The same is true of the Pharisees. If they remain self-righteous and judgmental, they will be excluding themselves from the kingdom of God, a kingdom to which Jesus is inviting them along with other sinners.

 The Bath

A Reflection on the Prodigal Son
Fr. Michael Marsh

Bob, a gentleman who was probably in his 70s, had been quiet and attentive throughout the evening. I was teaching about the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32) When I finished speaking Bob was the first one out of his chair. I could tell, as he made his way to the front of the classroom, that he was upset. “What about the bath,” he demanded. “You didn’t say anything about the bath.” I had no idea what he was talking about and told him that I did not understand his comment. He became more agitated the longer he talked. “You know where he had been!” “Yes,” I said, “in the pig pen.” “And you know what he would have smelled like and what was on him.” “Pig poop,” I said kiddingly. He did not think that was funny. Then he went on to explain, “The son was dirty and smelly. The father would never hug him, kiss him, or put a robe on him until the son first had a bath. Why didn’t you talk about the bath?”

I explained that a bath was not part of the story, that we can never get clean enough to go home. Instead, we go home to become clean. The father receives the son as he is. He hugs him, kisses him, robes him – all without a bath. The son is immersed in love. Bob just could not believe that, so together we read the story again. When we got to the end of the story his eyes filled with tears and he said, “All my life I thought this story said the son had to take a bath before he could go home.” I said to him, “And all your life you have been trying to get clean enough to go home.” He simply nodded in silence, tears running down his face.

Bob’s story is not all that unusual. Each of us can probably name parts of our life and being that we have judged unacceptable and unclean. They are the parts of ourselves that we dislike, condemn, and sometimes even hate. We allow them to declare that we are not enough to be God’s child, never have been, and never will be. We cannot imagine how anyone, let alone God, would embrace, or love them. We certainly do not, so we exile those aspects of ourselves to the distant country. We then live as fragmented, broken, persons trying to get clean enough to come home. Over and over the voice of the Prodigal Son echoes in our ears, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

For all the years he spent in the distant country Bob never did get clean enough to go home. Instead “he came to himself.” He started gathering the fragments of his life – the clean and the unclean, the acceptable and the unacceptable, things done, and things left undone – all that he was and all that he had. He recognized that the unclean parts of his life were real, but they were not his final reality. In the past those parts of his life kept him from going home and exiled him to the pig pens. Now those pieces of his life would become the way home. They would become places of healing, new life, wholeness, forgiveness, and grace.

I do not know what took Bob to that distant country or what he so desperately tried to wash away but I know that his story is my story and your story. We have been to the distant country. We have lived with the pigs. We have washed but cannot get clean. In coming to himself Bob would ultimately have to trust the Father’s love more than he trusted the pig stink. After all, if the Father does how can we do anything less?

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle C, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.


Reflection Excerpt from:  Interrupting the Silence, Fr Michael K. Marsh