My Dear People,
Like the two previous parables, the familiar story of the “prodigal son” highlights the joy in heaven that results from even one sinner who repents. It thus justifies Jesus’ outreach and table fellowship with tax collectors (15:1-2). However, through the accompanying account of the older son, the parable also invites the Pharisees and scribes (15:2) to overcome their grumbling and join in the celebration. Moreover, through the figure of the compassionate father, the parable reveals the merciful Father who desires all his children to come to the heavenly banquet.
The man had two sons, and the parable in two parts deals with each individually (Luke 15:12-24, 25-32). In each part, there is a dialogue between one son and the father. The structure thus suggests a comparison between the two sons, but also puts the emphasis on the father, who has the last word.
An inheritance was typically distributed after death, but it was possible, though not advised, to do so while a person was still alive (Sir. 33:20-24). However, the younger son takes the initiative here with his demands: give me my share. For him, the father might as well be dead. Under no obligation and despite the shame incurred, the father nonetheless complies out of respect for the younger son’s free decision. Since the firstborn son would receive a double portion (Deut 21:17), the younger son received a third of the property. The remaining two-thirds is destined for the older son, so the father does not exaggerate when he later says, “Everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
The younger son leaves for a distant country. There, he squanders his inheritance, spending it on a life of dissipation—“with prostitutes” the older son will speculate. In order to survive when a famine strikes, he finds a job tending swine, an unclean animal for the Jews; Deut. 14:8). He is living like a Gentile: “far off” and “alienated from the community of Israel. . . without hope and without God” in the world.
Though he considers his father to be dead to him, now he realizes that he is the one dying or perishing. This is the same verb used six other times in the chapter with the meaning “lose” or “be lost” (Luke 15:4, 6, 8-9, 24, 32). Therefore, just as the sheep and coin were lost, the son is lost. The difference is that, coming to his senses, he is aware that he is lost. Thus, whereas the first two parables need Jesus’ explanation about the repentant sinner (15:7,10), here the son in the parable can express repentance himself: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. This confession is rehearsed and then repeated, giving it emphasis. It echoes confessions in the Old Testament that understand sins against individuals to be offenses against God (Exod. 10:16; Ps 51:6). Thus, by repentance, the “dead” son is already coming “to life again.”
God’s persistent search for sinners, emphasized in the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, is complemented now by his patient waiting. The father, on the lookout, caught sight of his son from a distance. The father is filled with compassion, like Jesus at Naim (7:13) and the good Samaritan (10:33). He thus ran to his son, unconcerned that running was considered beneath the dignity of an old man (Sir 19:30). He then embraced and kissed him. The father’s compassion, demonstrated by his actions, teaches how the heavenly “Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
The Father interrupts his son’s rehearsed confession, and with his orders to the servants regarding robe, ring, sandals, and fatted calf, he quickly restores the son to his position in the family. He recognizes that indeed the son was lost. However, now that he has been found, there is reason to celebrate, as the shepherd and the woman did. The son’s transformation—he was dead but now has come to life again—is what Paul describes in Ephesians: “You are dead in your transgressions and sins. . . but God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ” (Eph. 2:21,4-5). The first part of the parable ends with the beginning of the celebration.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente