We have just heard one of the best known stories in the Gospel. It’s about a father and his two sons. The story or parable is allegory: the characters represented are God, a sinner and an unforgiving person.
This is the third of three successive stories Jesus tells in St Luke’s Gospel about what God is like. The first story is God being like a shepherd who searches for a lost sheep; the second is God being like a [poor[ woman searching for a lost coin; and the third is God being like an anxious father who lavishly welcomes back a son who had turned his back on him.
In these three stories the lead characters – the shepherd, the woman and the father – rejoice when they have found what was lost: the shepherd finding his lost sheep, the woman finding her lost coin and the father finding his lost son. This, says Jesus, is how God responds when people who lose their way in life return to Him. “God casts our sins behind his back; he buries them in the deeps of the sea.” (Wilfrid J Harrington)
But in today’s story, there is a twist in the tale.
The older brother is furious that his father has offered such a lavish welcome to his brother – hosting a huge party, covering his prodigal son with his own festal robe, giving him the family signet ring, and putting sandals on his feet (clearly denoting him as a restored member of the family, unlike the barefoot servants). He is resentful, feeling that his brother should have been punished instead.
The story ends with the father inviting his older son to let go of his resentment and enter into the joy of his lost brother being found.
Jesus told this story for two reasons. The first was to highlight God’s unlimited forgiveness. The second was to challenge those who criticised the kindness and welcome that he himself offered to public sinners: his challenge was for them to see themselves in the behaviour of the resentful older brother.
It’s highly likely, Scripture commentators say, that stories or parables in the Gospels were recorded (40/50 years later) because they had something to do with things that were happening in the local churches. If this is so, then the recording of this story of the Prodigal Son – found only in St Luke – suggests that, perhaps, existing church members – like the older son – were upset by the way public sinners were being welcomed back into the church. They may have been offended that less than desirable people (in their eyes) were allowed to participate in the Mass and receive Holy Communion? If this is so, then it may be that they had forgotten Jesus’ approach to sinners and here was St Luke reminding them of this fundamental part of Jesus’ mission.
The parable is memorably depicted in the oil painting The Return of the Prodigal Son by the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. It is among his final works, probably completed within two years of his death in 1669. It depicts the moment when the son kneels before his father begging for forgiveness and a renewed place in the family. The painting was described by art historian Kenneth Clark as “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted.”
In the painting the father is presented as receiving his son with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once – the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture.
Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, his hands clasped tightly, unlike his father’s, in judgment. His face shows none of the compassion or mercy of his father’s. The woman at top left, barely visible, is probably, the mother of the two boys, while the seated man, whose dress implies wealth, may be a tax collector.
As you reflect on this story, what do YOU hear Jesus asking of you? Do you need to become compassionate and merciful like the father? Or do you need, like the younger son, to repent / change your ways? Or do you need to let go of resentment rather than hold on to it like the older brother? We might also ask of ourselves as a parish: how can we be more welcoming to fellow Catholics and others who wish to be warmly welcomed into the merciful arms of the Church?
Holy Name, Jesmond
31 March 2019