Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (31 March 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow 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 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.’” (Luke 15: 1-3 & 11–32 – NRSV)
Chapter 15 occupies a special place in Luke’s Gospel. The three parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, “are so distinctive of the Lucan portrait of Jesus that this part of his account has been called ‘the heart of the Third Gospel’ (L. Ramaroson, “Le coeur”) (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 1071).
The so-called parable of the prodigal son is unique to Luke. It is arguably one of the truly great stories of the Western canon of literature. “Regarded as ‘the greatest of all His [Jesus’] parables’ (J. E. Compton), it has, more than any other Gospel passage, entered into varied discussions and presentations of human conduct. From the earliest patristic commentaries on this parable (e.g. of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine), it has been the subject of elaborate interpretation and recognized as an authentic commentary of Jesus of Nazareth on an all-too-familiar human situation. It has lent itself as a subject for great painters (Dürer, Beham, Rembrandt, L. Bassano, G. van Honthorst), dramatists (Tudor Dramatists; Gascoigne’s Glasse of Government), choreographers (Balanchine), musicians (Animuccia, Prokofiev, Britten), litterateurs (A. Gide, L’Enfant prodigue), and philosophers (Nietzsche). One has only to look at the elaborate bibliography on this story in W. S. Kissinger, Parables of Jesus, 351–370—scarcely exhaustive—to get an impression of the many ways in which this parable has been reworked. Moreover, parallels to it have been uncovered in Babylonian and Canaanite literature, in the Lotus Sutra, and in Greek papyri. Yet none of the parallels or the retellings can measure up to or compare with the moving force of this story put on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel” (Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, op cit, 1083-84).
The renowned interpreter of the parables, Joachim Jeremias, has called this parable, “the parable of the Father’s Love” (See Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, Charles Scribner, 1963, 128).
the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him: See similar references in Luke 5:30 and 7:29. “In this Gospel they – ie ‘the tax collectors and sinners’ – stand for the outcasts, the irreligious, and the immoral; in this episode they flock to Jesus as they had to John the Baptist in 3:12–13, anxious to hear him.” (Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, op cit, 1075.) There is a strong contrast in Luke between those on the inside, as it were, and those on the outside.
Not only do the people who have been pushed to the margins of society “flock to Jesus”, but Jesus actually chooses to share meals with them. In this society table fellowship is a most significant thing. (Dietary laws and rituals around eating are a complex part of most societies. They become a particular issue in the early Church – see for example Galatians 2:12-13.)
The reference here to Jesus’ association with the outcasts of society suggests an important context for the three parables that are about to follow. At the heart of each of these parables is the theme of the joy of finding what was lost.
the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling: In 7:29-30 Luke tells us that “all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves”. Luke refers to the “grumbling” of the scribes and Pharisees against the disciples (5:30), 6:7 their suspicion of Jesus (6:7) and the grudge they held against him (11:53). All of this recalls the ill feelings expressed towards Moses and Aaron in the desert – see Exodus 15:24, 16:2 & 7–8 and 17:3; Numbers 14:2 & 36 and 16:11; Deuteronomy 1:27; cf. also 1 Cor 10:10). It is profoundly ironic that the “sinners” are hearing Jesus’ message and the religious authorities refuse to hear it.
he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs: According to Torah, pigs are unclean animals – see Lev 11:7; 14:8. This a very powerful way of describing how desperate the young man is.
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: This is the hinge of the parable. The father is waiting, on the lookout. The Greek word, here translated as “filled with compassion”, is esplagchnisthē. Our highly rational way of thinking does not have any way of saying what is going on here that conveys the depth of feeling in the father: “Luke uses the same verb (splangnizomai) as was attributed to Jesus in 7:13 and the good Samaritan in 10:33. The initiative is shifted to the father. He sees, feels, runs, embraces and kisses his son. The embrace (literally ‘fell on his neck’) and kiss, recall the recognition scene in Gen 45:14–15, where Joseph embraces and kisses Benjamin as his brother, and Gen 46:29 where he greets Jacob as his father. The same gesture occurs in Acts 20:37” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 237).
Another commentator writes: “The suggestion of the parable is clear: all the time that the son has forgotten his father, the father has not forgotten his son, but has looked out daily for his return with longing; hence he sees him ‘when he was yet a great way off’. Unlike the Pharisees, he is waiting with love and compassion to make the first move towards reconciliation” (R Ginns, The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St Luke, in B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1953, 958).
his elder son .... became angry and refused to go in: The contrast between the “sinners” and the religious authorities re-emerges – the son who is “faithful” is contrasted with the son who is a “sinner”.
In August 2013, Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor in chief of the Jesuit publication, La Civiltà Cattolica, had three separate interviews with Pope Francis. Fr Spadaro asked the Holy Father: “What does the church need most at this historic moment? Do we need reforms? What are your wishes for the church in the coming years? What kind of church do you dream of?” Pope Francis replied: “(T)he thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if they have high cholesterol and about the level of their blood sugars! You have to heal their wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds” (America, September 30 2013, online. Google “a big heart open to God”).
This is a fair representation of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel, often called “the parable of the prodigal son”. This parable shares chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel with the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Luke sets the scene: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’.” The contrast is profoundly ironic. “The tax collectors and sinners” are drawn to Jesus and they listen to his teaching. Jesus even chooses to eat with them. The religious authorities – the keepers of the tradition! – refuse to listen to Jesus. They grumble! The “bad” folk actually turn out to be disciples of Jesus and the “good” folk turn out to be his enemies. So what is happening here?
It is no secret that Jesus was in frequent conflict with the religious authorities. All four Gospels record this. Interestingly enough, Jesus does not seem to have had such a conflict with any other group – not even the occupying Romans. So what is the issue? One Scripture scholar sums it up: “(T)he Pharisees were superb moral guides. But there precisely lay the problem which Jesus and Paul saw so clearly. The debate did not concern good law as over against bad law .... The challenge of Jesus and Paul was this: obedience does not lead to God, but God leads one to obedience. .... It must be emphasized that this is not a debate between Judaism and Christianity but a conflict within them both, and a conflict ever ancient and ever new. So, according to Jesus and Paul, it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible, not a good life that made the reward of God’s presence inevitable” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables - The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 80-81).
Do we heal our wounds in order to come to Jesus or come to Jesus in order to have our wounds healed?