Sunday, September 15, 2013

Parable of the Prodigal Son extended

Just as Jesus did not extend the Parable of the Prodigal Son to tell us how the older, faithful son responded or reacted to his father's reassurance (i.e., whether he went into the party and celebrated or not), which arose from his complaint about the indulgent manner in which he welcomed back his errant brother, the Lord does not tell us a parallel story about what would have happened had the prodigal chosen, or felt compelled out of pride (i.e., unwillingness to acknowledge his mistake, to admit he was ashamed and guilty), to remain estranged from his father, his brother, and far away from home. But I think we can draw a parallel by way of inference and/or implication.

First, had the son felt himself unable to humbly return to his father and beg for his mercy, it would have done nothing to change how the father felt about his errant son. He would have loved him and kept hoping for his return, willing to extend mercy and love, willing to be reconciled, to welcome his son home. Second, this would not have changed things for son, however. He would have remained a swineherd, fighting the pigs for a share of their slop in order to keep body and soul together.

Extending Jesus' powerful parable in this way helps us to see, while it remains for Christ to judge and to determine our eternal destination, it challenges that lazy kind of universalism that we so easily fall into. If the ripe fruit of theological reflection is that everyone goes to heaven no matter what, then why worry about anything at all, let alone repenting? While it is true that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves, it is necessary for us to grasp this and, like the prodigal, like St. Mary of Egypt, about whom I wrote yesterday on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, cry to God, who is the Father in Jesus' parable, for mercy. Otherwise we are merely offering cheap, or even counterfeit, grace. "This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost" (1 Tim 1:15).

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained it, "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." Or, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body" (1 Cor 6:20). Faith is not something we possess, but is our response to God's call- God, who is the Father who runs to meet us, but who loves us enough to respect our freedom.


  1. My dear pharisees: "now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
    Don't stand outside complaining, but come inside and rejoice with the tax collectors.

  2. I am not sure that the Lord sets the older, faithful son before us as a Pharisee. After all, is he not promised all the father has? I suppose the operative question is, Will we be saved against our will?, or, stated a bit differently, What do you desire?

  3. I'm reading the parable in the context of the events of the Gospel…
    "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 he addressed this parable."

  4. Yes, but can you draw a direct parallel between the older brother and the Pharisee? Is that a sound exegesis? Besides, did Jesus not have compassion for them too? Does the father tell the son his concern is silly, or stupid? No, he reassures him. It's easy to be smug either way with this story. Jesus loves too much to ever let us be smug.

    The larger question, the one I am addressing, is, If the prodigal had not returned, would there be a party, even when one factors in Jesus' first two parables about searching out the one who is lost? After all, a person is neither a sheep nor a coin.

  5. It's so not about making parallels. Jesus addresses the Pharisees with these parables, inviting them to discipleship, and some indeed respond by following him.

  6. It seems to me that there is a pharisaical way of levying the charge of being a Pharisee. Let's not forget, of all the major Jewish groupings of Jesus' time, He would have had the most in common with the Pharisees, which is manifested by the fact that He interacted with them so much. Their mission was what we, as post-Vatican II Catholics, might see as an ancient Jewish version of the universal call to holiness.

    I have a difficult time seeing the Pharisees as merely two-dimensional foils, à la Snidely Whiplash, to Jesus' Dudley Doright.

  7. Exactly, but whether they, we, or the prodigal son, choose to follow or not is up to us. Right?

    If this is right, can we not say that our decision, one way or the other, has consequences?


Heeding the most important call of all

Readings: Amos 7:12-15; Ps 8:9-14; Eph 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13 Like Amos in our first reading, "the Twelve," as the inspired author...