We have all heard the story of the prodigal son countless times. I’ll bet that it’s probably one of the parables of which we are most familiar. That is good but, at the same time the fact that it is so familiar to us might prevent us from really listening to it and grasping the full meaning that Jesus and St. Luke are trying to get across to us. If you’re like me, there’s a chance that you might hear the first few words, and then your mind quickly identifies it and moves on because it’s already “been there and done that”. The problem with this rapid subconscious process is that it could prevent us from either reaffirming an understanding that needs to be reaffirmed or coming to a realization of an insight that we did not see before or both. I am constantly amazed, even after nearly 25 years of scripture study, that I still come to new insights all the time, even though to my knowledge the scriptures have not been changed for nearly 2,000 years. This pattern holds throughout the bible, and I find it to be particularly true of the more familiar passages, like the parable of the Prodigal Son, which are identified very quickly by our minds and kind of put to rest at the start, without allowing us to seek new insight or understanding.
So let’s begin by trying to look at the core message of this parable. However it needs to be made clear right at the outset, that it is impossible to discuss this parable completely in any one setting because it is so full of symbolism and has so many layers of meaning. In order to understand this parable’s bottom-line lesson we have to ask what Jesus is saying to the scribes and Pharisees. It is to them that this parable is addressed, and it is to their complaint and concern that He is responding. We can trust that whatever He is saying to them He is also saying to us. That’s another one of those little tricks that our subconscious minds can play on us. We might hear the words, “Pharisees and scribes” and quickly think, “OK they are the bad guys, I don’t really have to worry too much about them,” and lose at least part of Jesus’ message to us. What I try to do is train my brain to remember all the time that when Jesus speaks to the scribes and Pharisees, He is speaking to us. We know about Toys-R-Us-well the scribes and Pharisees are us too.
The scribes and the Pharisees make the charge against Jesus that He “eats with sinners and welcomes them.” It is this charge that prompts Jesus to tell them this story. And what happens in the story? Well a man not only welcomed a sinner and ate with him, he threw a tremendous banquet in his honor, had the fatted calf killed for him, dressed the sinner in fine robes, put a ring on his finger and embraced and kissed him as soon as he saw him. Of course the man who welcomed the sinner was the sinner’s father, and the sinful son had sinned against him in an unbelievable and unimaginable way. But not only did the father forgive him, he grieved, longed for, and searched for the lost son day and night and ran out to greet him when he saw him coming from a far off. The father didn’t even let the son speak his sins. It was as if the Father didn’t even care that the son had sinned at all. All he cared about was that his son was back home and safe.
Jesus is saying to the scribes, the Pharisees, the older son and us: My sons, and daughters you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But we must celebrate and rejoice; each time that anyone confesses their sins because they are my children and your brothers and sisters.
Jesus is saying that we are all invited to His heavenly banquet each and every day and that He so longs for us to join Him but the choice is ours. There are two realities that keep us from joining the celebration. The first is the inability or refusal to recognize and confess our own sinfulness. The second is the inability or refusal to forgive. These two realities usually go hand in hand. The scribes, the Pharisees, and the older brother, either refused to or could not see their own sinfulness and refused to forgive their brothers and sisters even when they saw their father rejoicing in the opportunity to do just that. To the extent that we behave in a similar way we will find ourselves just like the older brother at the end of the story: on the outside, looking in.