Among the parables of the Gospels, the parable we hear today might just be the best known and most beloved. The Gospel of Luke is the only Gospel to include this parable. It is one of three that are addressed to the scribes and Pharisees who complain that Jesus has chosen to speak and eat with tax collectors and sinners, and in which he makes the point that seeking the lost brings great joy to the angels of heaven.
The parable is part of a genre of stories that can be found in the Scriptures in which two brothers struggle with each other. In each instance, it is the younger son who comes out looking better. The stories of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob would have been well known by the scribes and Pharisees so they would have been expecting the younger son to win the contest.
Part of the power of this story is that it brings certain listeners to the space where God and the soul are in conversation. The story has some very difficult things to say about how God and the soul converse; better said, how God and the soul do not converse, how they stay separate from one another thus depriving the soul of the joy that is known in heaven.
The first target of the story is the mindset of the younger son. Having made a terrible mistake, he comes to the point of obsession, allowing the mistake to hold him tighter and tighter. Although the father shows no signs of holding on to the humiliation he has experienced at the hand of the young man, the son is not able to let it go. Even though it is obvious from the outset of their reunion that the father has completely forgiven the son, the young boy insists on making his practiced speech. Isaac Meir of Ger, an 18th century Polish rabbi writes: “Whoever talks about and reflects upon an evil thing he has done is thinking of the vileness he has perpetuated, and what one thinks, therein one is caught. . . In the time one is brooding on this, one could be stringing pearls for the joy of heaven.” This makes fine psychological sense, but it is also difficult to do. Failing to let go of sin undercuts the capacity for joy. When we let go of past sins, we can remember them without identifying with them. Then they can be triggers of gratitude and compassion. They do not interfere with joy. They actually promote it, but this inner dexterity takes a long time to learn.
The second target of the story is the mindset of the older brother. As a representative of the Pharisees and the scribes, his way of thinking particularly afflicts those who see themselves as righteous, as better than others. When our consciousness cannot stay focused on the abundance of God and creation and, therefore, serve the Lord in joy and gladness, other motivations emerge. The first and foremost is reward. We work for our own profit. We may convince ourselves that this is a pure motivation because we are working for a spiritual reward, but spiritual reward is still reward; treasure in heaven is still treasure. Working for external rewards and not out of inner abundance eventually brings us into the emotional state of resentment. Resentment is built on comparison and a perceived inequality. The older brother evaluates himself in relation to his younger brother and, not surprisingly, comes off favorably.
However, this equation is not part of the Father’s equation. The running Father is the symbol of divine grace; and grace is grace is grace is grace. It just gives to whoever is able to receive it. When the reward-driven mind encounters this indiscriminate grace, it regards it as unjust because it is not playing the game of merit. It erupts in a red-hot blast of resentment. There may be many fine points to this story that people do not understand, but everyone gets it when the older brother explodes. We instinctively understand him because his mindset is deeply embedded in each of us.
The revelation of God as grace, as freely given love, should make us joyful. Before we can celebrate that love, we must deal with the mindsets that the appearance of grace uncovers. Sometimes we are attached to our past sins and so cannot quite believe we are sons and daughters of love. This keeps us from joy. Sometimes we are alienated from the simple presence of abundance, and so we work for reward and find ourselves resentful and envious. This also keeps us from joy. Only when we break the stranglehold of these two alienating mindsets will we hear the music and revelry of the feast in the house and know that we are home.
Lent is the time for all of us to come home. That homecoming, the Gospel reminds us, is the source of more joy in heaven than that of all those who have no need of repentance. It is Easter joy. It is the joy that comes when we realize exactly what we mean when we say that God is Love.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator