This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 15:1–32:
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. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Then he said,
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
Here’s a question for all of you Sunday Reflection readers: which of the brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a parallel to Adam?
That’s a pretty easy test. Adam’s the younger brother. But then who is the older brother, and which are we?
We’ll get back to the first half of that test, but the second half is a trick question. We are both, sometimes simultaneously, but definitely both at different times in our lives. That is as true individually as it is collectively, and it explains not just the dilemma of Original Sin but also of the spiritual warfare that we only dimly perceive that it fuels.
This parable gives us an enormous amount of insight into the entire eschatology of Christianity. If Jesus had done nothing more than provide this parable, along with His miracles and his Passion, we would have nearly everything we need in this passage from Luke. It teaches us about our true relationship with the Lord as His children, about the unlimited love He has for us as such, and about the freedom he still grants us to choose whether to return that love or not. This reminds us that even in sin, our Father loves us and desires nothing than our return to His household — and not as slaves, but as restored children.
Unfortunately, it speaks volumes about us as His children, too. The father in this case has two sons, both of which are unworthy in their own fashion. The younger son not only wants his father’s wealth, but wants dominion over its use as well. He demands that the father provide his inheritance immediately so that the younger son can put it to his own uses — usurping his father’s role and treating the father as if he were dead. In the tradition of the time, the younger son’s arrogance is even more pronounced; the elder son would normally inherit the entire family estate from the father and have the duty to look after the younger son.
This becomes important later, of course.
What does the younger son do with all of the gifts the father grants him? He squanders them on frivolities, sin, decadence, and makes a ruin of himself. And in that state, the younger son lives on in that decadence, too ashamed to return to the father. It is only in desperation that he comes back to his father’s house to offer himself in slavery, only to have his father redeem him instead in love and forgiveness.
This is precisely the arc of Adam and Eve. They grasped at the empty promise of becoming gods themselves and broke the bonds of love with the Father. They inherited Creation as a result, but with that arrogance, their children have fallen into sin and decadence. And all too often, we hide in that sin just as Adam and Eve hid in theirs, lacking the trust in the Father to come home to Him with our brokenness and experience His love.
What about the older brother? He too arrogates the Father’s role unto himself — the role of judge. Rather than love his brother, he nurses the grudge that started when his younger sibling rejected not just the father’s authority but his as well. His father tries to talk him out of this anger and rejection, but notably Jesus leaves this potential for reconciliation an open question.
On one level, this also describes us after the fall. We too often fall into the role that is reserved for the Father, and for Christ, to judge the worthiness of our fellow fallen brothers and sisters. Rather than recognize our faults in others, we only see the mote in their eyes while conveniently looking past the beam in ours. We obstinately demand the Father’s full love for us while refusing to recognize our own unworthiness, even when we grudgingly comply with His leadership — and at the same time expect Him to deny that full love to our brothers and sisters.
However, there is another element here as well, an allegory that hints at the broader implications of rebellion against the Father. If we are all collectively the younger son, and it’s pretty clear that we are in the lesson Jesus teaches, then the older brother could represent those created before man. The older brother could represent those who rebelled, led by Satan, against the Father’s plan for our inheritance as the younger siblings of Creation. In this view, the older brother turns more malevolent; he would be the serpent in Eden as well as the great opponent in Creation itself. The older brother is the one who judges and whose repentance never explicitly comes in the parable — and the voice of judgment that deludes us into remaining in hiding in our own sin rather than coming to the Father in repentance.
That version of the older brother still wants his inheritance. And the only way to get it is to oppose the Father and keep us from Him. This is the spiritual battle that takes place all around us, but of which we are only barely cognizant.
If that sounds daunting, well, it is. But we have Jesus Christ as our Savior in that battle and the Cross as our shelter. We have to trust in it and make our way back to it, despite our own knowledge of our sinfulness. The Father is waiting to embrace us, and that’s all we need to know on this side of the Kingdom … except to consider whose voice we hear in our heads to trap us in utter hopelessness. Someone doesn’t want us to come home to that reunion and inheritance — and it’s not the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit.
The front page image is a detail from “The Prodigal Son Takes Leave of His Father” by Franz Christoph Janneck, c. 18th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.