One of the curious and often-overlooked aspects to using the lectionary as a guide to Bible study is that a particular scripture passage may have different meaning depending on when it’s examined in the liturgical calendar. Such is the case with this week’s Gospel passage from Luke. It’s one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables and is generally known as the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel, we find three stories of “lostness”: a sheep, a coin, and a son. We’ll focus here just on the latter:
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, 11b-32 NRSV
Especially during Lent it’s not hard to spot the themes of self-examination and repentance when we view the younger son as the central character in this story. He’s not the only character, of course. If the father is placed at the center of this parable then themes of forgiveness and grace come to the fore. And when it’s the older brother, who finds it impossible to join in the celebration of his younger brother’s return, we can expound at length about hardness of heart, also an opportunity for thought-provoking Lenten activity.
While it’s the younger brother (symbolic of the sinful, self-absorbed nature of humankind) who most often gets the bulk of attention in regard to this parable, with the forgiving father (symbolic of God’s love for us wayward children) not all that far behind, it’s the older brother who tends to get under my skin.
The reason, I am somewhat hesitant to admit, is that he’s the character in this parable most like me. The fact that I’m actually the youngest sibling in my family has nothing much to do with all this. Rather it’s the role I’ve most often played: that of “the good son.” It was my eldest brother who most often was the one tagged with such descriptors as wayward, troublemaker, and profligate. And as far as I’m aware he never actually got around to anything resembling true repentance. On those rare occasions when I allow my thoughts to wander in a certain direction, I wonder whether I would have reacted in the same way the “good, dutiful son” in the parable responded.
Of course, it’s good to keep in mind that this parable is open-ended: we don’t know how it ended. The last comment we get is the father’s counsel. On the one hand I suppose it might be good to know, to hear Jesus offer a definitive response to the older son’s “Well, it’s just not fair!” But it’s probably best that Jesus didn’t give us the rest of the story and let his listeners come up with their own conclusions.
Which son in this story was the one who was really lost? Was it the one we call the prodigal or the “hard-working, faithful, dutiful son” who struggled with forgiveness and acceptance?
Much like this particular parable, Lent is an open-ended experience. The “answers” we seek are rarely clear and absolute, written in easily recognized ways with step-by-step directions for living a better life. In a way it relates to the prominent thought in Eastern spirituality: The only ones who truly know are those who know how much they don’t know. At this midway point through Lent that’s as good a topic as any to ponder. It’s certainly one of the most challenging and perhaps painful.