Outside of the Nativity of Jesus, perhaps no section of Luke’s Gospel is more well-known than the 15th chapter which presents some of the most important parables about Jesus’ ministry. So well-known are they, in fact, that we often miss their meaning.
The images that Jesus uses, which are foreign to most of us anyway, lose their shock value because of their familiarity.
Since few of us actually herd sheep, we accept that a shepherd who loses one of his 100 sheep, would leave the other 99 to search for the lost sheep. That shepherd would end up losing a lot more sheep to predators than he would ever be able to recover.
A woman who had 10 coins would have had a good nest egg. And if she lost one coin, she would certainly search her home, but she would be very foolish to tell her neighbors how much money she actually had hidden. She would leave herself open to potential robbers and it might even cost her life.
The principal parable, takes the theme of Jesus going to great lengths to insure that he loses none of his followers, to another extreme.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a son demands his inheritance from his father so that he can get on with his life. This son desires to separate himself from his family and his rights forever, not so that he can work for the greater good as we have seen earlier in the parables on discipleship, but so that he can enjoy his life and himself alone.
According to the prevailing Jewish custom, the younger son was entitled to one-third of his father’s estate. We have to appreciate that the son’s demand for his inheritance is rather unusual. In essence he says to his father, “I no longer desire to be your son or have anything to do with this family.”
The father concedes to his son’s wishes and gives him the inheritance and lets him go. We learn, however, that the father does not carry the same sentiment toward his son that his son has for him. The father longs for the return of his son. At the same time, this man has another son, the eldest, who works on the family farm, and seems to be a faithful servant. Knowing that his brother is gone and has separated himself from the family, he works diligently to build the family business. After all, someday the business will be his.
But, there is a catch. The younger son spent his inheritance and ended up taking a menial job on a pig farm. Imagine a Jewish man working on a pig farm! Life couldn’t get much more desperate.
Recalling that his father’s farmhands are treated better than he is, he sets out to return home, and perhaps get a job working for his father.
The father, seeing the son coming over the horizon from his perch, greets him with a kiss, puts a ring on his finger and throws a banquet. The ring signifies the re-inheritance of the son restoring to him his full share in the estate. It is as though the father had just given the son money to squander and then wrote off the debt, forgiving all that had transpired between them.
The older son is outraged, and rightly so. He has just seen the value of his inheritance greatly reduced because the prodigal is restored to his full rights.
The reconciliation between the father and son carried the consequence of these two brothers needing to come to terms with their own disappointment, anger and betrayal, and find a way to reconciliation as well.
We prefer that our judgment of others is absolute and final. Sometimes we write someone off forever, and while there might be times when it is necessary to rid ourselves of toxic people, we are reminded that conversion, forgiveness and compassion are necessary to the life of faith. God’s judgment is nothing like our own.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.