Today’s Gospel story is so familiar, so consoling, so beloved,
that we could miss its full meaning and its applicability to us.
The whole of Chapter 15 in Luke’s Gospel is a literary unit,
and we need to see it and read it that way. (Unfortunately, today’s
reading skips some of what we need to hear.)
Here is the context. Many of the most religious members of Jewish
society were drawn to Jesus and hoped he would be their longed-for
savior. But He was disappointing in certain respects. Mainly He
associated with all the wrong people.
So Jesus, in self defense, gently says to them. “Look: imagine
a poor woman who loses her meager savings. You can understand why
she might panic, and why she would rejoice when she found what she
had lost.” And the critics would respond: “Sure, we
can understand that . . .” Jesus goes on to say: “Now
imagine a shepherd, responsible for the village’s common flock
of sheep, who finds that he is missing one sheep at the end of the
day. You can understand why he would be concerned and would drop
everything until he had found the errant animal and then rejoice
when he had brought it home.” And the audience says: “Sure,
we can understand that, too.” Then Jesus says “Now imagine
a situation in which a human being, not a coin or a sheep, but a
human being is lost – it was his own fault, to be sure, but
he is lost nonetheless – who now sees the errors of his ways
and finds his way back. Is he not infinitely more valuable than
the coin or the sheep? Is his return not fit matter for rejoicing?”
But the Pharisees and Scribes couldn’t see it that way and,
like the older brother, very often we can’t either. The prodigal
was undeserving after all. “He made his bed; now let him lie
in it” we say. Sure, maybe our faith tells us we should take
him back – but in second class status – and certainly
no celebrating! He ought to earn his status as we have done.
How smug and righteous we can be!
St. Luke, in these three stories, puts his finger squarely on a
deep seated flaw in human nature, expressed in our own age by such
contrasts as our compassion for straying whales and dolphins and
our disdain for straying humans. In these stories, Jesus tells his
listeners – and us – that God doesn’t look at
things that way.
The irony here is that it is we who are the prodigals, all of us,
whether we admit it to ourselves or not. It is we who have been
welcomed back by our heavenly Father, not once, but over and over
again. If only we could grasp that, how our lives would change!
It is we who were undeserving, we who had squandered the gifts God
had given us. Some of us, having failed palpably (such as those
in 12-step programs), grasp full well their status. The rest of
us need to pray that God open our eyes so that we too can see ourselves
as God sees us – as sinners, yet loved nonetheless.