Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Prodigal Son: A Sunday Rumination

     This parable, a longtime favorite among Christian preachers everywhere, is a standard for Laetare Sunday:

     Now the publicans and sinners drew near unto him to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying: This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.
     And he spoke to them this parable, saying: What man of you that hath an hundred sheep, and if he shall lose one of them, doth he not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after that which was lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, lay it upon his shoulders, rejoicing? And coming home, call together his friends and neighbours, saying to them: Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost? I say to you that even so there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance.
     Or what woman having ten groats, if she lose one groat, doth not light a candle and sweep the house and seek diligently until she find it? And when she hath found it, call together her friends and neighbours, saying: Rejoice with me, because I have found the groat which I had lost. So I say to you, there shall be joy before the angels of God upon one sinner doing penance.
     And he said: A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father: Father, give me the portion of substance that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his substance. And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously. And after he had spent all, there came a mighty famine in that country: and he began to be in want. And he went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his farm to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
     And returning to himself, he said: How many hired servants in my father’s house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger! I will arise and will go to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee. I am not worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
     And rising up, he came to his father. And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion and running to him fell upon his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him: Father: I have sinned against heaven and before thee I am not now worthy to be called thy son. And the father said to his servants: Bring forth quickly the first robe and put it on him: and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet. And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it: and let us eat and make merry: Because this my son was dead and is come to life again, was lost and is found. And they began to be merry.
     Now his elder son was in the field and when he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said to him: Thy brother is come and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe. And he was angry and would not go in. His father therefore coming out began to entreat him. And he answering, said to his father: Behold, for so many years do I serve thee and I have never transgressed thy commandment: and yet thou hast never given me a kid to make merry with my friends. But as soon as this thy son is come, who hath devoured his substance with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. But he said to him: Son, thou art always with me; and all I have is thine. But it was fit that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead and is come to life again; he was lost, and is found.

     [Luke Chapter 15, Douay-Rheims translation]

     What Christian, anywhere on Earth, is unfamiliar with this parable? And what Christian, anywhere on Earth, fails to recognize in the father of the story the love, mercy, and infinite willingness to forgive that inheres in God the Father?

     But how many of us fail to grasp the full significance of this part of the tale:

     And returning to himself, he said: How many hired servants in my father’s house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger! I will arise and will go to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee. I am not worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

     The prodigal son did not return to his father’s manor in a true spirit of contrition! He did so because he was starving and knew, from the way his father treats even his hirelings, that the old boy would give him a better deal!

     Reflect on that for a moment. Do you think the Pharisees and Scribes got the message? Do you think they saw themselves in the older son, jealous of his brother for being the focus of a great celebration?

     Hang on while I fetch more coffee.

     The Gospels, like the Constitution, should be read with attention. Despite the many centuries between their composition and our time, and despite the several translations from the original Greek / Aramaic texts, they have remained utterly consistent over the years. The style dictated by the era or imposed by the translators may vary. But the message goes uncorrupted from one to the next.

     My first observation above is the more swiftly grasped. Yes, God wants us to repent of our sins and strive to avoid them. But He does not insist that our initial repentance should be for love of him. Regret of the consequences, or even the fear of consequences yet to come, will suffice. These things are enough to induce an acceptable spirit of contrition. Granted that He would like it better were it for love of Him and genuine sorrow for having offended Him; nevertheless, He won’t turn us away if we aren’t quite there…yet.

     Now, Jesus was speaking not to a crowd of His followers but to Pharisees and Scribes: “experts in the law” as it had come down from Moses and Leviticus over the millennium before Christ. Because the Mosaic / Levitical Covenant was long, detailed, and very demanding, very few Hebrews even knew the whole of it, much less observed the whole of it. To be conversant with every last one of its dictates required lengthy study and memorization; to observe it in all particulars cost a great amount of time, money, and effort. Those believed to be fully compliant with it – the Pharisees and Scribes – occupied a lofty place in Judean society. And as George Orwell has told us, “The aim of the High is to remain where they are.”

     Jesus was, in a sense, a revolutionary. His New Covenant openly threatened the social and religious hierarchies of First Century Judea. He preached “as one who hath authority,” a departure from Judaic tradition. He openly defied several Levitical doctrines, especially to do no work on the Sabbath (“For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”). He drove the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the vestibule of the Temple in Jerusalem, a great affront to the Judaic priesthood which profited greatly from those activities. And the Pharisees, the High of that time, felt their altitude lessened by His several times cleansing lepers, the Low who provided them the contrast every elite needs. Given all that, it’s a wonder Jesus wasn’t assassinated long before He came to Jerusalem.

     It has many times been said, and truly, that Christianity is countercultural. But the origin of that countercurrent, the Redeemer Himself, is seldom viewed as one who brought “not peace but a sword:” the “sword” of disagreement between those who used the Mosaic / Levitical Covenant as a mark of social status and the “lesser” ones of that time and place, the poor the peasants who found His message of divine love and mercy more palatable than the dictatorial doctrines of “those learned in the Law.”

     The core of His message continues to be unique, transformative, and revolutionary beyond all comparison:

     But the Pharisees, hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, came together. And one of them, a doctor of the law, asked him, tempting him: 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.

     [Matthew 22:34-40]

     May God bless and keep you all!

No comments: