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Mass Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday
The following is an excerpt from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's book, Jesus of Nazareth:
The Parable of the Two Brothers (the Prodigal Son and the Son Who Remained at Home) and the Good Father (Luke 15:11–32)
Perhaps the most beautiful of Jesus’ parables, this story is also known as the parable of the prodigal son. It is true that the figure of the prodigal son is so vividly drawn and his destiny, both in good and in evil, is so heart-rending that he inevitably appears to be the real center of the story. In reality, though, the parable has three protagonists. Jeremias and others have suggested that it would actually be better to call it the parable of the good father—that he is the true center of the text.
Pierre Grelot, on the other hand, has pointed out that the figure of the second brother is quite crucial, and he is therefore of the opinion—rightly, in my judgment—that the most accurate designation would be the parable of the two brothers. This relates directly to the situation which prompted the parable, which Luke 15:1f. presents as follows: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Here we meet two groups, two “brothers”: tax collectors and sinners on one hand, Pharisees and scribes on the other. Jesus responds with three parables: the parable of the lost sheep and the ninety-nine who remained at home; the parable of the lost drachma; and finally he begins anew, saying: “A man had two sons” (15:11). The story is about both sons.
In recounting this parable, the Lord is invoking a tradition that reaches way back into the past, for the motif of the two brothers runs through the entire Old Testament. Beginning with Cain and Abel, it continues down through Ishmael and Isaac to Esau and Jacob, only to be reflected once more in a modified form in the behavior of the eleven sons of Jacob toward Joseph. The history of those chosen by God is governed by a remarkable dialectic between pairs of brothers, and it remains as an unresolved question in the Old Testament. In a new hour of God’s dealings in history, Jesus took up this motif again and gave it a new twist. In Matthew there is a text about two brothers that is related to our parable: one brother says he wants to do the father’s will, but does not actually carry it out; the second says no to the father’s will, but afterward he repentsPharisees that is at issue; here too the text is ultimately an appeal to say Yes once more to the God who calls us.
Let us now attempt to follow the parable step by step. The first figure we meet is that of the prodigal son, but right at the beginning we also see the magnanimity of the father. He complies with the younger son’s wish for his share of the property and divides up the inheritance. He gives freedom. He can imagine what the younger son is going to do, but he lets him go his way.
The son journeys “into a far country.” The Church Fathers read this above all as interior estrangement from the world of the father—the world of God—as interior rupture of relation, as the great abandonment of all that is authentically one’s own. The son squanders his inheritance. He just wants to enjoy himself. He wants to scoop life out till there is nothing left. He wants to have “life in abundance” as he understands it. He no longer wants to be subject to any commandment, any authority. He seeks radical freedom. He wants to live only for himself, free of any other claim. He enjoys life; he feels that he is completely autonomous.
Is it difficult for us to see clearly reflected here the spirit of the modern rebellion against God and God’s law? The leaving behind of everything we once depended on and the will to a freedom without limits? The Greek word used in the parable for the property that the son dissipates means “essence” in the vocabulary of Greek philosophy. The prodigal dissipates “his essence,” himself.
At the end it is all gone. He who was once completely free is now truly a slave—a swineherd, who would be happy to be given pig feed to eat. Those who understand freedom as the radically arbitrary license to do just what they want and to have their own way are living in a lie, for by his very nature man is part of a shared existence and his freedom is shared freedom. His very nature contains direction and norm, and becoming inwardly one with this direction and norm is what freedom is all about. A false autonomy thus leads to slavery: In the meantime history has taught us this all too clearly. For Jews the pig is an unclean animal, which means that the swineherd is the expression of man’s most extreme alienation and destitution. The totally free man has become a wretched slave.
At this point the “conversion” takes place. The prodigal son realizes that he is lost—that at home he was free and that his father’s servants are freer than he now is, who had once considered himself completely free. “He went into himself,” the Gospel says (Lk 15:17). As with the passage about the “far country,” these words set the Church Fathers thinking philosophically: Living far away from home, from his origin, this man had also strayed far away from himself. He lived away from the truth of his existence.
His change of heart, his “conversion,” consists in his recognition of this, his realization that he has become alienated and wandered into truly “alien lands,” and his return to himself. What he finds in himself, though, is the compass pointing toward the father, toward the true freedom of a “son.” The speech he prepares for his homecoming reveals to us the full extent of the inner pilgrimage he is now making. His words show that his whole life is now a steady progress leading “home”—through so many deserts—to himself and to the father. He is on a pilgrimage toward the truth of his existence, and that means “homeward.” When the Church Fathers offer us this “existential” exposition of the son’s journey home, they are also explaining to us what “conversion” is, what sort of sufferings and inner purifications it involves, and we may safely say that they have understood the essence of the parable correctly and help us to realize its relevance for today.
The father “sees the son from far off” and goes out to meet him. He listens to the son’s confession and perceives in it the interior journey that he has made; he perceives that the son has found the way to true freedom. So he does not even let him finish, but embraces and kisses him and orders a great feast of joy to be prepared. The cause of this joy is that the son, who was already “dead” when he departed with his share of the property, is now alive again, has risen from the dead; “he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:32).
The Church Fathers put all their love into their exposition of this scene. The lost son they take as an image of man as such, of “Adam,” who all of us are—of Adam whom God has gone out to meet and whom he has received anew into his house. In the parable, the father orders the servants to bring quickly “the first robe.” For the Fathers, this “first robe” is a reference to the lost robe of grace with which man had been originally clothed, but which he forfeited by sin. But now this “first robe” is given back to him—the robe of the son. The feast that is now made ready they read as an image of the feast of faith, the festive Eucharist, in which the eternal festal banquet is anticipated. To cite the Greek text literally, what the first brother hears when he comes home is “symphony and choirs”—again for the Fathers an image for the symphony of the faith, which makes being a Christian a joy and a feast.
But the kernel of the text surely does not lie in these details; the kernel is now unmistakably the figure of the father. Can we understand him? Can a father, may a father act like this? Pierre Grelot has drawn attention to the fact that Jesus is speaking here on a solidly Old Testament basis: The archetype of this vision of God the Father is found in Hosea 11:1–9. First the text speaks of Israel’s election and subsequent infidelity: “My people abides in infidelity; they call upon Baal, but he does not help them” (Hos 11:2). But God also sees that this people is broken and that the sword rages in its cities (cf. Hos 11:6). And now the very thing that is described in our parable happens to the people: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel!…My heart turns itself against me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8f.). Because God is God, the Holy One, he acts as no man could act. God has a heart, and this heart turns, so to speak, against God himself: Here in Hosea, as in the Gospel, we encounter once again the word compassion, which is expressed by means of the image of the maternal womb. God’s heart transforms wrath and turns punishment into forgiveness.
For the Christian, the question now arises: Where does Jesus Christ fit into all this? Only the Father figures in the parable. Is there no Christology in it? Augustine tried to work Christology in where the text says that the father embraced the son (cf. Lk 15:20). “The arm of the Father is the Son,” he writes. He could have appealed here to Irenaeus, who referred to the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father. “The arm of the Father is the Son.” When he lays this arm on our shoulders as “his light yoke,” then that is precisely not a burden he is loading onto us, but rather the gesture of receiving us in love. The “yoke” of this arm is not a burden that we must carry, but a gift of love that carries us and makes us sons. This is a very evocative exposition, but it is still an “allegory” that clearly goes beyond the text.
Pierre Grelot has discovered an interpretation that accords with the text and goes even deeper. He draws attention to the fact that Jesus uses this parable, along with the two preceding ones, to justify his own goodness toward sinners; he uses the behavior of the father in the parable to justify the fact that he too welcomes sinners. By the way he acts, then, Jesus himself becomes “the revelation of the one he called his Father.”
Attention to the historical context of the parable thus yields by itself an “implicit Christology.” “His Passion and his Resurrection reinforce this point still further: How did God show his merciful love for sinners? In that ‘while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8).” “Jesus cannot enter into the narrative framework of the parable because he lives in identification with the heavenly Father and bases his conduct on the Father’s. The risen Christ remains today, in this point, in the same situation as Jesus of Nazareth during the time of his earthly ministry” (pp. 228f.). Indeed: In this parable, Jesus justifies his own conduct by relating it to, and identifying it with, the Father’s. It is in the figure of the father, then, that Christ—the concrete realization of the father’s action—is placed right at the heart of the parable.
The older brother now makes his appearance. He comes home from working in the fields, hears feasting at home, finds out why, and becomes angry. He finds it simply unfair that this good-for-nothing, who has squandered his entire fortune—the father’s property—with prostitutes, should now be given a splendid feast straightaway without any period of probation, without any time of penance. That contradicts his sense of justice: The life he has spent working is made to look of no account in comparison to the dissolute past of the other. Bitterness arises in him: “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed one of your commands,” he says to his father, “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends” (Lk 15:29). The father goes out to meet the older brother, too, and now he speaks kindly to his son. The older brother knows nothing of the inner transformations and wanderings experienced by the younger brother, of his journey into distant parts, of his fall and his new self-discovery. He sees only injustice. And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom without limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being at home, of the true freedom that he enjoys as a son. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:31). The father explains to him the great value of sonship with these words—the same words that Jesus uses in his high-priestly prayer to describe his relationship to the Father: “All that is mine is thine, and all that is thine is mine” (Jn 17:10).
The parable breaks off here; it tells us nothing about the older brother’s reaction. Nor can it, because at this point the parable immediately passes over into reality. Jesus is using these words of the father to speak to the heart of the murmuring Pharisees and scribes who have grown indignant at his goodness to sinners (cf. Lk 15:2). It now becomes fully clear that Jesus identifies his goodness to sinners with the goodness of the father in the parable and that all the words attributed to the father are the words that he himself addresses to the righteous. The parable does not tell the story of some distant affair, but is about what is happening here and now through him. He is wooing the heart of his adversaries. He begs them to come in and to share his joy at this hour of homecoming and reconciliation. These words remain in the Gospel as a pleading invitation. Paul takes up this pleading invitation when he writes: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
On one hand, then, the parable is located quite realistically at the moment in history when Christ recounted it. At the same time, however, it points beyond the historical moment, for God’s wooing and pleading continues. But to whom is the parable now addressed? The Church Fathers generally applied the two-brothers motif to the relation between Jews and Gentiles. It was not hard for them to recognize in the dissolute son who had strayed far from God and from himself an image of the pagan world, to which Jesus had now opened the door for communion with God in grace and for which he now celebrates the feast of his love. By the same token, neither was it hard for them to recognize in the brother who remained at home an image of the people of Israel, who could legitimately say: “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed one of your commands.” Israel’s fidelity and image of God are clearly revealed in such fidelity to the Torah.
This application to the Jews is not illegitimate so long as we respect the form in which we have found it in the text: as God’s delicate attempt to talk Israel around, which remains entirely God’s initiative. We should note that the father in the parable not only does not dispute the older brother’s fidelity, but explicitly confirms his sonship: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” It would be a false interpretation to read this as a condemnation of the Jews, for which there is no support in the text.
While we may regard this application of the parable of the two brothers to Israel and the Gentiles as one dimension of the text, there are other dimensions as well. After all, what Jesus says about the older brother is aimed not simply at Israel (the sinners who came to him were Jews, too), but at the specific temptation of the righteous, of those who are “en règle,” at rights with God, as Grelot puts it (p. 229). In this connection, Grelot places emphasis on the sentence “I never disobeyed one of your commandments.” For them, more than anything else God is Law; they see themselves in a juridical relationship with God and in that relationship they are at rights with him. But God is greater: They need to convert from the Law-God to the greater God, the God of love. This will not mean giving up their obedience, but rather that this obedience will flow from deeper wellsprings and will therefore be bigger, more open, and purer, but above all more humble.
Let us add a further aspect that has already been touched upon: Their bitterness toward God’s goodness reveals an inward bitterness regarding their own obedience, a bitterness that indicates the limitations of this obedience. In their heart of hearts, they would have gladly journeyed out into that great “freedom” as well. There is an unspoken envy of what others have been able to get away with. They have not gone through the pilgrimage that purified the younger brother and made him realize what it means to be free and what it means to be a son. They actually carry their freedom as if it were slavery and they have not matured to real sonship. They, too, are still in need ofa path; they can find it if they simply admit that God is right and accept his feast as their own. In this parable, then, the Father through Christ is addressing us, the ones who never left home, encouraging us too to convert truly and to find joy in our faith.