Luke 15:11-32


Exploring the Heart of God (3)

Luke 15:11-32  -  Parable – A Father and Two Sons

In the tradition the following parable has usually been called the parable of the Prodigal Son. But it was not primarily about the thoughtless son. Nor was it even about both immature sons, still needing (perhaps learning?) to grow up – though the Pharisees, whose attitudes were mirrored so effectively in the mind-set of the elder son, provided the original motivation for the story.  To hear it simply in that light is to miss much of its richness. It was a story about a wonderful, confusing, shameless, maddeningly compassionate and forgiving father. Indeed, it was a story about God – as were the previous two parables. As happens so often in the narrative, the context in which the story was told provides the key to its interpretation.

11 Then he said, “There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger one said to their father,
‘Give me my due share of the property.’  
And the father distributed his livelihood between them.  

The request of the younger son was outrageous. Even though on the father’s death he may have expected to inherit his share of the estate, to seek it prematurely was to seriously dishonour his father. 

Jesus was painting an unusual father, perhaps even a mad father. In distributing his livelihood  between the two sons, the father had nothing left of his own. He was living on the generosity of the older son, though he maintained his traditional role as patriarch of the family and the focal point still of the family’s honour. The Hebrew Scriptures had written:

To son or wife, to brother or friend,
do not give power over yourself, as long as you live;
and do not give your property to another,
in case you change your mind and must ask for it.
While you are still alive and have breath in you,
do not let anyone take your place.
For it is better that your children should ask from you
than that you should look to the hand of your children. (Sirach 33.20-22)

By giving in to the son’s request, the father had gravely dishonoured himself, his family and indeed the extended family of the village. 

13 After a few days, the younger son sold off everything
and went abroad to a distant country.  
There he wasted his income living extravagantly.
14 When he had spent everything,
a severe famine spread throughout the whole region,
and he began to experience the scarcity.
15 He went and signed on with one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to feed pigs.
16 He longed to fill his stomach
with the pods that the pigs had to eat,
and no one gave him anything.

The son was indeed distant from all he had known. To live among pigs and feed them was the depth of degradation for any Jew. In addition to that he was abandoned and pitifully hungry.

17 Then he came to himself, and said,
‘How many of many father's paid servants have more than enough bread,
while I am perishing here from hunger?
18 I shall get up and go to my father,
and say to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and against you.
19 No longer am I worthy to be called your son.  
Treat me as one of your paid servants.’” ’

There was little admirable in the young man’s attitude. His remorse arose from sheer self-centredness. He would approach his father on the basis of the honour/debt code of the culture. He would go through a ritual of abasing himself, honestly or otherwise, in the hope that he might thus engage his father’s sense of limited benevolence and at most be hired as a servant. He had little insight into, or expectation from, his father’s heart. Indeed, there was a possible trace of dishonesty in his whole approach.

20 So he got up and went back to his father.  
While he was still a long way away,
his father saw him and was deeply moved.  
He ran up,
threw his arms around his neck,
and kissed him fervidly.

In the patriarchal culture of the time the father’s response was both shameless and unthinkable on a number of scores:

  • he took the initiative
  • he spontaneously reached out to a son who had publicly dishonoured him
  • he disgraced himself by running
  • he showed compassion publicly
  • he embraced and kissed his son.

The father’s response of compassion and hugging could be seen as an outflowing of “feminine”energy. The Hebrew word corresponding to the word compassion refers directly to “womb love” – the instinctive, fierce, unconditional, blind love of mother for child. Though most scriptural images of God are masculine, reflecting the patriarchal worldview of the time, God transcends gender restrictions.

(Readers may have noted the painting of the father’s welcome by the artist Rembrandt. In the painting, the father’s right hand is shown as a woman’s hand, his left as masculine. Rembrandt had clearly picked up the richness of divine love expressed, always inadequately, by the combination of the most beautiful of feminine and masculine energies.) 

21 His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and against you,
I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 But his father said to the servants,
‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and dress him in it.  
Put a ring on his finger;
put sandals on his feet.
23 Bring the young grain–fed bullock; kill it.  
We shall have a feast and celebrate.
24 My son was dead and has come back to life.  
He was lost, and has been found.’  
And they began to celebrate.

The father did not listen to the son, and interrupted him after his first few phrases. The father’s response was not conditional on the son’s sorrow or remorse. They were basically irrelevant. It was the father’s unrestrained love that was at work.  And unconstrained love always calls for celebration! 

What is Repentance? 

Forgiveness and reconciliation need to be distinguished. Forgiveness is unilateral - one-way. Forgiveness flows from God’s heart and is unconditional, free, constant and always available. Reconciliation happens when the sinner turns towards God and accepts God’s forgiveness. This response of the sinner is referred to as repentance for sin (true sorrow). Reconciliation speaks of two-way relationship. 

True repentance is always gift. The sinner is quite incapable of repenting without the previous gift of God’s help (“actual grace”).

Remorse. True sorrow is different from remorse. Remorse is focussed on the sinner’s own state and is ultimately a form of self-interest. It can be motivated by fear of “missing out” or “being punished”, or by the desire to feel “safe” or “saved”. Remorse is often felt strongly. It is basically an emotional experience – an offshoot of shame. It is frequently accompanied by a sense that God’s forgiveness can be won by a show of profound humiliation. (This response can be a form of manipulation. It was reflected in the initial response of the younger son of Jesus’ story.)

Remorse springing from fear of punishment can lead people to wish to be free from their sin. It can help to break their addiction to sin. But it needs to go further, to be purified. Of itself, it does not lead to loving reconciliation.

Sorrow. True sorrow is focussed on God and God’s goodness. It is a form of love for God. In its purest form it is not necessarily felt emotionally. It is based on a profound recognition of the destructive awfulness of sin (guilt) and clear insight into the mercy of God. Both are gifts and cannot be achieved without God’s grace.

Deeper Sin. Most sins that people are aware of are quite superficial, and are usually expressions of weakness. The deepest sin always remains hidden, but can be gradually unearthed by God’s grace. It is usually some expression of pride, rigidity, lack of love and hardness of heart. The deepest sin cannot be seen except in the light of God’s mercy. Likewise God’s mercy cannot be fully appreciated without insight into the dreadful destructiveness of sin. The two co-exist. What in fact is the deeper sin can often be thought to be virtue. The Pharisees’ sin was precisely their righteousness. 

The story continued. Jesus did not focus on the “prodigal” son. He had more to reveal of the father’s love – and of the destructiveness of sin.

25 His older son was out on the farm.  
As he got closer to the house,
he could hear the music and dancing. 
26 He called one of the young slaves
and asked him what it could all mean.
27 ‘Your brother has come home,
and your father has killed the young grain–fed bullock,
because he has got him back in good health.’
28 He got angry then, and did not want to go inside.
His father came out and encouraged him.

For the father to plead with a son was to lose honour. As with the younger son, the father was far beyond caring about issues of honour. His interest was their hearts.

29 But he said to his father in answer,
‘Look, over how many years I have been slaving for you
and I never broke any one of your orders,
and you have never given me a kid
so that I could have a party with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours,
who dissipated your wealth on prostitutes,
comes back,
you slaughtered for him the young grain–fed bullock.’

Jesus yearned to break through the rigid self-righteousness of the Pharisees, whose comment occasioned the string of stories. In that context, the attitude of the older brother was more pertinent that that of the younger one. 

Among the points to be noticed, raised by the older son’s response, are the following:

  • his inability to own any relationship to his younger brother. He called him: this son of yours
  • though he had no evidence for it, his fervid imagination had his absent brother dissipating your wealth on prostitutes
  • he referred to his work at home as slaving for you – not love, just servitude
  • his obedience was constrained, done under command
  • he could not cope with celebrating family reconciliation.

The problem facing all religious people is to move beyond their innate Pharisaism. Untackled it leads to a real, though often unrecognised, pervasive resentment towards God, that in fact they are frightened to confront or even to admit [because “good people” are not supposed to feel angry or resentful towards God!]. The presence of this hidden resentment leads them inevitably to feel distant from God [which again they are afraid to deal with or even to face]. Often they distract attention from their disquiet by practices of devotion that aim to confirm their sense of holiness [in the Pharisee culture: prayers, fasting and ostentatious almsgiving].

31 But he said to him,
‘My child, you are always with me,
and all I had is now yours.
32 But we had to rejoice and celebrate,
because this your brother was dead,
and has now come alive.
He has been lost, and has now been found.’ "

The father’s response was sad. His son had not come to know his father’s heart, even though he had been always with him. And the father so much wanted the older son to see the younger one precisely as brother. But for that step to be taken a whole new conversion had first to happen. 

The point of Jesus’ parable was to help people to understand the heart of God and God’s constant stance of openness and forgiveness. 

In real life situations, however, there is much more involved in the resolution of sinful interactions than God’s offer of forgiveness. Using the example of Jesus’ parable, a number of other issues could be explored:

  • Did the younger son’s experience of his father’s love lead him to discover true sorrow and repentance? 
  • Given that the father had already subdivided the estate, and that what was left belonged legally to the older brother, did the younger brother pay the price of his wastefulness, even though totally reconciled to his father?
  • Did the older brother eventually come round to discover his father’s heart, to learn from it and to be reconciled with his brother?
  • Did his work move beyond obligation to freedom?
  • Was his obedience constrained, or could he align his heart to the heart of his father?

Jesus left the questions unanswered. His interest lay not so much in the sons, their behaviour and reactions, but in the father and his love.

He told the stories to the Pharisees in the hope that they might see his attitudes to tax-collectors and sinners as reflecting his Father’s heart. In developing the theme to include the older son, he hoped that they might come to see their own hardness of heart and to realise what they were missing out on. 

The Second Conversion

There comes a stage when those genuinely seeking God seem to reach an impasse. 

With growing maturity their self-knowledge becomes clearer. They recognise that the surface sins of which they are aware, and which they sometimes confess, do not really express their deeper sense of themselves before God. At the same time they realise that all their efforts at reform do not stop their surface sins recurring. They can feel powerless, dissatisfied, discouraged and confused.

And then can come “break-through”. More assured of the unconditional nature of God’s love, they are open to see gradually but more clearly the sin in their depths. This recognition is the work of grace. It is accompanied by the experience that they are not able to overcome their deeper sin alone and unaided. They realise that even the desire to do so can easily originate from an even deeper pride. All they can do is be aware of it, own it and hope for its removal. The elimination of deeper sin is always God’s work, and usually takes place in the hidden depths of the unconscious psyche.

Part of this constant struggle with pride shows up in their difficulty precisely to surrender their need to control, to recognise their powerlessness and to trust the undoubted goodness of God.

The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel expressed God’s action beautifully:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you,
and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, 
and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; 
and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 
I will put my spirit within you... [Ezekiel 36:25-27]

For Catholics the sacrament of Reconciliation can be a celebration of God’s forgiveness and of reconciliation of God and sinner. It can be an encounter with the merciful God, an act of praise of God’s unconditional goodness. The confession made in the context of the human dialogue with the priest can be the means by which the penitent’s explicit owning of sin and the priest’s ready acceptance can open the penitent to a depth of insight into both sin and the mercy of God. It can significantly help the penitent to accept God’s forgiveness more deeply and be reconciled. The sign of the sacrament is the dialogue (confession, sorrow and absolution); the signified reality is the actual ever-deepening reconciliation of God and penitent.

As this “second conversion” deepens, people begin to be aware more clearly of their solidarity with the whole human race. All are sinners; all are in equal need of God’s grace. The sense of “us” and “them” diminishes. They can relate genuinely to others in need, with no dishonesty and without patronising.

The three parables of Jesus give wonderful insights into the forgiving heart of God. Effectively Jesus was teaching that God’s forgiveness was wild and beyond reason, shameless and irresponsible, unconditional and uncaused, spontaneous but profound, motherlike and fatherlike, life-giving and freeing, irrepressible and celebratory.

Next >> Luke 16:1-13