The Prodigal Son–the rest of story: reflections by Father Steven LaBaire

father-steven-labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from
Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

This Sunday’s gospel is the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). Most folks are familiar will this parable about a Father and his two sons.

OZinOH Prodigal Son IMG_0599, Flickr Creative Commons
OZinOH Prodigal Son IMG_0599, Flickr Creative Commons

The younger son asks for his inheritance and then wastes the money to the point of starvation. The Father compassionately welcomes him back. The “dutiful” stay-at-home elder son protests the welcome given to the younger son. At the end of the story, one wonders whether the older brother will be reconciled with the merciful Father.

Jesus addressed this parable to religious people who disliked Jesus’ table fellowship with “sinners.”

Here are some details about the story
that might help to hear it with ‘new ears”
this coming Sunday. *

  • In Jesus’ time, fathers were discouraged from distributing inheritance during their lifetime. But if he did , a father was still entitled to live off the proceeds while he lived. The younger son acts shamefully, effectively wishing the father were dead. That the father did not explode and discipline on the spot testifies to the depth of his love. The elder son is no better. Instead of protesting the inappropriate property division and refusing his share, he accepts it (v. 12). And he makes no effort to reconcile his father and brother as culture demanded he should. His behavior is equally shameful.

    The younger brother sinks deeper into shame. Losing his money to non-Judeans through wasteful spending makes things worse. He begins to starve. He tries to leech on to a wealthy patron who assigns him a repulsive job of feeding pigs. (Remember, pigs are considered unclean animals in the Jewish tradition.)

  • Still he starves. The carob pods fed to the pigs were the wild variety with bitter berries, nauseating and insufficiently nourishing to humans.
  • Coming to his senses, the younger son resolves return home to become a “hired servant” of his father.  He is willing to accept the shameful fact that the village will disown, reject and physically abuse him for taking his dad’s inheritance and before his death and then losing it to Gentiles. Nonetheless, the younger son judges this a small price to pay for life and food.
  • Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. Return of the Prodigal Son
    Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. Return of the Prodigal Son, Flickr Creative Commons

    The father acts in a way that is shocking for the culture of the time. He runs (very inappropriate for an elder) the gauntlet the village has prepared for the returning wayward son. He publicly forgives the son by kissing him on the cheeks, and heals the broken relationship between them. The best robe is certainly the Father’s. It will guarantee the son’s acceptance by the community at the banquet. The signet ring indicates enormous trust. The sandals are a sign of being a free man in the house, not a servant. (Servants and slaves did not wear sandals.) Killing the calf means the entire village will be invited and prodded toward forgiveness. This size animal can feed over 100 people.

  • Instead of honoring his father by accepting his  brother and playing his appropriate role as chief host at the meal, the elder son publicly insults and humiliates his father (vv. 28-30). The insults are jarring: he addresses his father without a respectful title; he speaks of himself as a “slave” and not a son (v29); he accuses the father of favoritism (him a calf, me not even a goat!); he refuses to acknowledge his brother (“this son of yours”; he invents the claim that his brother lived with prostitutes.
  • In effect, this elder son’s heart has always been elsewhere. He too wishes his Father were already dead.
  • Once again the father replies to the wayward son with love and acts of self-humiliation. He returns insult with an endearing “my child…” He assures him that his inheritance remains intact, and he invites the elder son to join the festivities.

Here the parable ends rather abruptly. What will the elder son do? That is the question the Pharisees and scribes and the modern believer must answer. This is really the story of two lost sons. One was lost, but found. The other… well, we just don’t know…

So, what would you do?

*Much of the background for the remarks in this reflection was found in The Cultural World of Jesus by John J. Pilch and in the Jerome Biblical Commentary.

Liturgical notes for Sunday:

This Sunday is called LAETARE SUNDAY. It is the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we reach the mid-point of the Lenten season. The Mass vestments this Sunday are rose colored, rather than the usual Lenten purple.

The custom dates back to the Middle Ages when the Pope carried a single rose in his right hand when returning from Mass on this Sunday. At the time, the rose was a symbol of Christ due to both its being beautiful and yet being covered with thorns. The Pope’s carrying a rose was a visual reminder that the celebration of Christ’s Passion is not far off. Soon we will experience the beauty and the suffering (thorns) of Christ’s love for us.

While the Pope’s custom was abandoned, the symbolism continues through the rose colored vestments worn at Mass.

Holy Week and Easter are not far off. But it isn’t too late to make this Lenten season a time of personal renewal. Remember, the word “Lent” comes from the old English word for” springtime.” During this season, the liturgy invites us to experience a “springtime” from within, a new beginning within our souls. How will your spirit be renewed to embrace the joys and challenges of 2016?

For more aids to your Lenten journey, visit the Lenten Resources page for posts, podcasts, music and videos, plus a stay-at-home mini retreat.

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