(Begin by reading the parable in this Sunday's Gospel. It is so good—should be heard all at once and not broken up as it is in this reflection.)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus tells a parable that is a favourite for many people. It is a parable about a family. It could be my family; it could be your family. The truth is, it is about our family.
Why does Jesus tell this parable?
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
All the tax collectors and sinners come to listen to Jesus. All of them. Who are all the sinners? Some are tax collectors, and some of them are Pharisees and scribes. All of them come to listen to Jesus.
The Pharisees and scribes are good people. They know they are good; they study the law of God. They try to follow the law the best they can. Do they know they are sinners, too? We wonder.
The tax collectors—do they know they are sinners? Oh, yes. The Pharisees and scribes make that pretty clear. Do they know they are good people, too? Has anyone told them? We wonder.
Do we know these people? Of course we do. We are good people. We are sinners, too. We come to listen to Jesus.
So Jesus told them a parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
All the people listening to the parable, the ones who know they are good and the ones who know they are sinners—and us, too—know that property that will belong to the son is his inheritance. It is the wealth that will come to him when his father dies. Apparently, this son cannot wait for his father to die.
Those who know they are good, what do they think of this? They know it is wrong. The son wants what is not his. He is being rude; he dishonours his father. The son is breaking their relationship.
Those who know they are sinners, what do they think of this? They remember the times when they wanted something that did not belong to them. They remember when they did not care about someone else's feelings. They remember breaking relationships. They know it is wrong, too.
What do we think?
So the father divided his property between them.
All the people listening to the parable, think, "Wow." The father lets the son make his own choices. As the son breaks the relationship, the father's heart must break, too.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
All the people listening to the parable, wonder what the son actually does to waste all the property. What choices does he make? What sort of sinful life does Jesus mean?
Those who know they are good, what do they think? They remember the times when they could have chosen poorly, but chose wisely instead. They remember the times when they have been tempted to sin.
Those who know they are sinners, what do they think? They remember the choices they have made that have not brought them life. They remember the choices they have made that hurt others. They remember the choices they have made that have been selfish and uncaring.
What do we remember?
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. The young man would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
All the people listening to the parable, know that the boy has sunk as low as he can go.
Those who know they are good, do they feel badly for this guy?
Those who know they are sinners, do they recognize this low place?
“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
All the people listening to the parable wonder, what happened to make the boy come to himself?
Those who know they are good are relieved that he remembers his father. His father is good. His father can help him.
Those who know they are sinners wonder, who was it? Who was it who reminded the son of the father? They are grateful for that person.
Do we know that person?
I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
“So he set off and went to his father.
All the people listening to the parable understand that the boy wants to come home.
The people who know they are good, know the boy understands his sin. The son knows he has broken relationship with both God and his father.
The people who know they are sinners understand that the son does not deserve to be forgiven. The boy wants simply to be near his father again.
We hope the father takes him home. We hope the father has mercy.
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
All the people listening to the parable know this is the best part of all.
“Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
All the people listening to the parable, notice that the father interrupts the son's speech. For the father, it seems, it is enough that his son is home. He does not need to hear anything more.
The people who know they are good, are grateful that the son who has sunk so low is given the very best robe and sandals for his sore feet.
The people who know that are sinners, are grateful for the ring. The ring says, the son belongs. The ring says, he is family. The ring says, the father loves him, no matter what.
And us? What are we grateful for?
And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. The slave replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
All the people listening to the parable had forgotten about the other son.
Has the father has forgotten about him, too?
Everyone senses trouble.
“Then the elder son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
All the people listening to the parable notice the father leaves the celebration to come out to his son who is upset. Relationship is so important to him.
Those who know they are good notice that the elder son has a point. When we are good, we would like some attention, too.
Those who know they are sinners notice that the elder son does not call the younger son his brother. They notice that he names his brother's sins even though Jesus does not. They notice that the elder son has not forgiven his brother, even though the father has.
What do we notice?
“Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
All the people listening to the parable hear the elder son reminded of his own relationship with the father. They know he has not appreciated this gift.
Those who know they are good hear the elder son reminded that the younger son is his brother. They are family. Both resemble the father. Both are good.
Those who know they are sinners hear the elder son reminded of the need to celebrate reconciliation. The elder son reminds them of the younger. Both are sinners.
And us? What do we hear?
Jesus tells us a parable about family—good people who sin, sinners who are good. It could be my family; it could be your family. The truth is, it is our family.