Lost and Found: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 4
Lent 4 (Year C): Luke 15: 1-3a,11b-32
1) This is the fourth week of Lent, the 40-day season traditionally conceived as a time of reflection and repentance. In last week’s reading, Jesus focuses on the pressing urgency of repentance, understood as a fundamental “change of mind” or “change of heart,” a turning away from tight-fisted death and toward generous, vibrant life - and this week’s parable focuses on the other side of the “repentance” coin: God’s abundant mercy.
2) This parable, often called “The Prodigal Son,” is one of the most famous of Jesus’ teachings. But despite - or perhaps partially because of - the parable’s familiarity, it’s often misunderstood, and at times even twisted around into its opposite. A typical interpretation emphasizes the father’s embrace of the repentant, “prodigal” son, as if to say, No matter what you’ve done, it’s never too late to repent and return to God - God will welcome you home! But this misses the parable’s primary point in at least two major ways.
3) First, the teaching’s center of gravity isn’t the wayward, younger son, but rather the rule-following elder one. Jesus is being criticized for welcoming sinners, and the parable is meant to show his critics that they’re acting like the elder son in the story, refusing to celebrate his sibling’s return. Come join the party, Jesus says. What do you care if others come late, or have checkered pasts - you’re already here with me, and these are your brothers and sisters, so welcome them home! Don’t miss out on an opportunity to rejoice! Indeed, the primary prodigal or “wasteful” character in this parable is the elder son, squandering an occasion for joyful communion. His smouldering anger is palpable: This isn’t fair! But that is precisely the heart of the matter: by definition, mercy isn’t “fair.” So far from keeping accounts, mercy sets accounts aside altogether. Like love and joy, mercy lives and moves in a sphere above and beyond “fairness” - and divine love is, first and foremost, merciful love (thanks be to God!).
4) Second, and in some ways more importantly, the typical interpretation of the parable as a morality play about the younger son’s repentant return distorts the story’s central drama. It turns out the elder son has even more cause for resentment than the conventional reading would suggest: for his brother returns from his escapades not as a ruined and repentant sinner, but rather as a self-serving con man, essentially the same pathetic rogue he was when he left. As we’ll see below, Jesus makes this quite clear - and consequently ratchets up the dramatic tension; testifies to the graceful, transformative power of God’s love; and underscores the primacy of divine mercy in any act of human repentance.
1) Jesus’ critics here are religious leaders (think: “pastors and deacons”), the ones who ostensibly are striving to follow the rules and follow God’s law - and they take umbrage that Jesus would so liberally welcome rule-breakers: “tax collectors,” for example, exploiting their own people on behalf of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ answer, in effect, is this: Rule-breakers? Listen, I came for the rule-breakers! I’m like a shepherd so concerned with one lost lamb that I leave the other ninety-nine to find it. I’m like a woman who sweeps the whole house looking for a single coin - and when I find it, I’ll throw an expensive party! Do you see? Let me tell you a story… (Luke 15:1-10).
2) The younger son in the parable is a dishonorable, self-centered scoundrel: right out of the gates, he impudently demands that his father give him his inheritance early, as if to say, You’re already dead to me. Predictably, the brash young man soon squanders the money, and ends up in a situation first-century Jews would have considered the epitome of shame: working in swine fields, feeding the pigs, desperately hungry and surrounded by famine. But his dire straits don’t convert his heart; he conspicuously doesn’t say, Oh, woe is me - look what I have become! I will amend my ways, and change my life, and beg my father’s forgiveness. Instead, he says, Wait a minute, I know a place I can get some food! Recalling that his father’s hired hands eat pretty well, he cooks up a scheme in which he’ll return home, feign contrition, and then, at the end of his speech, oh-so-humbly throw in a suggestion: Dear father, I expect no special treatment - just treat me like one of your hired hands (Luke 15:17-19). This is no tale of repentance, no “change of heart,” but rather a desperate, self-serving ploy. His express aim is to eat. In this sense, he merely continues his opportunistic ways. And insofar as his plan is disguised behind a veil of pious-sounding, ostensibly apologetic language - it’s also a con.
3) And so the con man sets out for home. His manipulative posture only brings into sharper relief the fact that his father sees him “while he was still far off” (implying that he’s been continually looking for him, scanning the horizon), runs toward him (implying a state of joyful abandon), and embraces him before a single word is spoken (implying unconditional acceptance). The son does stammer a version of his rehearsed speech - but tellingly, he leaves out the concluding request that he be treated “like one of your hired hands,” suggesting the possibility that the father’s exuberant, gracious welcome has transformed his con into a genuine confession.
4) The father knows his son all too well, knows he’s a con man, likely guesses that he may well be returning out of desperation rather than piety - and yet welcomes him anyway, with unbridled, ecstatic joy. The elder son knows his brother, too, of course, and isn’t buying it. Likewise, we can hear Jesus’ critics saying, Those tax collectors and sinners - they come and listen to you teach, sure, but they haven’t truly repented, they haven’t truly changed their lives; and you should hold back your welcome until they do! And Jesus’ response, via this parable, amounts to this: How will they truly change their lives unless I gracefully welcome them in the first place? Grace doesn’t follow repentance - it makes repentance possible! And not just theirs; your repentance as well. My child, come in and celebrate! Let go of your fastidious accounts… Look, you’re already with me, what’s mine is yours; come in, come in, and rejoice in God’s extravagant love! (Luke 15:31-32).
1) In the end, this is indeed a parable about the nature of repentance - but even more, it’s a parable about the nature of God’s merciful, graceful, compassionate love. God forgives us - and our neighbors - even before we repent; indeed, it’s God’s grace that makes our repentance possible, our turning away from the ways of death and toward the Way of life. So far from a cause for religious pride, then, God’s embrace should make us both humble and grateful, turning our hearts not inward (hey, celebrate me! (Luke 15:29)) but rather outward toward our neighbors, the community, and creation as a whole.
2) Shall we nevertheless repent, change our hearts, turn from death toward life? Yes! But in the light of this parable, our repentance itself is best understood as already an undeserved gift from a graceful, forgiving, loving God.
3) Accordingly, the Good News is for sinners, not former sinners! God doesn’t love us because we’ve picked up ourselves by our bootstraps in the swine fields - that’s the opposite of the Gospel. Rather, God loves us “even if” - even if we’re con artists coming down a dusty road, even if we’re wayward lambs who’ve wandered into danger, even if we’ve utterly lost our way, collaborating with the Empire as a sordid tax collector. How could God love us in this apparently unfair, extravagant, “even if” sort of way? Because God’s love is full of mercy, like a kind-hearted parent caring for a child - or a sweet, saving word, as the old hymn has it, for a “wretch like me.”
4) Where is the edge of this extravagant mercy, the limit of God’s love and salvation? We dare not draw that line! In the end, our role is not to judge, but rather to celebrate grace and abundant life wherever and whenever we find it: “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!’” (Luke 15:32).