Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 15:3 So he told them this parable: 15:11 “There was a man who had two sons. 15:12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 15:13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 15:14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15:15 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. 15:16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 15:17 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! 15:18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ 15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 15:21 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.’ 15:22 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. 15:23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 15:24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 15:25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 15:26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 15:27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 15:28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 15:29 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. 15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 15:31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 15:32 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.'”
Unfailing forgiveness and arms open to welcome back wayward sons and daughters is a key motif in today’s gospel story. There is no room in the hearts of Jesus’ critics for such forgiveness: upright law-abiding people should exclude “sinners” from their company. In a first-century Jewish context, it was easy enough to be a sinner. Whole groups of people, depending on their occupation, fell into that category simply because they failed to observe one or more of the 618 prescriptions of the law. Jesus’ response to critics is the story of a parent whose adult children lose their way. One son finds his way back to the centre of family life and the support of the wider community while the other more law-abiding son seems to place himself outside the family circle, holding on to the resentment he feels at his sibling’s return.
We need to attend to the gaps in the story: there may be daughters as well as sons in the family; there is surely another parent, a mother who shares the heartache of her husband when their younger son requests his share of the estate. To make such a request in this context is tantamount to wishing his parents dead. The older brother is not disadvantaged: he is assured of a two-thirds share according to the law as well as the ongoing love and support of his family, as his father makes clear.
The contrast between the young man’s acquisitive nature and his parents’ capacity to relinquish substantial property in the interests of relationship is striking. No motive is offered for the son’s readiness to break all his ties and get as far away as he can. In the distant country, he squanders both his inheritance and his identity. A “severe famine” becomes the catalyst for his change of direction. Famine in any age means devastation of the earth that can lead to displacement, to broken relationships and even to global conflicts. In turning back, the young man shows no real interest in a restored relationship with his family or ancestral lands. Rather, he devises a plan that will put food in his belly. He composes a speech about having sinned against his father and against God and about being prepared to share the status of the servants. Thanks to the expansive heart of an extraordinarily compassionate parent, he does not have to deliver the speech he has prepared. Famine becomes feast. So it is with our merciful God. We abandon, even betray. We waste the bounty of Earth. Our motives for returning to the sources of love and community are very mixed, and yet our merciful God is ever ready, with our cooperation, to turn famine into feast. For that to happen in our times, we must turn away from our acquisitive, wasteful ways and respond as one to the pain of our planetary home.