Before us this week is one of the most beloved portions of the Gospel, possibly surpassed only by the image of the Lord Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who intimately knows his sheep and calls them all by name. The parable of the prodigal son has often been told and retold from the vantage point of the father, whose heart is broken and who waits longingly and lovingly for the potential return of the son from that far country in which he has squandered his share of the property in wanton and riotous living. It has also often been told from the vantage point of the younger son, who has come to the moment in his life where circumstances drive him to return to his father’s house. Not only is there the conversion of his heart that leads him to return to his father, there is the corresponding and painful matter of swallowing his pride and admitting that he was a total and abject failure.
What we all find so very comforting about this parable is that the father lovingly and graciously welcomes his son back. And unlike most of us who are parents, because I know that most of us who are parents never quite go out of the parenting business, the father never belabors whether the son had learned his lesson, and never imposes anything in the way of consequences upon the younger son for what he has done. The father does more than welcome the young man back. He restores his son. He invests him extravagantly with dignity and authority, putting the best robe upon him and placing a ring upon his hand as a sign of status and authority.
While we may think about the aspect of forgiveness and how the father welcomes him back, we tend not to think of this parable in the context of baptism. For there, if we take seriously what we are taught, we are clothed upon with the grace of the Holy Spirit, to live fully in the ethic of the kingdom of heaven. This theme is more particularly found in the season of Christmas than it is in the season of Lent, where the collects celebrate how we have been made children of God and heirs of the kingdom by adoption and by grace. One of my favorite collects for that Christmas season puts it in this perspective: “O God, you did more wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.”
Far too little is said about the elder brother, who equally stands in need of conversion of heart. While he is lingering out in the field, nurturing the resentment and the anger of his heart, he is essentially in the wasteland, feeding on pig food, just as much as was his younger brother. It should be a reminder to us that when we put our energy on anger, revenge, resentment, hatred and the like, we too are feeding on pig food. When we are putting our energy on the criticism of others, putting our attention on that which tears others down and does not build them up, we are feeding on pig food, not manna from God. Interesting choice at the morning breakfast buffet: pig food, or the Eucharistic bread of life—which do you want on your plate?
Actually while we may find the parable of the prodigal son comforting and reassuring, the people who originally heard it would have not found it to be comforting. It was offensive. And why it was offensive is because Jesus was essentially telling the scribes and Pharisees that they were no different from the elder brother. That offended them. If we reflect upon the parable from the way in which they heard it, then this parable might not be quite so comforting as we generally take it to be.