Sunday, 16 September 2007

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The context of the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin may help us understand better the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Pharisees and the Scribes were complaining that Jesus consorted with tax collectors and sinners. Their complaint was actually a commentary on the social structure of their time. The parable of the Prodigal Son is set within the context of social exclusion. Jesus used for his central characters, a shepherd and a woman—two persons who belong to the category of the “excluded”. The basis of social exclusion is best measured by the phrase “not like us”. And being not like them has nothing to do with “action” or behaviour because the shepherd or the woman could never be like the Pharisees and scribes. In this context of social exclusion, no matter what the shepherd does or woman does, they can never be saved. In summary, it is not really what is done which determines salvation because there are people who [no matter how good they are or what they do] are clearly beyond the boundary of salvation. Thus, for Jesus, God is one who reaches beyond the saved to redeem the unsaved. We have this confirmed in the first reading where we hear of how God reached out to the stubborn Israelites. And also in the second reading, Paul was clearly beyond salvation for his role in the persecution of the Christians and yet God reached out to him.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, as told within the context of social exclusion is a commentary on God’s behaviour. What is thus left for us is to understand the conducts of the two brothers.
Both their behaviours may help to shed light on how we ought to respond to the God who is big-hearted in his desire to save. Their behaviours can be examined from the perspective of the control of one’s destiny or even the lack of. Both of them were calculative.

The younger son asked for his share of the wealth. In effect, he was wishing that his father had died.[1] He was under the illusion that his ultimate happiness and freedom lie in his autonomy from his father. As much as the parable chronicles the younger son’s journey of conversion it is also a record of his desire to be in control. He asked for his wealth, he recklessly squandered his share of the wealth. Even when he was down and out, he still wanted to be in control because he said, “I know what I’ll do… I’ll go and offer my service as a servant. In that way my father will take me back”. What is that but an exercise of trying to be in control?

The problem with his need to be in control was that he also began to limit his father’s love. He believed that his father, after his financial debacle, could only henceforth love him as much as a servant. It was actually a repudiation of the ability of a father to love beyond the “calculative”. He could not believe that his father’s love was beyond measure.

This is how we may relate with God too. Like this prodigal son, we measure God’s love for us by the size of our sins. A sense of unworthiness is a natural reaction to our sinfulness. But sometimes, instead of helping us to rely on God’s mercy, we begin to limit God’s love for us. Surely God cannot love me since I am that unworthy. This lack of trust of the Prodigal Son in God’s love is quite pervasive.

The elder brother, on the other hand, did not ask for his share of the father’s estate. But that was not because he was virtuous. He was also limiting the Father’s love in some way. “I have slaved for you”. He measured himself to a slave. Not quite different from his younger brother, was he? Furthermore, he complained that his father hadn’t even offered him a kid to celebrate with his friends. Again, the father’s response was rather telling. “All I have is yours. Use whatever you want. Enjoy my wealth because I have not stopped you. You have stopped yourself”. The sad truth was that the eldest son did not dare presume upon the love of the Father. In short, he also could not believe that his father could love him that much. He was dutiful but he was also cold-hearted. That was why he became jealous of his father’s treatment of his younger brother.

We too can be like the elder brother in our relationship with God. We dare not enjoy God’s love for us. We dare not believe that we may enjoy God’s favour. The Pharisees and the Scribes were like that. They believed that God only loved them because they kept the law dutifully. There is a big difference between, on the one hand: knowing that God loves you which then gives you the reason to keep his laws and on the other hand: keeping the laws so that God can love you. It is like trying to control God’s love by being obedient and dutiful. When we try that, out of the fear that we might lose God’s love, we will begin to limit ourselves because we project our limitation or fear onto God and at the same time we begin to put a limit on others too. Many a times, people are jealous because they have stopped living and thus, they do not want others to enjoy life.

The parables wonderfully describe a God who dares to love us and as such they challenge us not to limit God’s love either by behaving like the younger son or elder brother. As younger son we do not believe that God can love us beyond our sin. As the elder brother when we dare not enjoy God’s favour we will see to it that no one else does.
Imagine your dad sitting in a wheelchair and you ask your dad to divide his wealth. You are actually saying, “Dad, you might as well be dead”.