IN RESPONSE to the complaint that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them”, Jesus tells three parables. Each ends with some kind of celebration, and together they constitute Jesus’s answer to his critics.
In the last of these stories — the parable of the Prodigal Son — Jesus issues an implicit critique to those who have been “grumbling”. Their complaints have a strikingly similar logic to the elder son’s criticism of his father.
While he is outwardly dutiful, the self-righteousness of the elder son generates its own kind of estrangement from his father. For he finds himself unable to enter into the joy which the father feels (and, indeed, longs to share with him) over his brother’s return. Initially, at least, he refuses to attend the feast that the father has thrown in celebration.
As Judith Lieu explains, the sin of the younger son was very serious. It went far beyond fecklessness and self-indulgence. In Jesus’s day, although a man might well divide his estate between his heirs during his lifetime, he would always retain an interest in the produce and profits. For a son to press his father for his share in cash was “tantamount to wishing his father were dead”. Indeed, if both sons had behaved like this, they would have cut off their father’s means of sustaining himself (Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).
The seriousness of the sin is essential to the narrative; for it harks back to Jesus’s argument with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7.36-50), when Jesus is criticised for allowing a “sinful” woman to anoint and kiss his feet. Here, as there, Jesus confronts his religious critics with an uncomfortable truth: those who have sinned are often the most fervent in their love for God; for they have been shorn of the illusion that they have any ground to stand on other than his mercy. In contrast, “the one to whom little has been forgiven, loves little” (7.47).
Having been forgiven little, the elder son loves little. Commenting on this passage, St Basil observes that “there are three different distinct kinds of obedience. For either from fear of punishment we avoid evil and are servilely disposed; or looking to the gain of a reward we perform what is commanded, like to mercenaries; or we obey the law for the sake of good itself and our love to Him who gave it, and so savour of the mind of children.”
In his failure to share his father’s joy, the elder son reveals not only the limits of his own love, but also his failure to grasp the nature of his father’s love for him. The father’s love does not wax or wane with the obedience of either son. The elder son imagines himself to have been earning a status which has always been entirely based on grace.
This insight presents Jesus’s critics with both an invitation and a challenge. As Pope Francis puts it, Jesus is reminding them that “one does not stay in the house of the Father for a reward but because one has the dignity of being children who share responsibility.” There is no “bargaining” with God for favours, only the call to both experience and share with others the mercy lavished on us by the Father.
As Pope Francis notes, the parable is left “open-ended”. Jesus does not tell us how the older son responds to the father’s entreaties. Given the original context of the parable, this omission is a sign of Jesus’s love towards his critics. He tells this story to agitate them and to shine a light on their self-righteousness. But, in doing so, he is inviting to them to enter into God’s mercy. They can determine how the story will conclude.
Our epistle complements this week’s Gospel by highlighting another aspect of the Father’s mercy. In reality, God has not simply waited at home for us with open arms: in Christ, he has journeyed out to bring us back. Commenting on this passage, St John Chrysostom exclaims: “Can you see how great God’s love is for us? Who was the offended party? He was. Who took the first steps toward reconciliation? He did. Some will say that he sent the Son in his place, but this is a misunderstanding. Christ did not come apart from the Father who sent him. They were both involved together in this work of reconciliation.”