Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Reason Jesus Told the Parable of the Prodigal Son

The parable of the prodigal son is my very favorite parable. It is one of those with so many layers of meaning and also one to which we all can relate, whether it is with the prodigal or elder son.

It is easy to understand the prodigal son's story. Sadly, it took me a very long time to even understand what the problem was with the elder son's complaints. They seemed pretty reasonable to me. Which says a lot about my basic personality. However, be that as it may, it wasn't until I was reading it in one of the Mass readings last week that I suddenly saw that this parable is not really equally about the two sons. Although the struggles of both are important, Jesus is telling this parable to the Pharisees in response to their complaints about the time he spends with sinners. The whole point of this parable is the complaints of the elder son and the father's pleading with him. That may not be news to anyone else but it sure hit me like a ton of bricks.

Often I will hear complaints about the way that Scripture is edited to fit into the Mass readings. I must admit that I also often wish we could have the whole passage. However, this is one case where I am grateful for the editing because otherwise, I would have missed this point. What is cut out is several other parables that Jesus tells first to make His point. All this time, those other parables, good as they also are, have distracted me from really getting the point.
The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So to them he addressed this parable.

Then he said, "A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them.

After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.

When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.

Coming to his senses he thought, 'How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."'

So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.'

But his father ordered his servants, 'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began.

Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, 'Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, 'Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.'

He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"


  1. Thanks... this really helped me to obtain a backround for my theology project! :)

    - Carolina N.

  2. When he complained about unfairness, the elder son displayed the same personal covetousness as the longest-working laborers in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. In that parable, Jesus tells us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Here, the elder son says he was never given a party and rejects his father's invitation. Is Jesus warning that covetousness can cause us to reject our invitation from God?

  3. Perhaps it all goes back to "blessed are the poor in spirit" ... they don't think they are so important that they don't recognize God?