As I write, I am thinking this: is there any other parable that Jesus has given us that is more famous that the Parable of the Prodigal son?
I hope to have a few young men between the ages of 18 and 24 in church for this gospel. They will receive my invite to stand for a moment. I will ask them these questions: Do you see any part of the younger man in yourselves? This young men felt that he knew the way of the world. Are you ambitious? Are you impetuous? Are you naive? Do you feel there is a place somewhere out there in this world that is just waiting for you and all your brilliance? If you don't feel that you are possessed by these same feelings, then something is amiss. To search and to long for something is a characteristic of youthfulness around the world. How painful it must be to be possessed by the same feelings but situated in a third world country where getting up and out is so very difficult. Do you remember the Wizard of Oz movie? That is what youthful Dorothy wants to experience as she sings out "Somewhere over the rainbow." And we know that most who are taken by such desires may find themselves back at home all too soon! You will return home most likely beaten up a little but a person who has earned a degree from the school of hard knocks!
There is a question that theologians have asked so often. It is this: "Who is it that Jesus is addressing using this parable? Is it the younger son? If you see Rembrandt's painting, The Return of the Prodigal, you might notice others in the painting. Where Jesus was, he was speaking to sinners who were coming to him for help. There were also others who had come to hear Jesus speak. Some who wanted to trip him up, to find him guilty of improper preaching; also some of the local religious leaders.
Some commentators see that it is "the wider audience" to whom Jesus is speaking. But first we have to realize that Jesus is including this parable along with two others that were related: a lost coin, the lost sheep. So sheep, coin and son. All were lost in one way or another. Why does Jesus use these three parables together? What is there that these three share? Oh, by the way, I have told the young people to sit down by this time!!! I did not forget them.
Again what, then is the purpose of these parables? We should see the three parables as expressions of human pain when something or someone is lost. In the gospel today, the prodigal son experience, he wants you and me to see that the heart of the father had been broken by the lost son. The father probably knew down deep in his heart that his younger son would be so much more enjoyable to have around the house than the older brother who showed his true colors when he heard the noise coming from the party the father had for his son who had been found. The father is so grateful that the younger man had come home and all the household is jubilant. That older brother must have been a genuine pain for the rest of the people who worked for the father.
This parable provides each of us with the extraordinary opportunity to sit down with Jesus and let him tell us about the Father's love for us and others who have wandered away but who have returned. Let's not consider talking about how grateful we might be that God has welcomed us back into his house if we have let sin separate us from him. Let's think about how we might be like the older son. Are there any in our family, our communities, with whom we need to bring words of reconciliation? Are there moments when me might react like those who might have held self-righteous judgment against the returned son?
And what ever happened to the older brother? Jesus is not all that clear. Perhaps he wanted each of us to answer that question. He would know if we keep someone at arms length, refusing to accept that person nor not. How would you react to circumstances applicable in our time? Like the immigration issue? Dealing with Tea Party members of Congress? Members of the parish who really think and speak differently than you do? Would your attitudes or words prevent some from coming back into the Church? How would you accept a black man from Ghana, for example, as the leader of your Church?