A few years ago, someone asked me, “Father, where’s the candle?” I pointed out the candles on the Altar, next to the Baptismal font, in the narthex, in the storage closets, and in a slightly melted pile in the Sacristy cabinets. The inquirer responded, “No, where’s the candle that makes this a Catholic church?” I responded that if a candle defined a building as a Catholic church, then the candle shop in the local mall was the Vatican or, at least, an outpost of the Holy See. After additional confusing dialogue, it became apparent that the inquirer was asking about the Sanctuary Lamp; until the inquirer provided appropriate context, the question made little sense. Context matters, too, with regard to the Scriptures.
We heard the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son a few months ago, during Lent. This Sunday, we have the parable in its proper context in Luke’s Gospel. It follows two shorter parables and reiterates Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ complaint that, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk. 15:2)
It is interesting to note that, in each parable, the major actor is a controversial character. Shepherds were very often disparaged because the demands of shepherding required them to neglect many of the rules about observing the Sabbath. Women lived in a social realm entirely separate from men; a man would have been insulted by the suggestion that he should imitate a woman’s behavior. The father of the two sons acted in an extremely irresponsible way when he allowed his younger son to use a share of the family’s wealth for personal enjoyment.
It would appear that Jesus uses the shepherd, the woman, and the irresponsible father as metaphors to describe himself or, at least, his ministry. The three metaphors have in common that they depict someone of questionable social status who seeks to restore something of value that had been lost. This is an apt description of Jesus. He came from Galilee, a region inhabited by gentiles. He chose to associate with people on the margins of society’s standards of respectability. He understood himself as someone sent “to seek and to save what was lost.” (Lk. 19:10)
Jesus certainly wanted his detractors to see him and his ministry represented in these three parables. It is also certain that Jesus hoped that his detractors would be able to see themselves in these parables. Again, this raises the question of context. How was Jesus addressing the complaint of the Pharisees? How did he intend them to perceive themselves portrayed in the parables?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is very often interpreted as an allegory about God’s mercy. In the allegory, the father represents God the Father, the younger son represents repentant sinners, and the elder son continues to stand outside. Some interpreters identify the elder son with the Pharisees; in actuality, however, the elder son is usually seen as standing outside both the family home and the interpretation of the parable.
I’d like to suggest an alternative to the allegorical interpretation of this story. I’d like to suggest reading this story as purely a parable in which there can be many disparate meanings. A parabolic reading of the story might suggest that the two sons, when viewed together, form an accurate representation of each of us.
The younger son was able to turn his mind toward home only after he had repented of his sin. It was the act of repentance that both led him home and created the possibility of a warm welcome. The elder son chose not to repent and, as a consequence, remained distant from the family despite the fact that he never left home. The younger son represents the reconciliation that takes place as a result of repentance; the elder son represents the obstacle that impenitence creates between us and God. The moral of the story is that repentance is a necessary pre-requisite to knowledge of God and that both repentance and knowledge of God are intended to be lifelong processes.
One of the biggest mistakes made by believers and non-believers alike is the assumption that moral perfection is possible, desirable, or necessary. The simple truth is that moral perfection is an impossibility in this universe. We are incapable of avoiding sin. We are incapable of perfect repentance. We are often incapable of feeling forgiven, even when we have been granted forgiveness, and our acts of granting forgiveness to others often fall short of adequacy. We are incapable of perfect knowledge of God. We are, however, fully capable of repentance and forgiveness as lifelong practices.
Jesus understood himself as the one sent to find God’s lost children. It remains true, however, that none of us can experience perfect reconciliation in this life; rather, we need to repent and be welcomed home repeatedly. It would seem, then, that no repentant sinner can be fully reconciled in this life. Might it also be the case that no unrepentant sinner can be fully separated from God? If both of these propositions are true, we have cause for enduring hope: hope that we can grow ever closer to God and hope that God forsakes none of his children. If both of these propositions are true, we have reason also to repent: reason to repent of the sins that separate us from God and reason to repent of the enmity that separates us from one another.
The proper context of human existence is imperfection and incompleteness; consequently, we find God in human imperfection or we don’t find God at all. If we can’t see a reflection of ourselves in both sons in the parable, neither can we see a clear reflection of Jesus in the parable. He said that he came to find the lost. Do we believe this or do we prefer to believe that he came to reassure those who think they’ve never strayed very far from home?