Lesson 9: New Testament
The Parables of Luke 15
Your reading for this second lesson on the parables is Luke’s most beautiful Chapter 15.
The three parables of Luke 15 have to do with finding what was lost, the Parable of the Lost and Found Sheep, the Parable of the Lost and Found Drachma (Coin) and the Parable of the Lost and Found Son (commonly called the Prodigal Son). I am deliberately calling them the Parable of the Lost and Found...to highlight the joy that is intended by the parable. The parables are told in response to criticism of Jesus for eating with sinners (15:1-2). It is important to note that this is the setting for the parables, as it will color our understanding of them, especially our understanding of the third parable. The parables teach on God’s infinite love and mercy, rebuke Jesus’ critics and defend his actions.
Although shepherds were regarded as dishonest Jesus used a shepherd as a figure for God. Remember also that angels appeared to shepherds to tell them the good news of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2. Every evening a shepherd counts his flock. The shepherd searches for the one lost sheep because it is astray and cannot find its way back by itself. The emphasis is on the great joy of the shepherd in finding the lost sheep. God’s joy over a repentant sinner is great.
In the second parable of Luke 15 a woman is a figure for God. The drachma was a Greek silver coin, and would have been the acceptable wage for a labourer. Here too the emphasis is on God’s joy at a sinner who repents.
This is one of the most beautiful parables. The parable has two parts; the first part, vv11-24, concerns the younger son, and the second part, vv25-32, concerns the elder son.
The first part of the parable, vv11-24, justifies Jesus’ mission to sinners. According to Jewish custom the younger son received one third of the father’s inheritance on the father’s death although divided earlier. During his lifetime, the father retained the use of the produce. The younger son feeding the pigs abroad and eating their food shows to what an extent he had tumbled because pigs were regarded as unclean (Lev 11:7). The younger son was living like a Gentile, instead of like a Jew. He had hit rock bottom. What the pigs were eating (v16) were the long pods of the carob tree, eaten by animals, and at times by extremely poor people. But then he came to his senses (v17).
Compare vv18-19 and v21. The son had intended to say three things to his Father when he returned but he said only two. What is omitted?
Faced with his father’s love, the younger son didn’t offer to become a servant. His father had such welcome for him that he knew it would be offensive to suggest that he work as a hired servant.
The second part, vv 25-32, invites those who have always been faithful. We are not told whether or not the elder son went in to the banquet. Notice what it was that offended the elder son, it was the party for the younger son. Notice that the father went out to meet the elder son just as he went out to meet the younger son, vv20 and 28. If the elder son would accept his father’s invitation to enter he would gain a brother! The elder son was lacking in love; instead he had a spirituality of duty. In the second half of the parable Jesus invites those who are faithful to cease murmuring at the way sinners are received and rejoice instead in this good news. God is infinitely loving and merciful and that is why Jesus associates with sinners (God is offering a tax-amnesty!).
Notice that the elder son, despite the fact that he was with his father all those years, was shocked that his father threw the party. He still didn’t know or understand his father’s heart; maybe the servants understood his father better. The elder son never felt accepted, appreciated or loved by his father. That was the real issue. And so his resentment towards his younger brother was really pointing to a deeper wound: he felt like a forgotten orphan; he did not feel loved. The older son had no real relationship with his father. He was distant and aloof. He was an observer. He was like the Pharisees and scribes in 15:2, resentful and judgmental. He cannot enter into joy. He is a blind virtuous person. For years he had done the right thing but with the wrong attitude. “All these years I slaved for you” (v 29). He sees his father as a slave master. The elder son badly needs to meditate on the Parable of the Vineyard Labourers in Matt 20:1-16. He also reminds me of the Parable of the Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). The father has lost both sons. The elder son doesn’t recognize his brother as his brother, “this son of yours” (v30). The elder son has been called the prodigal who stayed at home. He is also lost but his lostness is more difficult to see. So the parable is about a loving father and two prodigal sons!
Jesus told the parables of Luke 15 to defend himself before the Pharisees and scribes. They regarded themselves as righteous and Jesus mixing with sinners as offensive. The Pharisees would have regarded the first two parables of Luke 15 as being irrelevant to them since they were not lost. Likewise with the third parable which begins with a son who is lost. But the older brother is just like the Pharisees. They would have realized later that it was referring to them. Jesus was inviting the Pharisees to a change of heart. We are not told whether or not the elder son went in to the party. Perhaps the reason for that is because Jesus intended the Pharisees and scribes listening to him to decide for themselves whether or not they would go in to the party.
[Now that we know what Jesus meant by the parable, what about the relevance of the parable for our lives? We can ask ourselves are we like the younger or elder son. Presumably there is a bit of both in each of us.
Like the younger son, do we rejoice in the welcoming love of God like the younger son? If there is dissatisfaction in us, a longing for something that we don’t have (like the younger son going abroad), we could look on that as longing for God. St. Augustine said “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”. The unfortunate thing is that the further we are from our Father, the more difficult it is to hear his voice. The father did not go in search of the younger son. The son had to make the decision himself to come back. If the father had gone in search of him, no doubt he would have resented it. He had to make the decision himself, “I will leave this place and go to my father” (15:18). That is a decision we all have to make, to leave the illusion of false happiness and go to our Father. Josh 24:15 is relevant: “today you must make up your mind whom you mean to serve, whether the gods whom you ancestors served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now living. As for me and my family, we shall serve Yahweh”. Also read Deut 30:15-20.
“The parable can be interpreted as a parable about the seduction of the false self and the rediscovery of the true self. Though we might applaud the industrious independence of the son, there is something inherently selfish in the whole affair. But that is the nature of the false self. It feeds upon itself, thrives on instant gratification, is blindly invested in the agenda of the ego and isolates a person from others. This venture ultimately leads the younger son to the pigs, a shocking image of the final destination of those who invest heavily in the false self. How can the younger son - any one of us - become free from the obsessions and agenda of the false self and thus leave the pig pen where we are truly foreigners? That’s where asceticism comes in.” “To come back to the true self is to come back to the inner sanctuary where the Divine presence dwells; it is to recover the original stance of Adam and Eve.”
(above paragraph taken from Swimming in the Sun pages 19 and 23 by Albert Haase, published and copyright 1993 by St Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, OH, USA and used by permission of the publishers.)
“Never to grow up - never to outgrow God. That is a goal of the spiritual life. Never to foolishly think that we can make it on our own without God or grace. The false self tries to convince me that the really important things in life are based upon what I do, upon my abilities. If I buy into that illusion, I begin to take charge. I begin wielding power. I become manipulative. I insist upon things being done my way. I demand what I think is rightfully mine and, like the prodigal son, off I go! This independent, self-sufficient approach to life is the fundamental sin of so many of us...It is the refusal of grace. It is the failure to acknowledge Abba as the Divine Almsgiver. It is Adam and Eve reaching for the apple all over again. But, luckily, self-sufficiency can take us only so far. Sooner or later we run up against a brick wall. We get a sudden glimpse into our existential self-deficiency. We finish eating the apple and discover, a few hours later, that we are hungry again. We gradually realize where we actually are and where we truly belong.”
(above paragraph taken from Swimming in the Sun page 134 by Albert Haase, published and copyright 1993 by St Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, OH, USA and used by permission of the publishers.)
“The whole Christian life is a life in which the further a person progresses, the more he has to depend directly on God...The more we progress, the less we are self-sufficient. The more we progress, the poorer we get so that the man who has progressed most, is totally poor - he has to depend directly on God. He’s got nothing left in himself.”
(above paragraph taken from Monastic Spirituality: Citeaux Tape AA2083 by Thomas Merton; recorded and copyright by Credence Cassettes, Kansas City, MO, USA, and used by permission of the publishers.)
“Merton once distinguished two kinds of spirituality. The first way, based in the Synoptic Gospels, is characterized by active faith: A person “does” things. The second - more contemplative, more mature and more childlike - is based upon Jesus in John’s Gospel... in this second approach, one is content simply to wait for the Lord, expect the Lord and then abide in the Lord. This Johannine approach requires a person to develop a more receptive stance towards the Divine, traditionally a characteristic of the feminine side of the soul. Perhaps this is why Saint Teresa of Avila points to the Franciscan Peter of Alcantara’s statement that women make much more progress on the spiritual road than men. Women have the contemplative stance of receptivity carved into their very flesh. Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to remain on the path of “active faith.” They take control in the spiritual life and do things. They are in charge. They tend to equate spirituality with external behaviour. But this active Synoptic approach can take us only so far. To advance further along the spiritual road, we must surrender control, become receptive and have the humility to be led. We must discover and embrace the feminine aspects of our personalities in order to journey into the mysteries of the more contemplative way. Sadly, some men are just not “man enough” to do that.”
(above paragraph taken from Swimming in the Sun pages 136 and 137 by Albert Haase, published and copyright 1993 by St Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, OH, USA and used by permission of the publishers.)
We have tried to see the connection between the younger son and our lives today. Now let’s try to see the connection between the elder son and our lives. Like the elder son are we offended by God’s grace towards another, especially if we have questions about that person’s conduct and character? Slipping into self-righteousness, like the elder son, is a danger for good people. Instead our hearts should be constantly grateful to God for his gifts and we need to be humble before him, like the tax collector in the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:10-14). If we find it difficult to rejoice when the younger son returns, is that because we have so quickly forgotten when we were lost and found by God? I think yes. Think of how hurt the younger son must have felt when his elder brother refused to come in. Those who repent today must feel hurt if they are not welcomed or taken seriously.
Let’s look at the elder son from another viewpoint. There are some people who would love to live a more reckless life, but are afraid to because of public opinion. This has been described as ‘sacred cowardice’. Who knows whether or not the elder son was suffering from sacred cowardice? He was the one who always did everything right, yet when the crunch came he was not able to enjoy the party. With all of his right living he was not really enjoying life. He was surrounded by blessings but didn’t recognize them. Are there any grumpy priests or religious or committed lay faithful? In a sense the elder son was wasting his life too. In the end it was he who was really the poor one. Maybe the prim and proper nowadays think that the drunks and druggies are wasting their lives while they themselves are wasting their lives with materialism etc.
Looking at the three parables of Luke 15 we could say they are parables of God’s desire for us. Isn’t it amazing how much God, who made the vast expanse of the universe, cares about us. Isn’t it mind-boggling that we are so important to God (Remember Ps 8). Yet that is the point of the three parables of Luke 15. We are so important to God. The power of God’s desire for us breaks through human barriers, such as those imposed by the Pharisees and scribes (15:2). We see that God loves each person specially and equally, no matter how illogical that may seem. The desire of the father is so strong that it drives him out to meet the son returning. John points out that God loved us firstly (1 John 4:10), so our response to God, like the prodigal returning, or elder son going into the house if he eventually does, is accepting the love with which we were firstly loved. We might also remember the words of John 15:16; “You did not choose me, I chose you.” Heaven is not earned, it is given.
We notice from these parables that God is somehow incomplete if not loved by us! When we come back to God he throws a party! Love is a risk, it depends on the response of the other person. Yet God has taken that gamble with us. How does God feel when we don’t respond? Jer 2:5 and Hos 11:3-4 tell us. Someone has described God as a Jilted Lover! Does God ever grow tired of loving us? God keeps believing in love and in our potential to respond. Love is a risk, but love is the method God has chosen to use, so it must be worth trying. If love doesn’t win now, it may win in the future. Even if it doesn’t, love is still the right way to live. God is the unparalleled Lover.
The younger son was humiliated and suffered. He was worn out in body. He still realized he was the son of his father but lacked faith in his father to re-instate him. He lacked faith in his father to forgive him and love him unconditionally. Often we are told that we are not good enough, that we have to earn love. Our experience of sin gives us a warped outlook on life and on God. Jesus’ picture of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son is the picture of a loving merciful father with arms thrown wide, ready to forgive and forget. But only Jesus, the sinless one, could have drawn such a picture of God. We only see God in our own image. What would we do to someone who had sinned against us? We feel like paying back, and this is how the son in the story expected to be treated: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men” (15:18-19). The father disregards the offences of both sons. The father kissing his son was not done at that time in society. He is acting more like a mother than a father. The father in the parable shows us that God is both Mother and Father. How many times must I forgive? Jesus said we are to forgive seventy seven times (Matt 18:22; see Luke 17:4). Imagine the prodigal son going off another 76 times and the father welcoming him back another 76 times! Notice what the father says to the elder son “All I have is yours” (v 31). I think that is the most beautiful statement in the parable. Our heavenly Father keeps opening his arms to us also and saying “All I have is yours”.
The Prodigal Son and the Spiritual Journey of Transformation
The following is the text of a talk I gave for the last night of the Life in the Spirit Seminars which is always on the theme of ‘Transformation.’ We read in Gen 1:26 that God created mankind in his image. But then came the sin of Adam and Eve and we were all tainted with original sin. Transformation means transformation into the image of God, becoming whom we are called to be by God in Genesis. It is the vocation of all of us. It is a lifelong process which began at our baptism.
The great spiritual writers describe stages in transformation.
1 conversion also called purgation
2 purification also called illumination
3 transformation also called union
A very helpful book on this is Guidelines for Mystical Prayer by Sr. Ruth Burrows. She says there is a distinct difference between the stages, while others say they are a spiral, i.e. when we finish stage three we start off again at stage one at a deeper level, and yet others say that there is some of all three stages in us always.
As we start our spiritual journey before conversion or purgation we are in control. (Ruth Burrows considers this part of the first stage) We choose what pleases us, so when we don’t get what we want we grumble and complain. Things are judged by whether I like them or not. Bitterness may be an indication of this selfishness. The way we relate to God is our own way whereas in stages two and three we relate to God God’s way. Ruth Burrows describes this as a mist-bound island although it is not mist-bound to the inhabitant of this island who thinks it is beautiful and lovely. We are at peace in this stage and God is giving himself to us under the form of concepts and ideas we can cope with. There is a sense of well-being.
Conversion or purgation at this stage means that if God is to take possession of us we must be drawn out of this security, we must lose control or hand over the control of our life to God. Will we allow God to draw us away or will we persist in staying where we are? We have to learn to take our hands off the controls. This means intelligent obedience to people and events and acceptance of discipline. It is recognising God’s hand in what happens to us. It is accepting our duties and refusing to evade. At this stage we experience the invitation to a change, the pull towards a new life, while also being aware of sinfulness and our resistance to change. St Augustine said ‘make me chaste but not yet’.
Is this stage similar to the prodigal son controlling his destiny and deciding to leave home for the land of promise?
After some time we begin to feel less sure, less steady on our feet. What was the path before has become narrow. There is no other path. We begin to feel bewildered, losing our taste for prayer and spiritual things. Our general state at prayer is one of confusion, darkness, boredom and helplessness. We have a painful knowledge of ourselves because we see ourselves as we really are; the hollowness of our goodness, truth, virtues etc. Our ambitions are unmasked and we are called to renounce them. We are beginning to see God where we never thought he was, in what upsets our preconceived ideas of God. The tendency to criticize others will disappear and our hearts will become more kind and compassionate. Now we are feeling abandoned by God, repeatedly failing to live the new life, experiencing dryness in prayer, aching for God, experiencing desolation and depression, alternating anguish and joy. The cause of the discomfort is that God is flooding us. St John of the Cross said that when the light is not shining you do not see the cobwebs (sinfulness) but when the light (God) is turned on you do. He also said that this stage is like a nurse (God) bringing us bitter medicine (our awareness of our sinfulness), we have to take the medicine to get better. We don’t see every aspect of our sinfulness until God gets more space in our lives. Painful things in our past surface again. If something we thought we had healed comes up again, the reason is because we are still in need of more healing. The level of distress caused varies. If the distress is great, seeing a therapist of some kind may be necessary. What is happening is that anything that is an obstacle to our union with God is popping up and coming to the surface for healing.
Many people undergo a great transformation sometime around mid-life. Things they placed their trust in no longer provide them with the security they had up to now. We become more passive, God becomes more active in our lives and we lose control. No one makes this transformation easily, everyone messes it up because we have conscious or unconscious resistance. It is like being back in school again. There are some things in our life that we will not be able to change. We will have to find a way to live with them.
Is this stage similar to the prodigal son coming to his senses with the pigs and deciding to return home?
Up to now we gave what we possessed, now our very self is being taken away and we become heaven on earth. God’s union with us is total, God is indwelling in us. There is a continual sense of the presence of God, joy even in suffering. “You alone are the holy one” becomes our prayer then.
Is this stage similar to the prodigal son being back home with his father once more? The words of the father to the elder son, “all I have is yours” (Luke 15:31) surely are apt here.
The journey inward has been described as the longest journey. There is a sense in which we could say that Jesus underwent this journey like a prodigal of sorts. He was with the Father (stage 1 of sorts) but left him to become one of us while maintaining his divinity (stage 2 of sorts) and now is raised high (stage 3 of sorts). Read Phil 2:6-11. Jesus became lost to lead all of us lost ones to the Father.
Albert Haase Swimming in the Sun (it is a commentary on the Our Father)
Henri J.M. Nouwen The Return of the Prodigal Son
Ruth Burrows Guidelines for Mystical Prayer
I have found all three books most helpful spiritually.
For our prayer we will use the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32.
Become aware of the presence of Jesus with you. Jesus we thank you for this beautiful parable and the richness of your teaching. As we compare ourselves to the characters in the parable we can indeed see ourselves. We ask your pardon that sometimes we are like the younger son. We are unwilling to be led. We want to control our own destiny. We are not humble. We want the high life, dolce vita, foolishly thinking that we can find happiness in the temptations of this world. But after tasting the temptations we are still unhappy, still hungry for happiness. During a divinely inspired moment we suddenly realize that we had been running from you instead of running towards you. It was you we really needed but we were too young to know this. We come to our senses and decide to repent and return to you. You welcome us with open arms and throw a party for us. Thank you, Lord, for your ever welcoming love rejoicing in our return to you. We feel foolish before you but you do not treat us foolishly but honorably, as daughters and sons of the Father since our baptism. Thank you for your hesed, your constant and faithful love which throws a party for us every time we repent and return to you. (Pray silently in thanksgiving now)….Sometimes, Lord, we are like the elder son. We ask your pardon. We are like goody goodies but yet our hearts are far from you because we are too busy being good to come close to you and listen to you. If we did draw near to you how you would set our hearts on fire! We grumble and complain instead of being happy and joining in the party of life. We keep our distance from others instead of being friendly and approachable. Then, Lord, you come out of the house to invite us to live life to the full, to let our stubbornness give way to your transforming love and forgiveness. We do not like change, we prefer the status quo so it is difficult to submit and say ‘yes’ to your offer of life. When we do submit and look back afterwards, how glad we are that we made a leap in faith consigning our future into your hands. (Pray silently in thanksgiving now)….Jesus, we thank you that you bring out the best robe, put a ring on our finger, sandals on our feet and kill the fatted calf when we turn to you in repentance. We live so often at the surface of life without thinking of the deeper implications of what we do and the beautiful offer of happiness you extend to us. We thank you for those moments when your word penetrates deeply into our hearts and we suddenly realize that you have a party ready for us. (Pray silently in thanksgiving now) ….Father in heaven, all you have is ours. We could not ask for more because you have already given us everything, all you have. We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise.