The parable of the lost sons. Yup, both of them! – 4th Sunday of Lent – Luke 15: 1-3, 11- 32

The parable of the lost sons. Yup, both of them! – 4th Sunday of Lent – Luke 15: 1-3, 11- 32

So the unanswered question of the parable is, “Did the elder brother go in to the banquet or not?” This is the question we should be asking ourselves, because the Bible says nothing on the matter. But we don’t, because the problem lies in the fact that we have got caught up with a beautiful parable, turned it into an allegory and lost the plot! The parable of what has come to be known as the ‘prodigal son’ is not about the younger son or about this amazingly forgiving father’. It’s all about this elder son, equally lost and horribly hate filled. Incidentally, the word “prodigal” is an adjective that means wasteful or spendthrift. Luke doesn’t actually call his character the “prodigal son”. It’s a modern title, that’s all.

A parable is starkly different from an allegory. In an allegory, we assign meaning to each of the characters and compare them to the spiritual categories in our head, where the ideas in the story are symbolized as people.  So you can have as many ‘ideas’ as you can have characters. For example, the father stands for God; the younger son is wayward humanity and so on.  A parable on the other hand, is designed to present a moral with a single point agenda; in this case the agenda is the Pharisees. It is to them that the parable is spoken in verse 2, for their angst against Jesus is splattered all over the gospel pages.

So what’s the background to all of this? The cause of ‘the grumbling’ of the Pharisees is plain; Jesus is ‘hanging out with the wrong crowd’ (5:29-32; 7:37-39; 19:7). But Jesus has never changed His agenda! He repeatedly insists that He has come precisely for such “sinners”, as well as other social outcasts, who are coming out in droves to listen to His teaching (15:1-2). To this moral outrage of eating with sinners, the Pharisees found themselves at the receiving end of, not one, but three parables in Luke 15. So what did they do so wrong?

Surely, if you do away with the sentimental romanticism of the parables and the lost son, you would come to a common sense agreement that the elder boy had done no ‘technical wrong’.  Like the Jewish leaders, this elder son has been faithful and never disobeyed his father (15:19), and yet there has been no demand for an extravagant celebration for his years of service. On the contrary the father has clearly betrayed his preferential love for the younger boy; an accusation that perhaps was always thrown at him.  And what’s to know for certain that this younger son is not merely a manipulative scoundrel? Why should we believe him just because he “came to himself”.

Look carefully and you will find the story now becoming alarmingly familiar. Yes you’re right, we are the elder brother! And why should we not be angry, angry enough like the elder son, to not address God as “Father” and speak to Him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.”  After all what wrong have we done? We have been faithful, conservative, honest and thrifty and yet God shows His favour of rings on fingers, new robes, sandals and the prime beef steaks for my wasteful brother? What ever happened to our dry-aged, sous vide, torched and seared bone-in rib eyes? Surely it is the father who is wasteful, the father who is prodigal, the father who is unfair and we have every right to be mad.

But here in lies the answer. God’s mercy does not run according to the standards of our conventions of human justice. The heavenly standard of ‘fairness’ seems ‘grossly’ unfair in our eyes; yet that’s God’s standard. His mercy is for latecomers, there is a place at the table of grace; steal heaven while dying besides Jesus. The list has no end. And yes it seems so unfair!

How do I resolve this? Take a step back and allow yourself to hear the words of the Father to us, “All that is mine is yours” (Verse 31). That’s a blessing no one can give you. Heaven is also ours! Our reluctance to accept these wayward ‘brothers’ in our lives, is also reflected in the reluctance of the Pharisees. They who kept every command of God, were now being asked to sit at the same table with a sinner.  

Do you want to know how the story ends? Do you want to know if the elder brother joined the party and danced in gay abandonment? Do you want to know if he called his brother by name rather than “this son of yours”? If you want to, then look into your heart. The story ends with us, we write the last lines, we close the chapter, we close the book. The way we pen the last lines will reveal to us if we are still lost, or lost the plot.

Fr Warner D’Souza

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7 thoughts on “The parable of the lost sons. Yup, both of them! – 4th Sunday of Lent – Luke 15: 1-3, 11- 32”

  • Surely this is one of the most difficult yet surprisingly one of the simplest parables in the Bible. It is the simple story of most if not all of us. We have our own notions about how God should reward the good and punish the sinner. We want to direct the script instead of letting God do what He does best …. draw all to Himself. It is a parable that encompasses “let him who is without sin cast the first Stone” “has no one condemned you, then neither do I”. Most of us can identify what th the younger son, whereas in reality it would be the elder son who best pictures our real selves.
    To me whether the elder son joined the celebration and referred to the younger son as his brother is irrelevant. What to me is relevant is the Father putting his arms round both his sons and loving both irrespective . This is what we need to ponder upon … a loving God whose blessings fall on all according to His compassion and Mercy and not according to our Merits.

  • Put in a very simple way Fr. Warner. Indeed we miss the point of the elder brother being so content with the younger son n the father. It will also be nice if we change our pictures of the prodigal son story with the elder brother more significant. U must have a painting in your collection for sure;-) Waiting to see it.

  • Very thought provoking.especially the last paragraph. Thank you fr.warner..

  • Velma Marlina Fernandes · Edit

    Beautiful reflection Father! Reminded me of Rembrandt’s oil painting and the book ‘The Return of The Prodigal Son’ by Henri J. Nouwen.

  • Yes Fr., it is so astounding that we (most of us who fit into the role of the Elder Son) are often LOST for the entire period of our lives, to the trivial – ie to say: we must be in the company of the ALLEGEDLY faithful, sincere, patient, caring & serving – basically non sinners & not even seeking any reward..

    But, unable to FANTHOM, ABBA Our Father’s most important MISSION – to seek the wayward, the lost, gone astray and then TRULY Rejoice from our hearts when such as these LOST are FOUND. For thats how we need to respond.

    Instead we SULK..
    Truly, so poor at heart we all are…

    Why, do we allow ourselves to be LOST – in such a way as not even to be FOUND easily ??

    Do we need an internship in the Pigsty to realize the unique privilege accorded to us by ABBA our loving FATHER ?? who says so CLEARLY, – all that is MINE is Yours..

    Pl Fr. do pray for us as we too pray for You..


  • Thanks, Fr. Warner. Powerful, simply powerful…the msg you’ve shared. It’s going to result in my own soul-searching. Let’s all do it.


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