Try to imagine Jesus telling this oh- so- familiar story for the first time. It’s an afternoon in early spring - he’s been on his way to Jerusalem since Chapter 9, and now here he is in Chapter 15, not yet at Jerusalem, but not very far away, either. In the time since he "resolutely set his face"(9:51) toward that city, he’s been very active, teaching mostly, but also visiting Mary and Martha, driving out demons, and predicting his own Passion. In the midst of this journey, so fraught with tension and resolve, he takes time to explain the Kingdom once more. The "tax collectors and sinners" are part of the crowd that’s been following him for some time ; they find his words both challenging and consoling. But of course that’s not the only reaction to his preaching ; the Pharisees and the scribes are there, too, complaining as usual and ready to use his words against him in any way they can.
So he starts with two little sketches of stories about lost things, a lost sheep and a lost coin. Each time something is lost and then it’s found, with lots of rejoicing afterward. When he points out the meaning of the stories, explaining that it will be like that in heaven for any sinner who finds his way back to God, the tax collectors rejoice right then and there, while the Pharisees grind their teeth. And so it is that he launches into the final story of "lostness," the parable often called "The Prodigal Son."
Well, we know the story. Know all about the younger son who’s grown too big for his britches, who says to his father, in effect : "Gee, Dad, I wish you were dead, but since you’re not, would you mind handing me my share now ?" (One question we might want to ask Jesus as he’s telling the story : where was the elder brother at that moment ? How come he didn’t object when that brash young fellow made his move ? ) But Jesus focuses on the kid brother for the moment, describing how he goes merrily on his way to the First Century equivalent of Las Vegas or some other shady place, where everyone loves him while he has cash, and nobody knows him when he doesn’t. (Jesus would have made a great Country-Western song writer.) But seriously : we see that the younger son has to suffer for a while before he "comes to his senses," and decides to return to his father. Even though his need is most certainly real, his sincerity may be a bit questionable ; Jesus shows him practicing his speech as he walks the last weary miles home. Still, it’s not so much about him by then, but about that father. We know how it all turns out when the son finally gets back to the ranch. There’s the father on the lookout, running to the son, barking out joyful orders for rings and calves and robes. It’s alleluia time. But then Jesus shows us the elder son and his refusal to take part in the joy even when the father comes out and begs him to join in.
What happens after that ? Jesus doesn’t say, and we’re left with the ambiguity. Did the elder brother finally see what the father meant when he said "all that I have is yours" ? Did the younger brother ever say to the elder : "Let’s find a way to make it right between us" ? We don’t know.
But we do know how the father handles things ; somehow we understand that he never wavers in his desire to reconcile these two young men to each other and to himself. And how do we know that ? It seems to me that our knowledge comes from our own experience with God. Father Henri J.M. Nouwen, the Dutch priest whose writing and teaching on things of the spirit affected so many people around the world, said it beautifully in his book The Return of the Prodigal (1992). He had journeyed to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to see Rembrandt’s famous painting of the scene in the Hermitage Museum there. As he looked at the painting, he says, "It became somehow, the heart of the story that God wants to tell me and the heart of the story that I want to tell God and God’s people. All of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there. All of the lives of every beloved sinner are there. The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God. It is like an open gate that allows me to enter into the presence of the God who loves me."
Whether through paint or through words or through the actions of another, God makes a "gate" for us to enter through and into his love. That is the "story" he is telling about my life and yours every day. Pray that we may have ears to hear it.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA
Worcester - USA