The reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is the account of “Prodigal Son” in both the Catholic and Revised Lectionaries. The Gospel of Luke tells us that the young son was “lost” (ἀπολωλὼς – apololos, in Greek) according to the father, and that he scattered (διεσκόρπισεν – dieskorpesen) the property or inheritance given to him in a wasteful (ἀσώτως – asotos) manner. Ironically, the prodigal nature of the son is not the central theme of the story, as we shall see.
Who Is the Prodigal Son?
On the surface, this story appears rather self-explanatory. A younger son takes his father’s inheritance and squanders it. His father deems him lost, yet the young son eventually returns to his father. As the father states when the son returns, “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:24).
It would seem fairly obvious that the young son is like the sinner being welcomed back into the arms of God. As a side note, each of the three parables in Luke 15 (“The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin,” “The Prodigal Son”), taken together, go to great lengths to characterize a particular aspect of God’s nature. They highlight God’s love and mercy as being among the most important of God the Father’s dynamic qualities.
In some respects, this parable seems to parallel the account of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt 20: 1-16), each of whom is paid the same wage regardless as to whether they start their duties in the morning, or later in the day. In both accounts the father or owner of the vineyard is very generous towards those who serve him or return to him, regardless as to the length of their service.
The Prodigal Son (or daughter!) further emphasizes that the “father” forgives those who are disobedient or who stray, as long as they eventually return and seek forgiveness. At the same time, the parable warns readers not to behave like the resentful older brother, who does not understand why his father should be so overjoyed at the return of the spendthrift son, when the older son had remained faithful all the while.
Another Possibility: Jesus Identifies with the Prodigal Son
Why does Jesus reference the envious “older son” in this parable, and why is the “older son” a necessary antagonist in the story? Chapter 15 of Luke, from which this story is drawn, opens by telling us that Jesus turns his attention to the Pharisees. Jesus takes note of their impertinent jab, this man (Jesus) welcomes sinners and eats with them. The account of the Prodigal Son, in particular, is a reminder that the self-righteous, and those who regard themselves as holier-than-thou, have no monopoly on the Kingdom of Heaven.
Does Jesus identify himself, in this parable, with the Prodigal Son? As Saint Paul tells us, God: “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus, like the prodigal son, left his father’s house to work among ‘pigs in a field:’ to work in a place that is marred and made unclean by sin.
The Kernel of the Story
The central passage in the story of the Lost or Prodigal Son is the following passage:
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
The passage says the son will arise. In fact, in order to emphasize this point, Luke repeats the term twice. In Greek, the term used is anastasis. Anastasis is the technical term in Greek that refers to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So who is Jesus talking about in this story? Sinners? Or himself?
The Double Meaning
Jesus, when he tells this story, appears to keep the answer to this question deliberately ambiguous. The Prodigal Son returns to his Father and says, “I have sinned against you.” Jesus sinned against no one, but he did take up the sins of others. In the account of the Prodigal Son, the father says his son “was dead but is alive again;” this statement is suggestive of the Resurrection. And like the Prodigal Son dressed in fine robes, Jesus returns to his father and is acknowledged as a king.
There is further irony because the older son accuses the younger son of associating with sinners – so much so that the insinuation is that the younger, lost, son lived in sin. Yet the story never says that. The account says the lost son spread his wealth about wastefully and liberally – not that he lived in sin. It only the envious older brother who thinks evil, imagining that the younger brother’s lifestyle is one of sin. As a side note, the older brother is so self-absorbed that he never refers to his father as “father!”
Jesus certainly sees a parallel between the Prodigal Son and himself. The difference between the Prodigal Son as “sinner” and the Prodigal Son as a “Christ,” is that Jesus voluntarily took up the Passion and the cross to redeem us. But in so doing, he had to experience the same suffering that we experience when we sin, and he had to experience death in order to win our salvation. In that sense, Jesus most certainly is like the Prodigal Son – a man alienated from the Father, who offered himself in atonement for the sins of others, who was once “dead” but is now “alive,” and who returned to the Father as a king.