They grumble repeatedly and openly. Their criticism is focused not only on Jesus' eating and drinking with these people, as on earlier occasions in the narrative (5:30; see 7:34), but also on his welcoming them, his offering them hospitality. To host or entertain sinners was a more serious offence in their eyes than simply to eat with sinners informally or to accept invitations, which was itself scandalous enough.
In that culture to share table was a very significant gesture. It was a sign of acceptance, respect and trust, an offer of peace, brotherhood and friendship. To share table indicated a being 'at home' with the other, a willingness to share life, an identification and oneness with them; it was an expression of solidarity. Jesus' action bridged the social and religious divide in a culture extremely conscious of status and class and prestige. It showed the sinners and outcasts that they mattered to him, that they had a value. It was a healing and liberating event. Since Jesus was looked upon as in some way a man of God, a prophet, his gesture of friendship communicated and experienced through table fellowship, would have been understood as an indication of God's approval and forgiveness. Through the welcome he extended, "he was declaring on his own authority that anyone who trusted in him and his kingdom-announcement was within the Kingdom." This gesture is, I believe, the most powerful parable of the Kingdom; it proclaims the message and makes present the reality of God's nearness in saving love. It contains the whole Gospel in a nutshell.
In Luke's narrative the response of Jesus to the criticism of the Pharisees is to explain his attitude and conduct by recounting three parables. There are two short parables presented in parallel and carefully matched: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Then there is the longer and very familiar parable of the two lost sons, normally and misleadingly referred to as the parable of the prodigal son. In fact, I think that the usual emphasis on lostness in these parables is misplaced. In the Lukan context I prefer to see them as parables of seeking and finding that which is lost, a seeking which is demanding and costly, and a finding which calls for joyful celebration. So Jesus bases his ministry on his understanding of the mind and heart of God. He takes his cue from that knowledge. His table fellowship is his way of articulating his mission. It is revelation of God and of God's purpose.
The two short parables are not included in our liturgical reading today. In the familiar longer parable which brings the trilogy to a climax both sons are lost, one in a far, foreign pig-sty, the other at home on the farm. The parable tells of the prodigal, extravagant love of the father as he searches for them both:
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands." ' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
In the culture of Jesus, any transfer of the ownership of property usually took place after the father's death. There are some instances where a father divided his property before his death, despite the cautions against such a course of action found in Sirach 33:20-24. But it was unheard of for a son to ask for it. The younger son's request is tantamount to wishing for his father's death, and is an extraordinary insult. In granting the request, the father demonstrates enormous love for his boy.
The young man must have made a further request to dispose of his share, and this request too was granted. Having quickly realised his assets, he wastes no time in leaving. He leaves home, rejecting all that it stands for. He is prepared to sever his relationship with his father, showing no regard for his feelings or future well-being. Leaving his brother does not seem to pose a problem; it appears that they are not particularly close. The elder brother apparently makes no attempt to mediate, to reconcile, as was expected in that culture. Without protesting, he benefits from the transaction, since the father divided the estate between them. The closely knit village community would have been horrified at what had happened.
The young man sets off for the diaspora. This was not uncommon at the time, given the precarious nature of the Palestinian agrarian economy. There he squandered his money on a life of pleasure and extravagance. The situation changes dramatically with the onset of famine, and, penniless and friendless, he is obliged to hire himself out to a Gentile landowner, who sends him to tend the pigs. As a Jew, he is thus totally alienated, the epitome of lostness. And he is starving to death. His hunger galvanises him into action. He makes a snap decision to return home, where his father's hired men have all the food they want. He is prepared to acknowledge that he has done wrong, and plans to ask his father to take him on as a hired servant. This would enable him to maintain his independence and social respectability, living in the village. And he could use his income to fulfil the financial responsibilities to his father which he had selfishly abandoned. He seems to wish to return on his own terms, to do things his way.
The spotlight switches and focuses on the father. The key word in the whole parable, or key phrase in translation, is, I believe, the verb which describes the father's response when he catches sight of the returning younger son in the distance:
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
All that follows in the narrative springs from compassion. The father runs to meet his son. Normally an elder would not run; it was socially unacceptable. But it enables him to meet the young man outside the village boundary and protect him from the inevitable hostility of the villagers, outraged by the whole saga. A remarkable reconciliation takes place. The father says nothing; there is no lecture or blame or criticism. But his actions express his profound love, acceptance and welcome. He kisses him repeatedly in a firm embrace, a sign of forgiveness, a recognising that he is his son, and this is public, for all the villagers to see. None of them will cause him harassment now.
The son forgets the crippling hunger which prompted his decision to return, and abandons his plan of maintaining his independence as a hired servant. He comes to realise that what is at issue is a broken relationship, a relationship which he cannot heal. The possibility of that relationship being re-established can only come as a pure gift from his father. He perceives from his father's behaviour that such an offer is being made. The robe, signet ring, and shoes are symbols of this. The father's compassionate love brings about a change within him, and he graciously accepts the gift freely and generously offered, beyond his wildest dreams. The father sets in motion the arrangements for a great celebration to which the whole village community would be invited so as to participate in their rejoicing, and share in the restoration and reconciliation which has occurred. The father sums up his view of things:
for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!
To the lost and found language of the two shorter parables is added the image of death and resurrection.
The other son returns from the fields and gets wind of the party, for there is music in the air. He plies one of the local children with questions. The youngster without guile informs him that his brother has returned home and that his father has killed to fatted calf to celebrate. The older brother reacts angrily and refuses to participate in the meal which has been prepared. He remains outside, refusing to join in the fun, and unwilling to fulfil his role as MC. This is a public insult to his father. The father reacts by coming out of the house and pleading with him. He comes in search of his older son. The latter's response reveals the extent of his alienation. There is no respect, no affection; he complains bitterly, betraying the attitude of a slave rather than a son. He is self-righteous about his impeccable obedience, disparagingly critical of his father's other son whom he refuses to acknowledge as his brother. Obviously, he is quite incapable of understanding and entering into his father's joy. From the father there is no outburst of anger, no criticism, no recall to duty. Rather, he reaches out with love and compassion, searching to bridge the gulf between them:
'My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours'.
He reassures him that his rights are still secure and protected, and finally reminds him that it really is right to celebrate. He explains his joy in the terms used earlier - dead and alive, lost and found - but this time your brother replaces my son. It is an appeal for understanding, for reconciliation, an appeal that he join them, the family, and the whole community in fellowship and festivity.
The parable responds magnificently to the initial context. The sinners are sharing the banquet, found by the searching Jesus. The religious leaders stand critically aloof, refusing the invitation to accept the Good News and join the party. The table fellowship of Jesus is a celebration of seeking and finding. The three parables reflect the way in which Jesus understands his ministry, what he is about. At the same time these parables reveal a great deal about Jesus' understanding of God. Jesus operates in the way he does, shares table fellowship as he does, because he knows the compassionate heart of his Father, his "all-inclusive, unconditional love, his unreserved acceptance and approval". Table fellowship expresses it all.
The reading for the Fourth Sunday is extremely rich. To me it suggests four lines of reflection. Firstly, there is the symbolic gesture of table fellowship, which I suggested earlier contains the whole Gospel in a nutshell. Through sharing table with those considered sinners and outcasts Jesus revealed his understanding of God and of the nature of his mission. We cannot, therefore, avoid asking who the 'sinners' and outcasts are in our society today, the despised, the written off, the fringe members, the voiceless minorities. As disciples on mission we are obliged to find ways of reaching out to them, ways of seeking and finding them, and enabling them to see the face of the God of Jesus, and to experience God's closeness and love touching their lives. As individuals and as Church, we need to show vision, creativity and courage in fashioning ways of making present in our contemporary world the realities of which Jesus' table fellowship was a sign: unreserved acceptance, genuine respect, hospitality, forgiveness, friendship. Scripture poses disconcerting questions, and offers an uncomfortable critique of our attitudes and responses and of some of our structures.
The parable itself revolves around three actors: the prodigal son, the older brother, and the compassionate father. We can identify with each of them. The younger son is wilful, self-centred, and thoughtless in initially asking for his inheritance and then leaving his father and community and doing his own thing. He seems to have sowed his wild oats. Even his decision to return shows mixed motivation. We may not have been quite so dramatic in turning away from our Father, but we've probably at times made a bit of a mess of things, and experienced the loss and hopelessness and confusion which our mistakes have engendered. On our return we have known the Father's welcome and generous forgiveness, and have been able to celebrate. Lent is a good time to reflect on this.
The older son is perhaps the one with whom religious people can more easily identify. He has kept the rules, done his duty, played it safe - and yet missed the point. He is self-centred too, critical, judgemental, joyless, self-righteous. In spite of his always being with the father, he doesn't really know his father's heart. The parable is unfinished, leaving us wondering what happened in the end. Did he finally accept the father's invitation to join the celebration, surrendering to his love, or remain sulking and disillusioned outside? I suspect we recognise some of his traits in our own hearts and lives.
Finally, the parable reveals something of the nature of the Father. He is a God who searches for both of his sons, a God of amazing patience, compassion and forgiveness. Is this the God we have come to know, love and serve? Is this the God whom we reveal to others, especially those with whom we live and those we seek to serve? In Lent we are invited to take time and make time to meet the God of Jesus, whose love is all-inclusive and unconditional.