The longest parable of the Lord is cited as much as ever these days by the proponents of mercy. This familiar story is also recommended for use in the Rite of Penance. Does that familiarity damage the power of the story? Maybe it can. I would suggest this brief tale (22 verses in Luke 15) is a good bit deeper than just any other few hundred words.
I recommend Henri Nouwen’s 1992 book for its personal reflection on the man’s journey through all three characters. If a theologian could expand nearly two dozen verses into two hundred pages, I’m sure that this parable of family and reconciliation could merit several posts. I’ll limit my observations to just four.
Jesus responds to the self-styled faithful griping about admitted sinners. How does God see sinners? Differently that religious persons? The tale begins with a son who cashes out and separates himself from his family:
Then he said, “A man had two sons,
and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
This seems the essence of the modern notion of freedom. Life is not just about what one has been given, or what one has earned, but also things to which one is entitled. It doesn’t take long for the “enriched” son to separate himself. It seems not enough to just head to the next town:
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days,
the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance
on a life of dissipation.
Notice that the son emigrates to a distant country. When we Americans think of people coming here from distant countries, we might label them “aliens.” That word is also used with beings from distant planets.
To me, Jesus is reminding us of the nature of sin. We have become alienated. We lose family, community, and citizenship. When we sin, we make a conscious decision to separate from whom and what we know. We become aliens. Becoming an alien might seem a joyous freedom at first. But mortal human beings, even the wealthiest among us, cannot control everything.
That life of dissipation implies a style in which one spends. One does not invest, budget, or otherwise take good care with one’s resources. Sin seems like that. We decline to harness the resource of grace, and like the alien, we find ourselves in need:
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out
to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods
on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
“Nobody gave.” You know the end of the story. The Father gives everything. Perhaps the experience of serious sin is that we find ourselves in an alien place where we are adrift and lost and no longer on the receiving end of the familiar and sustaining experiences of grace. We are indeed in an alien land.