“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 servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’”
Jesus’ parable responds to the criticism expressed about His actions: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus does not let the criticism go unanswered. He doesn’t, because his critics misunderstand His actions. They are disgusted at the company that Jesus keeps. The Pharisees and scribes do not believe that such people—“the tax collectors and sinners”—should be welcomed by a rabbi, even if it is a teacher that they don’t accept or promote.
Jesus’ story explains His actions. His parable is about the reconciliation that the Lord God desires and works to have with people who have separated themselves from Him. That reconciliation is especially desired for those who once held the faith, but who have abandoned it. The younger son represents such people. This is seen in his words and actions: “[He] said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And [the father] divided his property between them.”
Note the younger son’s action: he demanded that which he had coming. He had a claim to a portion of his father’s property because his father had so decreed it in his will. As the father’s son, he is an heir. He possesses a status as a member of the household. But in the demand for the inheritance before his father’s death, before his father’s will was to be executed, the younger son has destroyed his ties to the family. His wishes are literally against his father’s will. His desire implies disregard for his father’s being—that is, he essentially wishes that his father were dead. He has sinned against his father.
But the younger son not only receives the portion of the inheritance, he takes it and runs away from all aspects of his identity. This is seen in the description Jesus gives: “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all that he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” The younger son abandons every aspect of his identity. He forsakes his sonship. He travels as far away from his familial homeland as he can. While away, he wastes his inheritance. His behavior is contrary to every custom and tradition that he had received.
Jesus’ description of the younger son fits the tax collectors and sinners that He welcomes. They were members of the Lord God’s chosen people. They had a favored status. But they renounced and abandoned it. Though living in
What Jesus says about the younger son is also meant for today. It is meant for all those who have abandoned their status as Christians. They have been baptized, incorporated into the Body of Christ, adopted into the Divine Household. They were rightly called sons, rightly promised a great inheritance—life in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But they have squandered it. They have run away from their Eternal Father. They have renounced Him and His works and His ways. Instead, they have assumed the way of death as their lifestyle. Left in that condition, they are dead and lost.
But what does Jesus also say about the younger son? “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, 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.” Jesus shows the repentance that the younger son had. “He came to himself.” His heart, soul, and mind remembered what he once was, what he once had. He is driven back to his father, back to the household. But he does not claim a place in it. No, he knows well that he is not deserving of it. Rather, he will take whatever his father would give, even the lowest of servant positions, the most meager of provision, for that is greater than he had in “the far country,” where “no one gave him anything.”
That repentance is what Jesus wants his audience to have. That is why “[He] receives sinners and eats with them.” They can hear Jesus’ words and know that they have forsaken their privileged status as children of the Heavenly Father. His welcome does not mean that nothing was wrong with “the tax collectors and sinners.” No, it was how that which was lacking in them—what they had abandoned—could be restored. For the mercy of God the Father which His Son shows is meant for them. They are to receive it, just as their forefathers had received their chosen status centuries before.
The mercy of God the Father is revealed in Jesus’ words: “But while [the younger son] was a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” The father does not seek retribution. He is not there to chide or punish. No, his actions are driven by his attitude, by what he thinks. The father sees his lost son and the condition he was in and is moved to pity. His compassion leads to action: “The father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’” He restores his younger son back to the family.
What Jesus describes in the parable’s father is how God the Father thinks about his lost children. It is how He thinks about you. The compassion is what drove the sending of His Son to save that which was lost: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. . . . For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” His pity and mercy for you was shown in that great act: the Son of God was sent to redeem you, to provide salvation for you, to bring you into His household.
But God the Father’s compassion is not limited to one act. His compassion is not a one-time emotion, never felt again. No, it is constant. He feels it for all those who benefited from Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection—being brought from death to life—but who have forsaken Him. That is why there is restoration for all those who come in repentance to be restored, though they are not worthy to be called His children. That is why the Church receives back people into membership when they admit their guilt and plead for the grace of God to be shown to them. The Father continues to give the command: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
However, the abandoning of the Father and His works and His ways is not always so drastic as the younger son’s actions. It doesn’t always lead to people renouncing the name “Christian” or never sitting in a pew or running away to “the far country” of unbelief. It is found whenever you transgress the Divine Law, whenever you wander outside the boundaries of the Father’s will, whenever you violate the baptismal vows. But even then, God’s compassion is present. He desires you to have what He promised. This is why you have the gift of Confession and Absolution. When you sin, when you wander off the path of life, you are called back to repentance. The Holy Spirit convicts you, showing you what you had lost. Then He draws you back to the goodness of the Father.
And what does your Father do? He says to His servants: “I forgive this, My child. Put the best white robe of righteousness back on him. Place My signet ring with My name back on his finger. Wipe the dirt from the way of death from his feet and put on new sandals, so he can walk in the way of life. Prepare the feast; for My child and I will eat together. For this My child was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
God the Father says this to you who have come in repentance, claiming no worthiness in yourselves. Your sins are forgiven. Your robes of righteousness are reissued. Your place in the household is restored. And your Father provides a banquet—not the fattened calf, but His Lamb and the bread of heaven—for you to eat. So He does, because it is fitting for His family to celebrate and be glad, for you are alive again!
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.