Let the Scriptures Speak

Prodigal Father, Two Lost Sons

Tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus,
at which the Pharisees and the scribes murmured,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats
with them.”
(Luke 15:1)

The fact that Jesus “ate around” with people the authorities considered unclean clearly annoyed those officials. Indeed such behavior rendered Jesus suspect in their eyes. A careful, Torah-keeping Jew was not expected to share the table with those who did not eat according to the Law’s prescriptions.

In defense of his behavior, Jesus tells parables. Luke lines up three here, each of them intentionally jarring. Jesus compares his table fellowship first with the typical behavior of a shepherd seeking a lost sheep and then with a woman looking for a lost coin. In each case, the finding is cause for community celebration. Similarly, Jesus says, the return of repentant sinners is a matter of heavenly joy. Implication: Jesus’ table fellowship is the occasion of welcoming the return of sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes refuse to recognize what is happening and to join the celebration of this manifestation of the kingdom of God.

But these two similitudes are simply warm-ups for the full-blown parable that follows, what might be titled “The Two Lost Sons.” Here the tax collectors are represented by the runaway wastrel son, who realizes that his greediness has taken him away from his real source of life and security—his father—and he comes home to a surprising welcome.

The Pharisees and scribes are portrayed as the stay-at-home elder son, who is also, in his own way, lost. He was able neither to confront the shameful initiative of his kid brother nor will he join his father’s celebration of the runaway’s return. He has failed to appreciate that his dad is a father, not a slave master (Luke 15:29, translates literally as, “all these years I slaved for you and never disobeyed one of your commands”). And the father, of course, symbolizes a compassionate God who forgives repentant sinners even as he challenges those who think they have no need to repent.

Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson