I had the good fortune to be able to go to confession the other day. A part of my penance was to meditate on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). My confessor emphasized that the father in Jesus' story, who extravagantly welcomes back his wastrel son, is the true "prodigal". In the context of Sacrament of Confession we can see a clear identification between this father and the loving and forgiving God, with ourselves as the erring son who, having wasted his father's generosity, returns home chastened and knowing that any any kindness he receives will be more than he deserves. "Father", he says, "I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:18).
|"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Jean Germain Drouais (angry son at right)|
There is another son in the story, however, the Good Son, who remained faithfully at home and, as he tells his father, “ 'Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command” (Luke 15:29). Angry that his erring brother is receiving a huge “welcome back” party, while his father “never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends” (Luke 15:29), the obedient son stubbornly refuses to come in and join the celebration. He is, in fact, still obstinately standing outside the house at the end of Jesus’ parable, and the last thing we see is his father pleading with him “to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).
Thinking about this second son, I was reminded of the story of Jonah. I had never before considered how closely Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son parallels the last two chapters of the book of Jonah. In the Old Testament book we see the people of Ninevah, like the Prodigal Son himself, whole-heartedly repent, and in turn receive whole-hearted forgiveness. Who could object to that? As it turns out, Jonah could, and does, object:
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, "I pray thee, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:1-3).
|"Jonah, Seated Under the Gourd, Contemplates the City" |
(Maerten van Heemskerck)
Jonah stays angry, at least as far we can see. God tries to soften his heart, first with kindness, by growing a large plant to shield him from the sun; next, a harsher approach, in which he kills the plant and exposes the sulking prophet to the ravages of sun and wind. Jonah’s heart is unchanged: "I do well to be angry,” he says, “ angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:9). The story ends, as does Jesus’ parable, with the voice of the Father explaining to his angry son why it is better to show compassion for those who were lost in sin:
"You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:10-11)
In both places, it is left unsaid whether the Father’s kindly words eventually pierce the heart of his unforgiving son.
Which brings us back to Luke’s Gospel. The parable of the Prodigal Son is the culmination of a series of parables illustrating that, as Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). He is addressing a group of Scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus, saying "This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). The angry son in the parable is obviously intended to represent Christ’s hard-hearted critics.
Scripture, of course, always works on numerous levels, and we can see other meanings in the unforgiving brother as well. As I meditated on this passage I could see myself in this unlovely figure; as much as I can identify with the erring but repentant son, I can also be the judging, unyielding son who refuses to share his Father’s joy in the redemption of those who had previously fallen. Sometimes, amazingly, I can be both at once.
In his way, the angry son is the worse sinner. There can be no doubt that the first son has indulged in serious and destructive wrongdoing, but because it’s so obvious, and the consequences so inescapable, he knows he needs to repent. The second son appears to be doing all the right things, and in fact he is . . . on the outside. He is really like (again) the scribes and pharisees, whom Jesus says "are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27). The appearance of probity keeps him from seeing his own sinful heart, and he willingly removes himself from his father’s house. Jesus makes the same point with a different parable in Matthew’s Gospel:
A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." (Matthew 21:28-31)
This is, I think, a good point to consider as we embark upon Holy Week. It may be that the inspired author of Jonah, and Jesus himself with his parable, finish with a open-ended question, because we, in the person of the (self)righteous son, are being invited to give up our stubbornness and embrace the Father's compassion. All of us need to throw ourselves on the mercy of God, Who in his prodigal love for us gave His only Son to suffer and die for our sins. Who am I to place my judgment over His?