Parables of Christ Part VII: the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Parable of the Prodigal Sonby Fr. James B. Buckley, FSSP
From the June, 2011 Newsletter

In his analysis of the Prodigal Son, Father Leopold Fonck, S.J. says that there are two parts to the parable. The first part concerns the fall of the younger son into evil ways and his conversion. The second part treats of his reception in his father’s house. Both parts are further divided into sections. The first has three: the younger son’s leaving his father’s house, his life in a far off country and his conversion. The second part has two sections: the young man’s reception by his father and his reception by his older brother.

It is the father’s magnificent forgiveness of his younger son who had so grossly offended him which silences the objection the scribes and Pharisees had made about Christ, i.e. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). As Father Fonck writes; “What is it that He (Christ) would engrave so deeply on the heart of his hearers save the great truth of the inexhaustible love and mercy of the Heavenly Father for the sinful yet repentant child of earth — that love and mercy which He Himself had come to proclaim to the world by His words and still more by His example” (Parables of the Gospel, p. 782). The comparison between the mercy of the earthly father for hi contrite son and the mercy of God for His contrite children is, of course, the essential point of the parable.

But what of the reception given by the older brother? Does this have any relation to the central idea of the parable? Some have identified the elder brother with the Pharisees but others recognize that unlike the Pharisees whom Christ rebukes for their hypocrisy, the elder brother is not contradicted when he protests his fidelity to his father. Because his criticism of his father’s rejoicing over the return of the prodigal manifests anger and envy, the older brother is not, however, without fault. Baffled by these considerations. many other commentators regard the behavior of the elder brother as an incidental feature which has no correspondence to the parable’s supernatural meaning. But how can so integral a section lack significance?

In a sermon entitled “Contracted Views of Religion” Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman points out that the reaction of the elder brother springs from “perplexity” and “distress of mind.” What was the use of serving his father dutifully “if there were no difference in the end between the righteous and the wicked?” “At first sight,” the Cardinal continues, “the reception of the penitent sinner seems to interfere with the reward of the faithful servant of God.”

In his gentle response to his son’s outburst the father assures the elder brother that there is a difference between obedience and rebellion. “Son,” he said, “thou art always with me and all that is mine is thine.” What the father is telling him, Newman says, is this: “why this sudden fear? Can there be any misconception on thy part because I welcome thy brother? Dost thou not yet understand me? Surely thou hast known me too long to suppose that thou canst lose by his gain. Thou art in my confidence. I do not make any outward display of kindness towards thee, for it is a thing to be taken for granted. We give praise and make professions to strangers not to friends.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, p. 547)

“But we were bound to make merry and rejoice,” the father insists, “for this thy brother was dead , and has come to life; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32). These words, Newman says, “contain a consolation for the perplexed believer not to distrust Him.” They also underscore what Christ had said earlier in the same chapter at the conclusion of the Parable of the Lost Sheep: “I say to you that, even so, there will be joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7). †

June 5, 2011