There was once a village in Gubbio, Italy, where there lived a young boy. A fine boy he was, caring for everyone and everything. He was particularly fond of puppies, as most young boys are, and took great care of all the puppies as he found them in the village. Growing older, he went so far as to go outside of the village looking for animals to care for. On one day, he found what appeared to be a cave, a den really, for wolves. He entered the den and found puppies. Immediately, he started to treat them with great care. Shortly after, the mother wolf entered her den, found the stranger, and ate him.
This is the eulogy for the young boy, a fine eulogy as eulogies go. The story is not about the wolf, but the wolf is central to understanding the story, or at least its end. Today, there was a meeting with a conservative who heard of a recent article about the prodigal son.This is a reading which is not read this liturgical year, but is important enough, it is read four times next year; 27 February, Saturday, for the Second Sunday of Lent, March 6, for the Forth Sunday of Lent, and September 11, for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
That article correctly argued how the Semitic definition of property was central to the story. The conservative argued, “But the prodigal son is not about the definition of property.” It is about something far grander. Still, the Semitic definition of property is central to the story. The prodigal son is a type, to use first century rhetorical jargon.
The interesting thing about this debate is how the conservative argued how discussing the definition of property assumed in the passage is not pertinent because it is not what the story is about, but he then argued, penance is central to the story, which it is, but it also is not what the story is about. The story is about familial love that transcends penance, and whatever we may have done in the past, or may do in the future.
The younger son tells his father, “Father, give to me the measure thrown upon the essence of me. He gave to them the life.” The son then squanders his share of what was to his father. The conservative argued, “But the father did not give his sons everything…” To this, verse 31 of Luke 15 argues, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” The father has nothing left. The father divided what was his, way back in Luke 15:12. If this is the case, by what right does the father give his younger son the robe, the ring, and the fattened calf of verse 22-3?
The conservative argued, “The point of the story is about forgiveness.” “Forgive,” does not appear in any form in the passage. All three stories in Luke 15 discuss the return of deviants, but the emphasis is upon the joy of their return, not their penance.
The son argues in verse 17-19, “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”
Sounds like a request for forgiveness, until we catch that first part. The son states, “I will tell him.” It is not necessarily true in his mind, but only what he will tell him. He is more driven by hunger, a request for food, than by faith, family, or an earnest desire for forgiveness. The father never hears this request. While the son babbles his spiel, the father is too busy running. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” The father is not interested in forgiveness, or an apology, only his son.
Then comes the robe, the ring, the fattened calf, and the party. Followed by, “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” There is nothing here about his son coming to his senses, or asking for forgiveness, or receiving it. There is only, “My lost son is found.” He later tells his older son the same thing. “He was lost; now he is found.” All that matters is that the prodigal son has returned.
Hebrew has an interesting pun on the word, “Love.” “Abba” means “Father.” Ha Bah,” means the bleating of sheep, or the one who is to come, or the welcoming in of another. “A Ha Bah,” is love. Love is listening to the Father, and welcoming the other into our hearts and our homes. The story is about this. The story is about familial love which looks past, past faults, and sees only family, and the potential that comes from being family. The prodigal son is a type.
Luke 7:44, the deviant woman, was also brought up. She is another type, to use Greek rhetorical jargon. The conservative also argued when presented that if we truly look at the deviant, we will see his humanity and act, “But sometimes we are repulsed by evil.” There was only pointing to Genesis 1:27; Mankind is made in God’s image. He also has original sin. St. Augustine argued that evil is the absence of the good. Therefore, pure evil is non-existence, the absence of the good.
To look truly at a human being is to see the image of God in that person, and therefore his potential. The only force repulsed by the image of God in a person is Satan, the great accuser. If we truly look for God’s image in a person, we will find it, and we will act. If we act long enough and hard enough, maybe this will bring the image of God to the fore. This is what the father in our story does, and this is what God calls us to do.
In the conservative rendition of the story, there is no after to the story. Either the “Good Boy,” pouts outside the tent, or he joins the party. Which one? We are left guessing for rhetorical purpose. We are the older son. It is for us to answer.
What happens when the party is over, the sun sets and rises again in the morning? The story is addressed to the Pharisees, and the Pharisee in each of us. The story is for our nation today. What of the poor among us? The prodigal son is a type, a type for all the poor living among us. In the debate it was argued that the elder son had no way of knowing how his younger brother spent his money. The older son among us argues, “The poor among us are that way because…” Therefore, they are less than us, and deserve less than us, which is exactly what they have. All is right with the world. So the conservative thinks, then and now.
The middle class and the wealthy among us do not know how the poor got to be that way. The point of the story is that it does not matter. All that matters is that we see God’s image in our brother. We are nation, a people born together by common heritage, if not by blood or place of birth. If any is hungry, we all hunger.
There must be an after the story. What of our poor? They do not get another share of the birthright, but…what of them? The story gives no after. That is for us to decide. In the morning, after the beer wears off, and the party is over, we must sit down with our young deviant and decide where his life goes from here. Torah speaks of Jacob and his travels to Haran to meet what were to become his two wives. Genesis 29. He arrives with nothing, and sits with a con artist like himself. At the end, he has two wives and great wealth. Likewise, in our story in Luke 15, our deviant sits down with us, and we help him work his way back to wealth, or at least his place in the community.
Now, we must make sure our brother has adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and transportation. The younger brother argues, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” Today, that is still his wish, the wish of all the poor, to earn a reasonable day’s bread for a reasonable day’s work. Let us bring it to fruition.