The Prodigal Son, is he the older or younger son?


PovertyOur Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Lent does not say anybody in the Prodigal Son’s family is aware of how he spent his money. Our translation describes his life as one of dissipation, a life squandered. We have our fundamentalist understanding to describe the literal translation. It is an “Unsaved life,” a life of doing what unsaved people do. He squandered his money. The other reading is that his life was not safe. He went from the security of home to the unsecured life of the big city and in the process lost his money.

Some might argue that our Greek recounting of the story is not original, that we should try to find the Hebrew and Aramaic to see which word or phrase Luke translates. If we assume he was bilingual, coming from the equivalent of the Yiddish quarter of Antioch, and translated to they best of his ability, the word or phrase he translated as “Unsaved,” was “Shallow Knee Samaria.” The rough translation of this is “Unguarded.” In support of this translation is that Shallow translates as, “Not,” and as, “Lax, at ease.” The prodigal son is at ease in his squandered life. More interesting is, “Knee Samaria,” which translates as guarding, as in, “Make a fence around Torah.” God makes a garden and commands Adam and Eve to guard it and to keep it. “Knee Samaria,” also translates as, “Sediment, lees.” As such, Jesus could have a pun on ,”Sediment/the pods on which the swine fed,” and this concept of guarding Torah, how the younger son lives his life.  The prodigal son lived an unguarded, unprotected life.

A Semitic reading of the text points out how the younger son leaves the protection of his Jewish homeland and goes to Gentile lands, a distant/non-Jewish land. The older son is then right in saying that the younger son did something wrong. He lived a Gentile lifestyle. The proof, our story later gives us, is that he lived with pigs, something Jews would never do, but Jesus never tells us how the elder son knows his brother lived with pigs.

Population fifths 2

“The elder son became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He replied to his father, ‘When your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”

Our passage only has the elder son mention prostitutes. To conjecture how he might know this, we make the same mistakes the Pharisees and grammarians do. In our Catholic Catechism we read, “2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.He becomes guilty: – of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor; – of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them.”

This is in reference to the Eighty Commandment again. Jesus intentionally uses a vague word to describe the sin of the younger son. The elder son assumes the younger hung around with prostitutes. When we assume the poor are poor among us are poor because of something they did, without investigating and finding “Sufficient foundation,” this violates the Eighty Commandment.

How did these people get in poverty? Were these all prodigal sons who went wild on their own, having nobody to blame but themselves? It does not matter.Is the younger son sincere in his repentance? The key line is, “Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.” Is his motivation, sincere repentance, or desire for food? Elizabeth Kuebler Ross gives this answer.  Grief has five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Repentance is the acceptance stage. The younger son is getting ready to bargain, stage three. He is not at acceptance.

We need to listen to how the father responds to his son’s return. “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. His father ordered his servants, ‘Bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.”

His father only cares about his return. For his response, read Isaiah, 65:24 “Before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” Lamentations 5:21 is in the Amidah, the Jewish standing prayer Jesus complains about when he complains about the long rabbinic prayers. “Bring us back to you, the Name, that we may return.” Repentance is a two step process. The son comes home bargaining for food. The father responds in love. This brings love, and with this, repentance, after the party the elder son complains about.

Jesus criesThe address of this passage is to the elder sons, the Pharisees and the grammarians alive today, those who believe in the protestant work ethic. They are guilty of the idolatry of self. They worked hard all these years. They served God and the system and not once did they disobey orders. If we think we have what we have because we earned it, Jesus speaks to us.

Look where the younger son is at the start of the story. Look where the elder son is at the end of the story. Each is outside of the house. The party is in the house. When we exclude others, we are the outsiders, not they.

In Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent we read how Jesus confronted the Separated Ones/Pharisees on the subject of the tower, which fell on those in Siloam and the blood Pilate mingled with his sacrifices. In that passage, Jesus tells us, “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them. Do you think they were guiltier than everyone else was who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Quit blaming those who suffer for their problems, or you will be next.

Wh0 is Israel? Israel, as Genesis 32:29 tells us, “Then the man said, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with divine and human beings and have prevailed.” Israel is not the older son, those who have never really struggled with life and with God. Israel is those who have suffered. Who is Jewish?  Genesis 29:35 “Once more she conceived and bore a son, and she said, “This time I will give thanks to the NAME,” therefore she named him Judah.” Judah means thanks. Those who are Jewish give thanks to God. They put God first, before all things, and credit God, not themselves for all they have. Jewish is not so much an ethnic group, as a way of thinking.

“One is not a Jew outwardly. True circumcision is not outward, in the flesh.v 29Rather, one is a Jew inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, not the letter; his praise is not from human beings but from God.” Romans 2:28-29

AnnaLuke mentions 18 in chapter 13 twice. Why 18? Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, use letters for numbers. “18” in Hebrew is Chi, life. The father tells his older son, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours… Your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Life is the issue here. Let us stop making excuses for allowing suffering in our world. Let us love God with all our hearts, all our animate being, and with all of our measure. Let us use all the tools at our disposal to end poverty in our nation and in our world.

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